In the Shadow of Peace

Will the halting peace process finally erode Israeli settlers' outsized political clout?

| Wed Jul. 2, 2003 2:00 AM EDT

Even as Israeli troops begins to pull out of North Gaza, massive obstacles remain on the "road map" to peace. Perhaps the greatest unknown is what, if anything, will happen to the settlements in the Occupied Territories. Dror Etkes, director of Peace Now's Settlement Watch effort, has been tracking the growth of settlements and outposts for over a year -- in some cases by posing as a settler himself. Rejecting the black-and-white rhetoric favored by both settlers and Palestinian militants, Etkes argues that Israelis must come to terms with what kind of society they want to build -- and whether the settlements have a place in that vision.

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MotherJones.com: Once the raod map was released, focus quickly shifted to the settlements, and Sharon finally made a gesture toward dismantling the outposts. Do you think that made the settlers feel politically isolated?

Dror Etkes: More than yes. If you look historically at the dynamic in this country in the last ten years, the point where the Likud party stands today is more or less the same point where the Labor party stood ten years ago when the Oslo process started. The big difference is that Likud is in power and conveying a simple message to the Israeli population: The party is over. The settlements have to be dismantled in order to reach a more reasonable reality for people in this part of the world.

That means that the traditional support the settlers had within the mainstream Israeli public is shaken. All those people, millions of Israelis who voted Likud or supported Likud without actually sympathizing specifically with the message of the settlements, voted Likud not because they support the Greater Israel ideology, but because of the dynamics of intra-Israeli politics, which I'll explain in a moment.

All those people today accept, perhaps for the wrong reasons, that a Palestinian state is inevitable. To say it a bit more philosophically, or in a more detached way, one way of looking at the last 35 years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is from the intra-Israeli perspective. In other words, the whole enterprise of settling the West Bank is part of a discussion within Israeli society about what kind of society we want to be -- whether we want to be democratic, or Jewish.

All of these questions, all of these undigested issues Israeli society is carrying around, had been somehow placed on the backs of Palestinians. And the settlers understand very well that they are acting within a historical niche, within a historical vacuum. They understand very well that the vast majority of the Israeli public is not supporting them because they really care whether Jews will live in Bethlehem or any other biblical site, but because their parents came from Morocco, from Kurdistan, from Syria, and they were not treated very well by the establishment of the Labor party. The Labor party broke their identity and a new one had to be constructed upon it. The remains of that identity, as Jews living in Muslim countries was rebuilt in part by resisting anything that was Labor in Israel. So they voted Likud.

MJ: So, is Sharon being sincere in beginning to withdraw his -- or Likud's -- support from the settlers?

DE: Sharon is not a sincere person. He is not sincere with the settlers -- he has been using them for years. I don't think he is sincere right now with us, the Israeli people, when he is saying he is about to reach a feasible compromise with the Palestinians which will ease the crisis we're in the midst of now. But I do think, and I say this very, very cautiously, that Sharon did make an historic turn in his terminology, in his rhetoric, in the way he speaks about the settlements. Right now he's getting deeper and deeper into a dynamic the outcome of which he cannot predict. I do think that he understands that the whole project that he was the political sponsor of is living on borrowed time, that there is a contradiction between the settlements in the West Bank, the occupation and the apartheid system, and prosperity, legitimacy...

MJ: ... and democracy?

DE: No, Sharon is not concerned with democracy. I wouldn't give him that credit.

Israel is on a route that has no good end. We have to take a turn. We have to at least pretend that we are about to end the current situation. And we have to add American pressure. Sharon's one and only achievement as prime minister had been the fact that he stepped over the threshold of the White House seven times. It had really been his one and only achievement. Beyond that, he has been a failure.

MJ: Each time violence erupts anew, does it distract from the debate over the settlements? Do the settlers in some sense get a break?

