Jewish Journal

Unsettling Presence in the West Bank

By Yehuda Ben Meir

by Yehuda Ben Meir

Posted on Sep. 10, 1998 at 8:00 pm

Cards on the table, first. I'm a West Bank settler, a long time advocate in the Knesset for Jewish settlement, and even one of the founders of Gush Emunim, a hard line religious Zionist movement on the right or wrong side of the Green Line, depending on your point of view. I give you these bona fides, for despite all this, I believe that Jewish settler leaders are making a grave mistake by pressing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to cling to each and every Jewish outpost in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

These settlers are lobbying hard to stop Israel's government from accepting an American proposal for further Israeli withdrawal from these territories. They are in grave error: they should voluntarily take steps that will help make that withdrawal possible. Settler leaders have it in their power to remove major impediments to peace and simultaneously ensure the long-term viability and security of the settlements that are home to the vast majority of Jews in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

They can do this by promoting the relocation of Jews from about two dozen isolated Israeli settlements deep in Palestinian territory. These Jewish villages have been holding the peace process and regional stability hostage. The desire to maintain sovereignty and security over the settlements and the roads leading to them has been one of the big obstacles to Israel's acceptance of the American suggestion of an Israeli withdrawal from 13.1 percent of the West Bank.

While other matters -- such as Israel's demand for an abrogation of the Palestinian charter -- are now holding up progress, the peace process will get nowhere as long the Israeli government, under pressure from settler constituents and their Knesset supporters, is forced to preserve and protect these isolated Jewish villages surrounded by hostile Palestinians.

The fact is -- I say this ruefully -- not all settlements were created equal. From 75 percent to 80 percent of Jews in the West Bank live in settlement blocs in a belt around Jerusalem, in areas close to Israel's 1967 borders. This territory includes no more than 20 percent of the West Bank and about 10 percent of the Palestinians' in Judea and Samaria.

There is now a solid Israeli consensus -- which includes Labor and Likud leaders -- that, in any final arrangement, Israel should retain these blocs as well as settlements in the Jordan Valley which are vital to Israeli security. And there are strong indications that the Palestinian Authority has accepted -- albeit begrudgingly -- that it will never have sovereignty over this territory.

But only a tiny minority of Israelis want to mortgage their children's future for the sake of, for example, Kaddim and Gannim. These are villages with 20-odd families apiece near the West Bank town of Jenin. Completely surrounded by Palestinian territory, they are not contiguous with any other Israeli land, have no security value and lack biblical significance -- yet close to a battalion of Israeli troops is required to protect them.

It is hard to find young Israeli soldiers, let alone older reservists, who do not resent this obligation, particularly since it is clear that the continued existence of villages such as Kaddim and Gannim, outside the major settlement blocs, are blocking a compromise with the Palestinians.

If settler leaders and followers continue to insist that the likes of Kaddim and Gannim are as sacred and indispensable as the settlements close to Jerusalem, eventually the rest of Israel will turn against the entire settlement movement.

The point is to encourage and enable residents of these isolated Jewish enclaves to make a smooth transition to other parts of the territories. This should not be seen by settlers as an uprooting, but as a logical consolidation of major settlement blocs in a manner that solidifies their presence in Israel, removes them as a source of bitter internal strife and gives the peace process a chance.

That process, despite conventional wisdom perpetuated by the Israeli right wing and their American supporters, has actually been the best thing that has happened to most West Bank and Gaza Strip settlers. Since the Oslo accords, more than $1 billion worth of bypass roads have been constructed or refurbished throughout the West Bank, ensuring that settlers have safe passage to other parts of Israel and minimizing contact and friction with Palestinians.

Security for the vast majority of settlers has been much better, not worse, now that the Palestinian Authority has been working with Israeli security forces to protect Jews in the territories.

But this success -- as well as the chance for peace in our lifetime -- will be in jeopardy as long as a tiny number of Israeli settlements make stable relations with the Palestinians impossible. Settlers and their supporters have accomplished much of what we set out to do, beginning in the early 1970s, when we first began to expand into territories that God promised the Jewish people.

We should not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory now. We should help to make the peace process work.

Yehuda Ben Meir, Knesset member (National Religious Party) from 1971 to 1984, serves on the Advisory Council of the Israel Policy Forum. He was also Israel's deputy foreign minister from 1981 to 1984. Tracker Pixel for Entry


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