Knesset vote reveals how weak the settlers truly are

How come a decision by the government to built 850 housing units in the West Bank is praised as a move toward peace? The answer has to do with the political theater taking place for decades

Knesset vote reveals how weak the settlers truly are
Ulpana Hill neighborhood in the settlement of Beit El (photo: Yaakov/wikimeida CC-3.0)

How bad is this political moment? It’s enough to say that a move in which the prime minister announces the construction of 850 new housing units in the West Bank – most of them on the eastern side of the separation wall, the one located on land supposed to be within a future Palestinian state, even according to Netanyahu – has won him praise in the New York Times. The reason: Netanyahu also blocked a legislative initiative from the far right, which would have allowed Israel to legalize settlements built on private Palestinian land.

It was political theater at its worst – aimed to please western eyes. If you read the media this week, you could have gotten the impression that the settlers were defeated and that peace is at hand’s reach. If you checked the facts, the most “ideological” of the settlements, the ones lying in the heart of Palestinian territory, are to expand, and not a single Palestinian will be able to regain access to his stolen land. The problem is that journalists, both local and international, are so embedded within the Israeli elite that they have become addicted to the shows it has staged for more than 40 years.

Let it be stated clearly: the “land grab” law should have passed. Then at least the Israeli government and legal system could have been made accountable for the ongoing colonization project taking place in the West Bank for decades. Instead, we will continue to pretend that nobody, except a tiny group of fanatic settlers, is to blame for it.

If anything is to be learned from this week’s event, is that it is time to end the myth of settler power. More often than not, the settlers are the boogieman used to justify the actions of Israeli institutions; at other times, there are the object that “anti-occupation” Israelis use to dismiss criticism or to avoid a sense of guilt. But when the legendary death star of Gush Emunim is put to the test, the results are conclusive – the settlers have much less bargaining power in Israeli politics than people care to believe.

The list of examples is almost endless: The settlers had to comply with Supreme Court decisions to move their homes in the seventies; their campaign against the peace treaty with Egypt was an epic failure – they lost the Knesset vote, they weren’t able to mobilize the public, and they were evacuated from their homes in the Sinai Peninsula with little opposition. The settlers couldn’t stop the disengagement, and since then, every time the army has tried to take down an outpost, it did so with ease. This week, the Knesset vote wasn’t even close.

The settlers are not the perpetrators of the occupation; they are the result of it. While their numbers are growing, they are becoming less effective politically. Their leadership is in crisis, and the youth doesn’t listen to the politicians. In the last decade and a half, Gush Emunim wasn’t able to come up with a coherent policy on any issue. Unlike the Orthodox parties, the settlers can only take part in rightwing coalitions, so they have no real bargaining power in the Knesset. This week, we learned that even the much-feared settlers flank of the Likud is no more than a scarecrow.

In 1977, newly elected Prime Minister Menachem Begin invited the charismatic leader of the settlers, Chanan Porat, to a secret meeting at his home. Begin told Porat that he is under pressure from the world as well as the opposition, so he couldn’t approve the 12 religious settlements Porat was planning to establish in the West Bank. He wouldn’t even bring this issue to a government vote. But then the prime minister made a surprising offer: “You and your men should settle in an unauthorized manner,” Begin told Porat, “and then, in the aftermath, it would be easy for me to say ‘my sons have beaten me.’ After all, nobody would imagine that I, Menachem Begin, would evacuate settlements!” [*]

This play, orchestrated in the seventies, has been performed again and again by various Israeli Prime Ministers. The game is not even hidden: The grassroots campaign on the Ulpana Hill was led by My Israel, a movement led by Netanyahu’s former chief of staff. Yet even the New York Times has yet to learn what Begin explained 35 years ago: That “legal” settlements are a contradiction in terms.

Just like all prime ministers before him, Benjamin Netanyahu prefers to “pay the settlers” with a housing project there or a neighborhood here, rather than making land confiscation an official government policy. This strategy will continue to take place as long as there are enough people who fall for it.


[*] This episode is told in the memoir of Hagai Segal, of the first leaders of Gush Emunim and a member of the Jewish Underground terror organization.