Settler movement changing the rules of the game

By Kobi Skolnick

As the Israeli government prepares for the anticipated Palestinian bid for recognition as a state in the UN General Assembly this month, Israeli settlers in the West Bank have plans of their own: while some want to find common ground with Palestinians living there, others are looking to confront them head on, highlighting how the many lines of division that cut across Israeli society

According to a Wafa news agency report, last week, one of the founders of the Gush Emunim settlement movement and leading rabbis in the West Bank, Rabbi Menachem Froman, expressed his support for the Palestinian Authority’s move to seek recognition as a state at the United Nations on September 20.

Froman told Abbas that establishment of a Palestinian state would benefit the peace process and Israel and would achieve a comprehensive, just peace and stability for the region and the world. Froman has promoted dialogue and understanding between Jews and Muslims for years. Last week Froman met with the supporters of Land of Peace, a new settler movement that “works toward the advancement of peace and dialogue between the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of Judea and Samaria.”  They just held their first conference in the Ofra settlement to discuss how can they make peace at the grassroots level with their neighbors.

However, at the same time, another movement was on the move. Michael Ben-Ari, a Knesset member for the National Union Party and the first outspoken disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane (ultra-nationalist, former MK, whose party, Kach, was banned because it was deemed “racist” and “undemocratic” in 1988) announced his new initiative. In recent days he has distributed a document entitled “September the threat of an opportunity – changing the rules of the game.”

The plan is for right-wing activists and settlers to walk throughout the West Bank this month and confront Palestinians protesters. According to Ben Ari, he hopes to mobilize hundreds and even thousands of “children, women and old men as well as fighters to walk in front of Arabs.” The idea is to face each other. No more soldiers and Border Police officers in front of groups of Arab women and children, but children with children, boys with boys and women with women – “it will destroy the effect of September and we can change the equation on the ground.”

According to this published detailed plan, the new movement will include the establishment of representatives of all relevant bodies, mayors, heads of communities, and residents’ committees. Moreover, logistics, communications and legal teams will be on the ground to support families and residents who will stand against “the enemy” and convey the following message:

“We’re here, this is the legacy of our forefathers! We are here to stay forever! We’re here, for the people of Israel and on their behalf!”

Many settlers would agree that this project is a divine design, and feel deeply that this religious mission is part of the redemptive plan of the Jewish people. Of course not everyone agrees with Ben-Ari’s plan, not Rabbi Froman and probably not the majority of Israelis.

Before becoming a peace activist, I lived in a settlement, in the hills of the West Bank, planting trees, cultivating the soil and studying in yeshiva. I understand the thinking of Ben Ari and his followers. I also still have family and friends there and I remain deeply connected to them.

As a former settler, it is clear to me that this plan will have bad consequences that will denigrate Israel’s image across the globe. No matter if you support the settlement project or not, Ben-Ari’s plan is not good for Israel.

Moreover, I am afraid that despite the beautiful movement for social change currently taking place in Israel, there are potent forces that need to be addressed. For example, we have seen that the violence carried out by radical settlers does not stop at Palestinians, but spills into Israel as well, targeting Israeli soldiers and civilians (today Haaretz reported that a senior Peace Now employee had her home vandalized by an anonymous person who graffitied the words “Price Tag for Migron” on her front door, alluding to the settler outpost that was evacuated by the IDF last week).

This plan and the phenomena of the hill-top youth movement on a whole, show a deeper division of interests and loyalties in Israeli society than what meets the eyes. There are deep-rooted conflicts over the interpretation of our history and what the vision of the State of Israel ought to be.  Ben-Ari and his supporters have a belief system that embraces Messianic utopianism and for years have adapted a redemptive outlook based on apocalyptic prophecies coupled with a Godly sense of mission.

For the past century, secular Zionists have proven to have more flexible worldviews, often adapted to the demands of real-world political constraints. In addition, pluralism, democracy and human rights are at the core of their belief system..

This profound cleavage in Israeli society between contemporary secular society on the one hand, and national-religious and ultra orthodox on the other, is not new. Yet, it is part of root structural causes of the internal conflict within Jewish identity, which remains untouched by most politicians. While many had hoped that time would ease these tensions, the opposite has been happening. The contradiction between traditional communal values and secular liberal ones haven’t eased over the years but rather intensified.

There is a clear need to go beyond government and political tradition, and to increase support for dialogue within Israel and between Israelis and Palestinians, and to talk candidly about our future, not only about rent and food prices.

What needs to be done? Or what could be done:

A. Strategic engagement of the public sphere in order to maintain the social fabric of relationships.  There are many voices of religious tolerance that can come together to establish long term and sustainable partnership and cooperation.

B. Organizing meetings to bring scholars, policy makers, journalists, intellectuals, civil servants, researchers, academics and politicians together to foster a better understanding of the issues.

C.  Make space for a new generation of thinkers and a new phase in diplomacy in order to meet the urgency of our time.

D. Supporting civic spaces and promoting a framework for debate, dialogue, embrace cultural diversity and civic education, If we adapted some of these, radicals from both sides would lose their grip on our lives and Israel can enter a new phase in its history.

Kobi Skolnick is Director of Leadership Development, Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University.