Election Bribery

The settlement enterprise is no longer a fragile thing that must be protected; it is being seen more and more as a bone in the throat that can neither be swallowed nor spat out.

You have to pinch yourself to make sure you're not dreaming when you hear the claims made by the leaders of the right-wing parties against Ehud Olmert regarding the determination (which, it must be stressed, is only verbal at this stage) that he is displaying against the Jewish lawbreakers in Hebron.

The acting prime minister has announced that the state will impose its authority on the settlers who invaded the Hebron market and that the illegal outposts will be evacuated. He has sharply criticized the laxity demonstrated by the law enforcement authorities until now in dealing with rampaging West Bank settlers, and he instructed them to shape up immediately. This directive led the heads of the Likud and the National Union to claim that political motives only were behind Olmert's statements, or in other words, that the current leader of Kadima is courting votes by demanding a firm hand be used against Jewish lawbreakers in the territories.

Such a sight has not been seen since the waters of the Red Sea parted for Moses and the Hebrews during the Exodus from Egypt: Israel's far right accusing the centrist party of wooing voters by calling for the settlers to be reined in. MKs Uzi Landau (Likud) and Aryeh Eldad (National Union), who voiced this claim over the weekend, did not realize that they were shooting themselves in the foot. After all, if Olmert's real motive is to win over voters, as the heads of the extreme right parties claim, then the majority of voters must therefore support the government's firm stance against the settlers. This means that the policy championing a reduction of the Jewish presence in the territories is a card that the parties ought to use. In whose name, then, do Landau, Eldad and their colleagues oppose Olmert's new directive and support maintaining a full grip on the territories, if not a minority of voters?

Just six months ago the right claimed that the disengagement plan was not put to a proper public test because Ariel Sharon did not carry out his declared intention of holding a referendum. Those who opposed the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank complained that it was not enough to go through the usual formal channels of cabinet and Knesset approval. They called for a direct appeal to the public. The Yesha Council of settlements waged a stubborn battle against evacuating these areas, basing its position, inter alia, on the ground that most Israelis agreed with it.

Now the agenda has turned to the evacuation of a few dozen settlers who have taken possession of a few buildings in the Hebron market as well as a small number of illegal outposts, and the extreme right is in effect admitting that the majority of Israelis support the evacuation. Just how unequivocal that admission is can be learned from the claim by Landau and Eldad that the evacuations constitute election bribery. Unlike the usual situation, however, the benefit received by the electorate is not tax cuts or increased social allowances, but rather the evacuation of a few illegal outposts.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the extreme right's claim reflects the revolution that Israeli society is experiencing: The settlement enterprise is no longer a fragile thing that must be protected; it is being seen more and more as a bone in the throat that can neither be swallowed nor spat out. The days in which Israeli governments prefered to avoid dealing with the zealotry of the settlers (for example, after the massacre in Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin went back on his promise to evacuate the Jewish enclave in Hebron) are gone, apparently.

The Yesha Council and the extreme right should absorb the significance of the decision that the electorate is likely to make on March 28. If Eldad and Landau are reading the public mood correctly, they should prepare their communities to accept the decision of the majority. And if Ehud Olmert is indeed confident that the public supports his intention to take a firm stance against the confrontational and illegal behavior of the settlers in the territories, then why focus the effort against only three or four settlements rather than all of the illegal outposts?