Election Reveals Israeli Settlement Movement as a Dream Deserted

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 2, 2006

ELON MOREH, West Bank -- Benny Katzover comes often to the windy summit above this settlement where he can see the distant landmarks at the edges of the biblical land of Israel -- a mountain, a sea, a river. But these days the view through the dusty windshield of his banged-up Chevrolet Cavalier offers evidence of fading hopes.

Clutching a cigarette between rough fingers, Katzover steers past lots that have been bulldozed for houses he fears will never be built and an unfinished closed-circuit security system languishing for lack of funds. An isolated neighborhood appears across a narrow valley, but plans to reach it with new roads and houses are on hold.

"We didn't take into account that we had a limited amount of time," said Katzover, 59, who has spent more than half his life in the vanguard of Israel's settlement movement. "We didn't work fast enough."

For decades Katzover and other front-line advocates of Greater Israel -- a Jewish state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea -- settled the pine-covered hilltops of the West Bank in defiance of, and then in collaboration with, the Israeli government. But, as the results of Israel's national election last week made clear, the movement failed to "settle in the hearts" of the Israeli public, as its leaders describe their parallel goal.

During the campaign leading up to Tuesday's vote, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged openly to empty solitary settlements like this one as part of a plan to set Israel's final borders during his four-year term. When the votes were counted, Olmert's Kadima party had a plurality of 29 seats in Israel's 120-seat parliament and will likely lead a broad coalition of dovish, ultra-Orthodox, Arab and single-issue parties that support trimming back the settlements.

The nationalist parties most committed to the settlers' cause won only 21 seats, their poorest showing since the movement emerged after the 1967 Middle East war.

The results highlight the gulf that has opened between secular Israelis and the religiously motivated settlers, whose movement has received billions of dollars in public money and the army's protection over the years but whose radicalized young generations now clash openly with the state. There are roughly 250,000 settlers in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, and Olmert has talked about evacuating 80,000 of them.

The National Union, a religious-nationalist coalition that vowed not to cede any territory to the Palestinians, won 73 percent of the vote in this settlement. By contrast, only 3.3 percent of voters in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv supported the party. Fewer than 1 in 10 Tel Aviv voters chose Likud, which Olmert and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left last year to form Kadima. Likud dropped from 40 seats to 12, the sharpest decline for a governing party in Israel's history.

"This is a disappointment," said Daniella Weiss, mayor of the Qedumim settlement west of here, where a Palestinian suicide bomber killed four Israelis on Thursday. "Despite this clear threat of a unilateral disengagement, the Israeli public did not stand as a wall against it."

Weiss has been one of Israel's most recognizable settler activists since 1975, when she moved from her home near Tel Aviv to a tent in the hills of Samaria, the biblical name for the northern West Bank. At the time, she had two small children and was swept up by the religious fervor to settle territories Israel occupied over six days in June 1967.

Israel's government, then headed by the Labor Party, was discouraging settlement in the northern West Bank as it concentrated on building in the Hebron area, East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. But the young activists tried repeatedly to establish a Jewish settlement in Sebastia, seat of the ancient kingdom of Israel a few miles west of here. They were pushed back by the government until Shimon Peres, the longtime Labor Party leader who last year joined Kadima, brokered an agreement in December 1975 that allowed Weiss and others to set up a tent city in what is now Qedumim.

"These hills were a hard sell back then," said Weiss, 60, a sturdy woman with a round face and lively eyes under the tight-fitting hat favored by settlers. "The same is true today."

In Weiss's view, her movement failed to explain why reclaiming the Biblical land of Israel for the modern Jewish state was worth the risk and expense. As the project progressed, Palestinians' resistance to settlements on land they envisioned as their future state grew, culminating in two uprisings and spurring Israel to erect the separation barrier that will roughly mark its final border.

"The truth is heavy, and the people who bear it are few," Weiss said. "But the Israeli public -- not all of it, but some of it -- would like to live by the slogan 'Eat, drink, for tomorrow we die.' "

The movement's more extreme views, which have alienated many Israelis, are evident in Weiss's office decor. A picture on her wall shows Jerusalem's Old City with the religious Zionists' hoped-for Third Temple standing where the al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock are today. Another features two masked schoolgirls, settlers in Hebron, who Weiss said were fighting the Israeli army during a recent evacuation of an unauthorized outpost there.

