Israel's democracy has long been a point of pride for its citizens, setting the country apart in a region of autocratic governments. But veteran settler leader Benny Katzover says democracy is getting in the way of what he believes is a higher purpose.
Katzover has been at the forefront of a religiously inspired movement to take over the West Bank, helping build a network of settlements over four decades that are now home to hundreds of thousands of Israelis.
Today, he argues that democratic principles, such as equality before the law, have become an obstacle to deepening Jewish control over all of the biblical Land of Israel - though he stops short of calling for dismantling Israel's democratic institutions. They are disintegrating on their own and losing legitimacy in the eyes of the public, he believes.
"We didn't come here to establish a democratic state," Katzover says. "We came here to return the Jewish people to their land."
Katzover's comments appear to reflect a growing radicalization among some right-wing religious groups, coming at a time of a rise in attacks on Palestinians by vigilante settlers and an increase in complaints by liberal Israelis that the country's right-wing parliament and government have launched an unprecedented attack on the pillars of democracy.
Katzover, 64, led the first group of settlers into the northern West Bank in the 1970s and helped establish the settlement of Elon Moreh in 1980. Like other prominent settlers, he has been a confidant and informal adviser to a string of prime ministers over the years.
"Across the country, these ideas, that democracy needs dramatic change, if not dismantling then at least dramatic change, these ideas are very widespread," he says.
The mainstream settlers' umbrella group, the Yesha Council, distanced itself from Katzover's comments, first made in a small ultra-Orthodox publication and picked up by Haaretz earlier this month. The Yesha Council was firmly committed to democratic principles, said its chairman, Dani Dayan.
Yair Sheleg of the Israel Democracy Institute said the radicalization of hardline settlers accelerated after Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Israel uprooted nearly two dozen settlements, including four in the northern West Bank, and the operation was deeply traumatic for the settler movement.
Sheleg said he was surprised by Katzover's tough tone, if not the content of his remarks. "We should be very worried," he said. "Benny Katzover was considered to be historically one of the mainstream leaders of the settler movement, and this really illustrates the way, the very far way, those mainstream settler leaders went."
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