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The Settlers of Canaan

Not all religious West Bank settlers are crazy

By Avishai D. Don

In the late evening and early morning here in Allon Shevut, an Israeli West Bank settlement located just beyond the 1949 Armistice Line, a thick cloudy haze descends upon its buildings. When I studied at the Yeshiva in this village the year before college, the dense mist that enveloped it symbolized for me a temporary covering under which I could cultivate my spiritual growth while isolated from the diversions of modern society. After leaving this protective sphere to attend university for two years, however, I realized that the fog also represents the confusion that outsiders have regarding the community that dwells inside it.

“The religious settler movement is not just secular Zionism’s ideological adversary,” chides Professor Gadi Taub in a recent New York Times op-ed, but “a danger to its very existence.” Rather than aiming to create a Jewish democratic state, argues Taub, religious Zionist settlers aspire to “settle all the land promised to the ancient Hebrews in the Bible.” This ideology—which would necessarily involve Israeli annexation of the West Bank and its millions of Arabs—would lead to the creation of either an apartheid Jewish state with an Arab majority, or a democratic Arab state, neither of which would be truly Zionist. However, by assigning an identical ideology to all religious settlers, Taub neglects a nuance that even a cursory examination of the religious culture here would uncover. Simply put, there are two different kinds of religious Israeli settlers currently inhabiting the West Bank, and there will be no viable two-state solution until the outside world understands this.

To be sure, neither the United Nations nor the United States recognizes the legitimacy of most Israeli settlements. In 2004, the International Court of Justice, citing the U.N. Security Council, declared that all West Bank settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention and have thus been “established in breach of international law.”

But differentiating between settlers is crucial from a strategic standpoint, not a legal one. The 10-month freeze on settlement building initiated by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to coax Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into negotiations ends on Sunday. Obama has been pressuring Netanyahu to extend this freeze. If he does, the religious head of a prominent settler group has threatened to lead a Parliamentary charge to oust his government. If the United States wants the settlement freeze extended, therefore, it must first understand why many settlers don’t. And the reasons are far from obvious.

There exist, of course, religious Zionist settlers who believe that Jewish law forbids ceding parts of Israel to non-Jews, and who proclaim that Netanyahu declared a “war” against God by advocating a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Within this group lie the subgroup of settlers that appear so often on the news—militants who set fire to Palestinian olive trees, vandalize mosques, and issue legal decisions that permit murdering innocent Palestinians. These settlers see the settlements as non-negotiable prerequisites for hastening the coming of the Messiah, and they therefore build to deliberately prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.

But there exists another kind of religious Zionist settler, a breed that is largely ignored even though their ideology may actually be much more prevalent than that of the extremists. These religious leaders publicly decry the violent interpretations of Jewish law espoused by the extremist settlers, and vocally declare that ceding land to Arabs does not, in it of itself, violate Jewish law. These settlers do not oppose the settlement freeze for religious reasons, but for political ones. In their eyes, West Bank settlements are bargaining chips that should only be given up when it is a certainty that the Palestinian state created in the West Bank will be a stable and nonviolent one.  Abbas’s party, Fatah, was seen as weak and corrupt and consequently suffered an electoral loss in Gaza a few years ago to Hamas, an Islamist terrorist organization. For that reason, many settlers believe that it is best to hold onto those chips for a while.

Whether the best way to isolate extremism among Palestinians is to build on the land that they desire for a state is obviously debatable, but the point is that, unlike the ideology of the first kind of settler, the philosophy of the second kind of settler is one that can be reasoned with. Many of the same settlers that Taub believes are slowly crushing the Zionist dream could get probably get on board with a two-state solution if a number of confidence-inspiring techniques were implemented first. Perhaps, for example, a two-state solution could be more palatable if it were presented as a plan implemented over decades in which more and more settlements were ceded contingent on the Palestinian Authority’s ability to reign in terrorist factions and to govern effectively.

Unfortunately, instead, the State Department has launched an ad campaign in Israel to publicize the notion that there exists a Palestinian “peace partner,” that is, a leader who is willing a sign a piece of paper declaring a formal end to the conflict. But that’s not what the second kind of settler—the kind that would eventually facilitate a two-state solution in Parliament—wants to hear. In order to truly achieve a two-state solution, therefore, the Obama Administration needs to implement and present a peace plan that will speak to the fears of both Palestinians and Israelis, settlers included. Indeed, regional stability will only come when the major players see past the fog that has clouded the settlement debate.

Avishai D. Don ’12 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House studying abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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