"This picture frightens, and I want it to," Weiss said. "I admire these girls. This is a cultural clash, and we haven't finished our project of having Israelis stand up for the right of Jews to settle in all of the Land of Israel."

'There Are Only Losers'

Like Katzover and Weiss, Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun was a founder of the settlers' group that would eventually become Gush Emunim, or Bloc of the Faithful. He even named his daughter for the movement. But his political journey diverged from the rest of the cause, which he believes has been its own worst enemy over the years.

Bin Nun lives in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Etzion, but he commutes a few hours each day to a religious kibbutz in southern Israel where hundreds of former Gaza settlers are being resettled.

The campus resembles a sunny American public university, with its clusters of duplexes and shabby sitting rooms where young men slouch over books. But his dorm-room office at the yeshiva he runs has the feel of exile.

"In my opinion, no one has won these elections," said Bin Nun, 60, whose cottony beard comes to his collarbone. "There are only losers."

As a young paratrooper, Bin Nun participated in the headiest moment of the 1967 war when he marched into Jerusalem's Old City and climbed the Temple Mount. He headed to Hebron in the months after the war, along with college students like Katzover, to establish a Jewish presence inside the ancient city.

But Bin Nun broke with his fellow settlers, then enjoying support from the Labor government, before the 1977 elections between Peres and Likud's Menachem Begin. The movement embraced Begin's pledge not to return an inch of territory without a peace agreement, which frightened Bin Nun.

Begin won. Two years later he promised to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in return for peace.

"They thought they were getting 'not one inch,' and we lost the whole Sinai," Bin Nun said.

The Jewish underground emerged following the Sinai evacuation in the early 1980s. They were a group of extremists, many from the settlers movement, who attacked Palestinian mayors and plotted to blow up buses and the al-Aqsa mosque.

"This is when we started distancing ourselves from the center of the Israeli public," Bin Nun said. "More and more Israelis began to see the extreme settlements as a danger to the state. That was also true in my view, and I am a settler."

Bin Nun opposed his colleagues again when Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo accords as prime minister in 1993, establishing a Palestinian government in the territories. Bin Nun said he favored the accords because Rabin "signed Oslo without agreeing to uproot a single Jewish settlement."

The threats Bin Nun once received from extremists within the movement he helped found have stopped. But he said his open support for Kadima, a party he believes represents "a political agreement" between the settlement movement and the broader Israeli public, has lost him a few more friends.

"I tell them they are deluding the youth by telling them they can hold onto everything," Bin Nun said. "They tell me, 'You will give up Nablus.' I say, 'No, I'm taking what I want to take. Olmert will at least take something -- not Greater Israel, but we will have power. And you will have nothing.' "

Stumbling at Oslo

Nablus stretches out in the valley below Katzover's balcony, the meadows around the restive Palestinian city a lush green brushed with yellow wildflowers this time of year.

Katzover, his graying beard covering hollow cheeks and deeply tanned skin, raised a family on this hillside. All of seven of his children have remained in the West Bank, raising families of their own.

"We are Jews. We believe," Katzover said. "Not only man decides what happens. God has something to do with this."

Katzover made the movement his profession in 1968, when he left Hebrew University to join the first settlers in Hebron. He never returned to the classroom.

But the early success, which included the establishment of Elon Moreh following the battles of Sebastia, stumbled after Olso. "It was the first time," Katzover said, "that the public began to believe that the settlement project wouldn't be here forever."

Katzover recalled the politicians who collaborated with his movement, especially before the Palestinian uprisings focused the public's attention on whether the settlements benefited the state.

Sharon spoke here at the funeral of his neighbor's daughter, killed by Palestinian gunfire. He would ask Katzover for Jewish history lessons, ways to help him make his case for settlement funds. Katzover said he would hear his own words spoken by Sharon on the floor of parliament.

Olmert supported the movement as a young lawmaker. So did Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the daughter of a former Likud leader, who has been tapped to be Olmert's vice prime minister.

"From our point of view, Olmert did not get a mandate from the Jews to pull us out of our houses and destroy them," Katzover said. "This movement did not start with the government. And its future will also be determined by us."

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