Settler Leader Bezalel Smotrich, Can Your Group Change the Upcoming Decision on the Building Freeze?

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Bezalel Smotrich, 30, from the settlement of Kedumim in the West Bank, is an organizer for the joint forum of settler committees from Samaria and Binyamin. The forum is currently promoting a campaign under the slogan "don't repeat the precedent Sharon set," referring to former prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Bezalel Smotrich.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal to build 2,000 housing units acceptable to your group?

Not at all. Netanyahu is basically doing what we are all afraid of. Returning to the juggling arts that characterized his previous government, he will try to please Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas], [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak and [U.S. President] Barack Obama without angering his friends on the political right. The statement that we will not extend the moratorium officially but will build in a measured fashion really means that the government will put spikes in the wheels and stop building everywhere. There are building permits for construction in rural areas, but the authorities will not approve [building] plans and will not furnish budgets.

Do you think your group has the ability to change the government's upcoming decision on the construction freeze?

I think the settlement forces ... in the end can create a real threat to the Netanyahu government's future. Netanyahu has already left the right wing. "The West Bank" - not even [the Labor Party's Benjamin] Fuad Ben-Eliezer uses the term West Bank. Netanyahu is adopting the left's terminology.

In the past, the Wye River Memorandum was the last straw, causing the collapse of the first Netanyahu government. Ehud Barak was elected prime minister after Netanyahu's coalition disbanded. Will a current attempt to bring down the government backfire?

Barak did nothing worse - on the contrary, [his election] caused the death of the Oslo governments. What do I have to lose? Netanyahu is acting as he did in the past. He is causing unprecedented damage to public consciousness, leading people to believe that there is no longer a right wing in the country, that even the right adopts the left's policies. It's better when a government of the left carries out left-wing policy.

How do you interpret the prime minister's moves? Are they the product of political survival or an ideological turnabout?

I don't know. I am neither a psychologist nor a physiologist. It's not relevant. In the end we're talking about a person who is betraying the ideology he was elected to uphold, who is betraying a mandate given by his constituency. All the psychological motivations that are behind this have nothing to do with me.

Maybe Netanyahu is playing for time, hoping that Abbas will break up the talks and be held responsible. Such a dynamic would give Israel more room to maneuver.

All indications in the field suggest that this isn't the reality. A person who wants to kill time doesn't voluntarily chase after every stage, talk about two states for two peoples, speak about the West Bank and recognize the Palestinians' right to divide the country with us. To this I add the freeze .... This isn't the way a person who is trying to kill time for tactical reasons would operate. In addition, we can't let ourselves take chances. You say "maybe" - but maybe this isn't the case. The cost of "maybe not" is intolerable.

Maybe the way things are seen from hilltops in Samaria is not the way reality is perceived by the prime minister? Maybe the changes Sharon and Netanyahu embraced, at odds with their ideological allegiances, are required of any prime minister?

You can't say that regarding Netanyahu, because he already served as prime minister. During election campaigns, in the days of the Sharon government, he stood up and said he opposed a Palestinian state. When he said that, he knew exactly how reality was seen from the prime minister's office. Maybe things that are seen from there are not seen from here. But that doesn't mean that the way things are seen from the prime minister's office represents the correct approach.

How do differences of opinion in the settler camp since the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip influence or harm the current campaign?

These differences of opinion did not arise during the expulsion; they flared up long before. It's natural to have varied opinions in the settlement community, and it's a necessity in an opinionated, complex society. It's what makes such a society dynamic and productive - it's not necessarily negative. At the same time, we believe that there has to be a separation between the framework that leads the struggle and the municipal framework. This stems from the fact that the municipality system has to maintain good relations with the government and therefore can't lead a struggle. For this reason, we established a joint forum that is independent and free to engage in conflict.

During your conferences you talk about the need to engage the orange [anti-Gaza withdrawal] right-wing public. Do you see any signs of such an awakening?

I think so. I'm happy to inform you that the settlement public is a normal society that would prefer to lead a placid, regular way of life; it's not eager to break away from routines and engage in battles. At the same time, our community currently feels how palpable and close the danger has come. And our view is that if a serious leadership arises and proposes a serious plan, with a clear rationale, the public will enlist en masse. The settlement movement has proved its ability to create dynamics and replace Netanyahu.

What part are rabbis playing in the current campaign?

As ever, rabbis are spearheading the spiritual-values side, which is the foundation that inspires the practical activists to take steps. The rabbis are not the ones who will say whether this or that step should be taken. The rabbis provide guidelines of principle on how to relate to a particular government. Sometimes they sketch borders, but we're the ones who take steps on a professional, thorough basis.

In conclusion, journals in the national religious camp have been conducting polls, asking settlers whether they would stay in their homes after an Israeli pullout. What's your view on this issue?

My view is that it's a mistake to deal with this issue right now. I'm part of the state, and I can't imagine not being part of it. I have no interest in giving legitimacy to a prime minister who might want to propose creative solutions on this topic.



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