DE: Of course. The last two and a half years have been the best times for the settlers -- and for Hamas. They haven't had to give answers to some very tough questions which had been put to them in the years before the intifada started. Each side in this conflict could go and fortify this notion of being a victim of the other. When buses are exploding in Tel Aviv, it's very hard to come to Israelis and say, "You guys are conducting an apartheid system in the West Bank and there is a linkage between this system and the bombing." When kids are being killed in Nablus it's very difficult to say to Palestinians, "You have to consider your common position of the right of return and whether or not you are willing to allow that there is a Jewish Israeli state on 70% of the land of historic Palestine." When violence erupts, the discussion freezes on both sides as to what kind of society we want to become, because you have become a victim and you worry about not being killed by the other. I think those years sharpened to the exterior observer that one layer of this conflict is not really between Palestinians and Israelis, but between those who support democracy and peace, and those who support fundamentalism and apartheid.

We saw this recently when in the first few days after Sharon agreed to the road map, the world media were focused entirely on the outposts. Then, from the second Rantissi (the leader of Hamas) was targeted, and the bomb in west Jerusalem killed 17 people, the light of the media was diverted from the outposts.

MJ: Do you think Israelis can conceive of a negotiated peace that deals meaningfully with the settlements?

DE: This is really one of the hardships that we're dealing with. Israel has a rather young society. Most Israelis living today were born into occupation. Including myself. I was born in 1968, one year after Israel became a regional superpower and the only reality I have known is Israeli occupation. A large percent of Israeli voters are in my age group and have never known anything else. It is very hard for them and for people older than me to imagine something other than the situation of the last 35 years. And this is of course an advantage to the settler. They enjoy momentum. We have to break the cycle -- which is much harder.

MJ: The settlers are a tiny fraction of the Israeli population. How have they come to wield so much power in Israeli politics?

DE: The settlers have been very effective in making a political fortune out of the questions that haunt intra-Israeli politics. The lack of leadership, the lack of a common agreed definition of what Israel is all about, these are weaknesses the settlers have been able to take advantage of.

One indication that there has been change is in the discussions I have with taxi drivers in Jerusalem, who are definitely not known for their liberalism. I speak with people and I get the sense that with more and more Israelis, the shift that Sharon made (in accepting the road map) was a shift in discourse. In the past, Sharon has given legitimacy to people who hate groups like Peace Now, who consider us to be almost traitors.

MJ: Do you think Sharon, or someone equally hawkish, is the only type of person capable of dealing with the settlements?

DE: Yes and no. History is tricky. In a way this logic is valid and we have more than one example of people in world history that presented a hard line all their lives only to change near the end of their careers. But I am extremely far away from being sure or secure or definite that Sharon has really undergone any kind of conversion. I'm not sure that Sharon is willing to pay the political price for uprooting many settlers from their homes in the West Bank and for starting a public social crisis in Israel.

It very much depends on the kind and amount of pressure the Americans will place on Sharon. Don't expect Sharon to act without international pressure. He doesn't see himself as someone conducting long-term policy. He sees himself as someone in a crisis situation. If he could transfer the Palestinians out of the West Bank, he would have done it. He is not where he is right now because of moral consideration but he is not as disconnected as many ideological settlers from the world reality. And the world reality is very dynamic. We don't know where Bush will be a week from now.

MJ: Gershom Gorenberg tells us in his article that the settlers are not necessarily who we think they are. We know who they are not. So who are they?

DE: Well, we're talking about 220,000 people. That's a handsome figure. We have people from many different economic and ethnic backgrounds, people with different motives. Only 30% of settlers claim they moved to the West Bank with a "Greater Israel" ideology. The other 70% have many different reasons: they want to improve their standard of living or to live in a small community. And then you have 25% of settlers who are ultra-orthodox. Traditionally, they have not been part of the enterprise in the settlements, but in the last two decades have been moving in big numbers to the settlements to solve the acute problem of lack of bedrooms. They have very large families, and they need new houses with more space. Generally speaking, people tend to move for different financial considerations. With some financial assistance, they will reject less the idea of moving into Israel. But then you have the hard-core settlers who move to the West Bank not because of any economic incentive -- and those are the ones who will have to make a decision about whether or not they will accept the majority decision to leave the West Bank or not. I suspect some of them won't, and we will have a very unquiet period in Israeli society. Withdrawing from the settlements will cause a kind of crisis within Israeli society. And within Palestinian society as well. They will have to ask themselves if they can accept an Israeli presence within historical Palestine.