OFRA, West Bank — Israel Harel drove a visitor around the Jewish settlement he founded, pointing out the old Jordanian military barracks where the first families lived, the new school and little vineyard, the rose bushes and snack shop.
Called “the mother of all settlements,” Ofra is now 40 years old, well into middle age, looking like a cross between a Southern California suburb and a rural backwater. It is an island of Jews in a sea of Palestinians, surrounded by wire fencing and protected by a military base.
The first settlement north of Jerusalem, created in 1975, Ofra is now a community of 740 families, which should make Harel happy. But at 76, he still dreams of more.
“I wanted to see a city of 30,000 here,” said Harel, a former leader of the settlement movement.
There are 380,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank today, but Harel wants a million. He wants the new government to annex the land and make it part of Israel.
“I do not understand this obsession against the settlements,” Harel said. “If you are serious and you want this area to last forever as part of Israel, one way or another, you have to build, you have to add thousands of families, you have to assure it.”
Whether one supports the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank or views the settlements as an illegal land grab in an occupied territory the way the international community does, or whether one sees the return of Jews to the ancient hilltops as a modern-day miracle instead of contemporary colonialism designed to crush any hope for a Palestinian state, Israel Harel is the man to admire or detest.
This is his doing (aided and abetted by a string of Israeli governments, on the left and on the right). As a journalist, academic and activist, Harel has devoted his life to the settlement movement. He arrived with his wife and four children in 1976, the 14th family. “We felt like the first Zionist pioneers,” he said. Life with a purpose. “We were elevated,” he said. “Jews walking again in the land of Israel, the land of the Bible.”
Harel became head of the Yesha Council, the umbrella group that represents the settlements. Under his watch, the communities exploded with growth in the 1980s and ’90s.
“We used straw men, more than one,” he said, buying land in cash deals, “a system we developed so the Palestinian was to be able to tell his neighbor, ‘I didn’t sell to a Jew, I sold to a Muslim.’ ” He says he never stole land. “We paid 10 times what it was worth.”
He edited the movement’s magazine. He is still working as a columnist at the newspaper Haaretz, one of a handful of right-wing voices at the left-leaning Israeli daily, still advocating for the settlers.
Harel also just won the 2015 Lion of Zion Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed by the U.S.-based Moskowitz Foundation, giving a publicist for the settlements a good excuse to bring a journalist on a visit.
One might think these are the best of times for Jewish settlers. The U.S.-led peace talks have been suspended; Secretary of State John F. Kerry is busy with Iran. Israel elected a new government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised there would never be a Palestinian nation under his watch (then walked back from his vow to say the time isn’t right for a two-state solution). The governing coalition is dominated by ultra-Orthodox parties, religious nationalists and conservative members of Netanyahu’s Likud party.
But Harel is not expecting much.
“I don’t think this government will last long,” he said. Or do much for the settlers.
He thinks Netanyahu in his fourth term will continue as before, announcing new construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, enduring rounds of tepid international condemnation but stopping short of the massive building and real defiance against the United States that Harel advocates.
“With Netanyahu there’s been a de facto freeze in the West Bank, definitely, and not much building in Jerusalem,” Harel said. “Yes, there are all sorts of small tricks, I admit, a few units here and a few units there.”
The Israeli group Peace Now disagrees. In a study released in February, it reported a 40 percent increase in construction starts in the West Bank during Netanyahu’s last government.
“If you announce 200 units or 2,000 units, it’s the same condemnation. So why not just announce 10,000 at once? So do it, be smart,” Harel said.
Harel said he could not imagine Jewish settlers ever abandoning their homes. He said this as the former paratrooper who decades ago fought his way into the Old City in Jerusalem, who now sat in his living room, listening to birds singing outside, waiting for his son who had recently built a home in Ofra. “We are rooted here now,” Harel said.
“Let’s say tomorrow we have to divide the territories, God forbid. Nobody is going anywhere. Nobody is going to move us — 380,000 people into little Israel? Where would you put us?”
In past discussions, U.S. negotiators have imagined that a new Palestinian nation could be created based on Israel’s borders before the 1967 Six-Day War, with land swaps that would allow Israel to retain most of the settlement blocs in exchange for land transferred to the Palestinians.
Harel has another idea.
Alongside prominent members of Netanyahu’s new cabinet, Harel wants Israel to annex all of what is known as Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank created by the 1993 Oslo Accords and under complete Israeli control, where all the settlements are.
What would happen to the Palestinians in Area C and their dreams of a state?
“They would be offered Israeli citizenship,” Harel said.
Or they could leave. “They’ve left before,” he said.
What about Areas A and B — the cities such as Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin and more populated areas where most of the Palestinians live?
“Open a big corridor,” Harel said, “to Jordan.”
Sooner or later, Harel said, “Jordan will have to move from absolute kingdom to a constitutional monarchy, and then the Palestinians who are the majority in Jordan will take over. This will create a new entity, like it was before the Six-Day War. This might satisfy their desire to have their own state. This would be a Jordan-Palestinian state.”
The Palestinian and Jordanian leaderships have rejected that idea.
Harel appears in two recent best-selling books about Israel. In “My Promised Land,” the author (and Harel’s Haaretz colleague) Ari Shavit damns Harel’s life work as “the creation of an untenable demographic, political, moral, and judicial reality.”
“The settlements have placed Israel’s neck in a noose,” Shavit laments.
“Let me tell you a little secret,” Harel said as his visitor took leave. “I haven’t read the book.”