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Aug  19, 2002

Slam on the Brakes:
Stop the Momentum of Settlement

"17,000 new settlers this year," crows the Yesha (Judea, Samaria and Gaza) Council advertisement, "Yesha is in a momentum of settlement." Israel Broadcasting Authority allowed this ad, previously banned, but nixed a counter-ad by Peace Now as "political." Settlements are being pushed into the Israeli public consensus.

The Intifada dealt Israeli peace advocates a shattering blow. We cannot offer the hope of peace in return for withdrawal in the near future, because we cannot control the Palestinians and the PNA. "Peace" has become a dirty word. The  government has a blank check to perpetuate the occupation and expand the settlement enterprise under the guise of security measures.

However, the case against settlements remains the same. Israel cannot rule three million or more Palestinians against their will. The Palestinians will not go away. Israel must not remain at war with most of its neighbors forever. Israel cannot develop good relations with Jordan and Egypt without settling the Palestinian issue. Planting more civilians in the middle of Gaza or "Judea" and "Samaria," (the West Bank) is a provocation. Stretching precious defense resources to guard them could not possibly enhance security. Yet we all acquiesce in this policy. We all pay for it, and hardly anyone complains.

Settlements create facts on the political and social ground as well as the physical ground. Settlements perpetuate a lobby that supports them and blocks peace attempts. The Yesha council uses our tax money to organize demonstrations against peace, and to pay for ads legitimizing the occupation and making it sound attractive. The settlers' lobby has grown at the expense of the Israeli public, destroying the old Zionist consensus. Settlers are eating away at Israel from within, pointing us away from constructive endeavor and toward messianic adventurism. Israel was not built by mystic zealots in strange green costumes like the settlers of Izhar or lunatics who plot to blow up Palestinian schoolchildren. Zionism did not envision that such would be the reborn Jewish people.

Hundreds of thousands of people now have vested interests in keeping the occupied territories. The occupation is a major branch of the economy. Settlers, contractors, speculators, politicians and foreign investors have staked their fortunes on them. There cannot be peace if the settler lobby continues to grow and to shape both the Israeli government and national priorities. Assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin tried to change direction, but he failed.

Settlements and settlers were marginalized during the heyday of the peace process. Now they are elbowing their way back into the national consensus. The Yesha council advertisement is one sign among many. The settler movement used to use the Hebrew word "hitna'hlut," for settlements beyond the green line. It denotes the na'hala or apportionment granted by God to each tribe of Israel in the Land of Canaan. Settlers were mitna'hlim, Jews coming into their God-given birthright. The word came to be associated with zealots like the  assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Recently, hitna'hlut and mitina'hel have been replaced by hityashvut and toshav, neutral and acceptable words, but a mitna'hel is a mitna'hel by any other name.

Stopping the momentum of settlement is a national Zionist priority, not just a peace issue. Settlements may kill the heart of Zionism itself. A growing minority, 220,000 settlers in West Bank and Gaza, is dictating the program of the majority. Settler mentality will soon be embedded in the Israeli or Zionist consensus if we don't call for a settlement freeze.

Settlements are the spearhead of the Israeli right, but they are also the exposed and vulnerable "forward salient," because they cost lives and are expensive.  In the Jerusalem Report, August 26, 2002, Gershom Gorenberg writes, "The fundamental assumption of economic policy, in the midst of the War for the Territories, is that the economy exists to serve the settlements. If we don’t starve single moms in Tel Aviv to pay teachers more in Beit El, we’ll be surrendering to terrorism." Everyone living within the green line must understand the cost of this policy.

Budget outlays for settlements are difficult to trace, but even the visible expenditures are considerable. According to Peace Now, in 2001 Israel spent $300 million  on new and existing settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, excluding the Jerusalem area. This year, the figure was undoubtedly higher. 17,000 settlers in half a year will mean about 30,000 settlers this year. They will require about 7,500 housing units, costing perhaps $70 million, plus schools, electricity, and roads. The new settlers will get about $8 million a year in tax breaks and  $30 million in differential subsidies to municipalities, this year and every year. Maintaining the existing settler population costs about $250 million. These figures don't include subsidized water or special fences, security measures such as armored buses and soldiers to guard the settlements. A reservist told of 23 soldiers guarding 19 settlers, and it is not an isolated case. At a conservative estimate, settlers have cost Israel over $10 billion since 1967. All this money and much more may be completely wasted. We may have to abandon the settlements, return the settlers and offer them compensation, as we did in Sinai. Each new settler adds to the waste, and makes peace more unattainable.

"17,000 new settlers this year" spells certain doom for peace and for a healthy Israeli society. Settlement construction is hardly ever mentioned however. At the Labor party convention, the leading candidates argued over what sort of security fence is best and who thought of it first. The peace groups talk mostly about "war crimes," house demolitions in Jerusalem and draft refusal. These issues alienate mass support for peace by attacking sacred cows of Israeli society. Peace groups spread their resources thin on many questionable projects. They reach for unattainable goals such as bringing all settlers home. Few are focusing on stopping the settlement bulldozer.

Halting settlement expansion will make the settlers a movement without a future. Supporters will leave like passengers abandoning a sinking ship. National priorities and values will change. The matter is urgent. Elections approach. The peace movement has no program that can attract mass support. Israelis will not accept that unilateral withdrawal, running under fire, is a wise policy. But we can convince the public that expanding settlements is a waste of money and lives and a strategic liability, because it is. We must put this issue on the public agenda now. This may be the last opportunity we will have to save Israel from itself.

Freezing settlement construction is a reasonable and attainable goal. If we all speak with one voice, if we all focus on this one issue, it can happen. An end to the momentum of settlement and a new beginning for Israel is within reach, but nobody has reached for it yet!

Ami Isseroff



Copyright 2002, by the author and MidEastWeb

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