Settlers protesting in Kfar Maimon in 2005
Settlers protesting in Kfar Maimon in 2005. The sign reads “Only a totalitarian regime uses the army against the people.” Photo by Alex Levac
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Every revolution tends to believe that it is forever. Nowhere is this more evident than in Israel, for six decades cradle and crucible to concurrent revolutions.

But the fate of every revolutionary movement is to age, to fall prey to fissures and compound fractures, and to be astounded to find that one day, it has become history.

Now it is the turn of the settlers. Though the trappings of their past success remain, their revolution is broken. The settlement movement – along with the dovish revolution whose banner was land for peace – was shattered in the chaos of the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

In just six days in 2005, the single most indispensible figure in rooting settlements into the territories, Ariel Sharon, quashed a quarter century of Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip – at the approval of two-thirds of the Israeli electorate.

The settlement revolution has never truly recovered. Even as it insists that West Bank settlements can never be undone, the movement is both haunted and crippled by its own private Naqba, the loss of the dream of a Greater Israel in the Likud government's disengagement.

Of late, figures of significance on the right of both the Israeli and American Jewish communities have begun to rethink the future of the settlers' core redoubt: the West Bank.

As Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resumed this month, influential Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer astounded many colleagues on the right by observing that "No serious player believes it can hang on forever to the West Bank.

"This has created a unique phenomenon in Israel - a broad-based national consensus for giving nearly all the West Bank in return for peace," Krauthammer continued. "The moment is doubly unique because the only man who can deliver such a deal is Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu - and he is prepared to do it."

The comments coincided with a number of indications of a beginning of change on the right and within the settlement movement itself.

Among the more intriguing is a group of young Israelis – some of whom grew up in West Bank settlements - who have moved back into Israel to resettle the abandoned kibbutz of Retamim in the central Negev.

The group includes the son of Pinchas Wallerstein, a former longtime leader of the Yesha Council, the effective government of the settlement movement.

At the same time, some residents of settlements outside the blocs which U.S. officials foresee could be appended to Israel in the context of a withdrawal, have been putting out feelers to Israeli government agencies about possible compensation for voluntarily moving back to Israel in the future.

Another shift in thinking is increasing sentiment for the possibility of a unilateral West Bank withdrawal outside the context of negotiations with the Palestinians. For many Israelis, this dovetails with fast-evaporating hopes for an eventual peace agreement with a deeply divided Palestinian body politic.

Israeli analyst Guy Bechor, who has often argued for hardline stances vis a vis the Palestinians,  wrote last week that Israel should now deliver an ultimatum to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: "This is your and your administration’s last chance. If we fail to secure a quick agreement, where Israel’s demands are recognized, we shall unilaterally evacuate most of Judea and Samaria, annex the settlement blocs and Jerusalem’s Old City, and abandon you and your regime to Hamas’ and Jordan's mercy.

Bechor has also proposed that Israel renounce its annexation of most of Arab East Jerusalem and cede control over it. "An immense burden – on the political, defense, economic, and public relations fronts – will be lifted from our shoulders when the status of Palestinians in east Jerusalem will be the same as that of Palestinians across the West Bank," he wrote earlier this year.

"This will happen eventually in any case, according to the world, so why not do it now?"

Most daunting to the settlers and their supporters is the fear that Benjamin Netanyahu may opt to follow in the paths of hawkish Likud founders Sharon and Menachem Begin, and launch a landmark withdrawal. It was Begin, settlers note, who pledged as he took power as prime minister, that he would someday retire to a settlement in then-occupied Sinai - only to return the entire peninsula and demolish the settlements there under the 1979 Camp David peace treaty.

Israel Harel, a founder and former leader of the Yesha Council and one of the most prominent voices of the movement, warned last week of the "huge ideological about-face" he said that Netanyahu had undergone.

Noting that Netanyahu had begun speaking of "two states for two peoples" and calling Judea and Samaria "the West bank," Harel wrote in Haaretz that many of the prime minister's critics "cannot grasp the fact that Netanyahu, via his statements, has embarked on a road from which there is no turning back."

The ultimate fear is that if Netanyahu takes a position in line with Washington's vision of concessions, the Likud and the cabinet - for all its drumbeat of eternal commitment to the settlers - will go along.

Settler leaders have also suggested that the movement's will to resist such a change is much diminished since the Gaza disengagement. Senior Yesha official Shaul Goldstein
remarked at the outset of the settlement freeze that most settlers were too "moderate" to take off from jobs to attend protests, even though he said the freeze "means that life might stop."

Since the Gaza pullout, the Yesha Council has also lost much of its influence with young firebrand activists, many of whom now dismiss the council as mashtapim [collaborators] and bourgeois.

There are also fears that radical actions by young "hilltop youth," the movement's volatile shock troops, could further alienate the Israeli mainstream, adding consensus support to a West Bank withdrawal.

The lack of movement toward a formalized peace accord is also spurring general Israeli interest in a pullout, based on the sense that if no action is taken soon to separate Israel from the more than 2.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank, the Jewish state will effectively become an Arab country.

Through it all, Netanyahu remains the linchpin to any move to alter the status of the West Bank. If Netanyahu were to play the Iran card, citing U.S. pressure for concessions in return for security assurances, even rabbis staunchly opposed to withdrawal would have to rethink their stances, Harel maintains.

"Any rabbi would agree that when it comes to saving the nation from the Iranian bomb, national pikuah nefesh (saving a life) takes precedence over Judea and Samaria."

On Monday, speculation grew that Netanyahu was mulling a major step, when Israel Channel Two television reported that he backed legislation for a referendum on a future West Bank agreement. Apart from a possible signal of the prime minister's intentions, a referendum could blunt and overcome rightist opposition to a withdrawal.

So profound is the fear that Netanyahu may commit to a sea change on the West Bank, and succeed in mobilizing the support of a consensus of Israeli and U.S. Jews, it has now spread to some of the most vocal and - until now - most unflagging of the prime minister's past admirers.

"Netanyahu’s preference for appeasement is both ironic and destructive." The Jerusalem Post's Caroline Glick writes. While Krauthammer's "arrogant and false portrayal of reality is debilitating," she continues, "it is Netanyahu who is charged with leading and defending Israel."

"And Netanyahu is the man who is now leading us on a path to degradation and defeat."