The West Bank separation fence divides Israeli society into two worlds utterly different in their perceptions of reality and of the problems that affect them. On one side are those disturbed by the crisis on Wall Street, by the lack of leadership and the Iranian threat. Few worry about what is happening in the West Bank, and certainly no one visits there. The Palestinians are forgotten when there are no suicide bombings, the settlers are viewed as a strange society, and the peace talks pursued by Ehud Olmert seem like irrelevant spin.
On the other side of the fence, in Settlers' Country, things look quite different. There, no one worries about Wall Street or Ahmadinejad, but about survival. The settlers are angry with the state that evacuated the Gush Katif settlements in the Gaza Strip, at the army and the Supreme Court and the leftist media. They take seriously Olmert's declarations of support for withdrawing from nearly all of the West Bank, prepare for the coming withdrawal and make pilgrimages to abandoned outposts like Homesh.
This schizophrenia, convenient for both sides, has been nurtured by the Olmert government. Despite the prime minister announcing his backing for the evacuation of settlements beyond the fence, he essentially gave the settlers free rein after the destruction of the Amona outpost.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak refused to wrestle with the settlers in the government's name and consistently sought ways to negotiate with them, claiming he is unwilling to solve problems created by his predecessors over 40 years ago all by himself. Barak was supported by the unwillingness of the army and police to deploy forces to evacuate unauthorized outposts by force.
Thus, a status quo was created. The government resigned itself to the outposts' existence and turned a blind eye to building expansions in settlements across the fence. In turn, settlers tried to avoid provocation, protests, and disruptions in the way of life on this side of the barrier. They found themselves unable to attract new recruits to settle the hills and mountaintops, so they directed their rhetoric more at internal cohesion than at recruiting supporters from outside their own camp.
Olmert and Barak authorized massive construction in the settlement blocs, but only west of the fence, in areas slated to be annexed to Israel. Even there, the new accommodations were intended mainly for poor ultra-Orthodox families.
Still, the prevailing silence was fragile, deceptive. The settler movement was torn from within after the disengagement from Gaza. The movement's old guard saw itself as an extension of the state, carrying out a national mission which enjoyed political and budgetary support. Those within the movement still hope for the winds to change, for a new government that will bring hundreds of thousands of Israelis to Ofra, Beit El and Elon Moreh.
The failure of the settler leadership in saving Gush Katif, and the betrayal by Ariel Sharon of the camp he once backed, supplied the fuel for a new generation of settlers that rebels against the state's authority and threatens to boycott it. Their secret weapon is the threat of mass refusal of religious officers and soldiers - who form a key component of the IDF's combat units - to obey orders to evacuate settlements and outposts.
Talks between Barak and his assistants on the evacuation of Migron, the largest of the outposts built on Palestinian land, revealed that the settler leadership is no longer relevant. The deal Barak presented was scandalous - he offered the squatters an alternative piece of land at an authorized outpost, but the settler activists refused it outright. The government was forced to turn to the courts and explain that it was simply unable to evacuate the illegal outpost. In the battle over Migron, the settlers won.
In recent months, unrest in the territories has increased as reports grew of violent incidents between settlers and their Palestinian neighbors, and between those same settlers and IDF soldiers. Olmert and Barak slammed the assailants in cabinet meetings, but didn't lift a finger. The security establishment recommended that the police and State Prosecutor (that is, someone else) devote more resources to dealing with the settlers' violations, and bolster enforcement against illegal construction in order to curb the violence.
Barak's office also produced recommendations for administrative detention and restraining orders for offenders. As always, it accused the courts of not being tough enough in its sentencing. But these are merely bureaucratic excuses for the government's inaction, afraid as it is of coming into conflict with the power wielded by the settlers. Law enforcement in the West Bank requires the involvement of the entire governmental apparatus, starting with the prime minister.
As violence continued across the fence, it raised only minimal interest on this side. Then came the attack on Prof. Zeev Sternhell as a reminder that ideological struggle knows no borders or barriers. The remonstrations of Olmert and company were turned up a notch, but the government restrained itself, hoping the quiet would return or that a catastrophe would come along requiring it to act.
In the absence of such a catastrophe, Olmert's successors will likely act just as he did, distancing themselves from the goings-on in the territories, and nurturing the national schizophrenia on both sides of the separation fence.
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