Opinion

My Day With the West Bank Settlers Who Are Destroying Zionism

I found good and caring people. The only problem was that they are living in denial, in a fervent but alternative reality where the occupation is not only sustainable but irreversible

Israeli settlers of Yitzhar take position during a confrontation with Palestinians over an area in Burin village in the West Bank, January 14, 2014.
Nasser Ishtayeh / AP

I recently returned from a visit to a different reality.

I was part of a group of former senior defense officials conducting a series of meetings in the West Bank with heads of the regional councils and the settler movement, rabbis and politicians.

I found good and caring people, with strong values, who are wrestling with the same complex issues of security, demography, democracy and national unity that every Israeli is. The only problem was that they are living in denial, and in a parallel world to reality.

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Everyone was polite and tried to smile, even when tempers flared, as befits people of goodwill, even if they’re from rival ideological camps. But at some point it becomes almost impossible to bridge two entirely conflicting perceptions of reality; someone is living in a fake reality. Moreover, both sides perceive the final outcome as a zero-sum game. Everything rides on whose reality is right.

There was agreement between us that Israel’s rebirth, survival and prosperity were our shared values, even if we might have worded it differently than “living in a period of national redemption” and the “return of the people of Israel to Zion.” We talk in terms of Zionist belief, they in terms of religious belief.

Our visit started in Kfar Etzion, in one of the settlement blocs that even the Palestinians recognize will remain part of Israel in a final agreement.

Our hosts spoke with pride of a local institution for the mentally ill and of their zip line, one of the longest in Israel. We immediately understood that these are people who care about their community, including the less fortunate, and that it is actually lots of fun to live in the settlements. You can zip across the wadi; soon, maybe, they’ll open a biblical-style ski slope.

Of greater concern was the settlers’ contention that terrorism began after “Oslo,” a vile epithet to them. We chose not to be petty; we refrained from mentioning that the first intifada and many heinous terrorist attacks occurred long before the 1993 Oslo Accords.

In the settler reality, the ongoing military rule of the region does not really pose a deep moral problem.

They believe that they live in genuine coexistence with the Palestinians. They offer proofs: the Palestinians employed in the Barkan industrial zone (the recent site of a horrific terrorist attack), or the talks that some desperate Palestinians have held with the settlers, their hated adversary, about possible solutions.

For their side, the Palestinians, of course, are only interested in making ends meet - employment and in improving their standard of living, which is exactly what is happening in practice.

The settlers don’t see them as a people who have been living in impossible circumstances for 50 years, who smile falsely for their Israeli employers (once known as “effendis”) and who are still licking their wounds from the second intifada. A people who will rise up against us, sooner or later, as they have in the past.

Our interlocutors apparently never heard of the Palestinian Village League Association of the 1970s, an Israeli-blessed attempt to bypass the PLO, and various other attempts to divert the attention of “those known as Palestinians” from their national aspirations.

A demonstrator waves a Palestinian flag in front of Israeli forces during a protest against Bahrain's workshop for U.S. peace plan, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El. June 25, 2019
MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

We tried to get agreement on some basic facts.

Already today, we reiterated, not in some distant and unfathomable future, 40 percent of the combined populations of Israel and the West Bank are not Jewish. Had it not been for the disengagement from Gaza (the “expulsion” or “banishment,” to them, the “beginning of redemption” to me), there would already be a non-Jewish majority.

Our interlocutors expressed doubts regarding the reliability of our data, which happen to derive from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the state’s own respected and impartial professional body.

OK, we said, entering bargaining mode, let us assume that “only” 35 percent, or even just 30 percent, are not Jewish, is that a Jewish state? How do we prevent Israel from becoming a binational state, a horror unfolding in front of our very eyes, and ensure its future as a democratic state, with a solid Jewish majority, for future generations?

In the settler reality, there is no agreed answer to these questions, although they are aware of the problem. “We will have to see what happens,” not everything in life can be resolved.

One of the people we met told us how he and his wife are raising their four grandchildren, after their parents were slaughtered in a terrorist attack. It was as if the oxygen left the room, life came to a standstill and our hearts stopped, until he added that from his point of view things have never been better and the trends are positive. Truly, a different perception of reality.

Some of our interlocutors, out of a deep commitment to the principle of equality, favor granting the Palestinians full rights, following a future peace agreement, but only after an undefined period of time in which they absorb the values of democracy, presumably from us. They clearly enjoyed what they perceived to be a paradox, whereby they ostensibly turned out to be more liberal than us, the “leftists,” because of their support for coexistence with the Palestinians, as opposed to our call for separation.

But a majority strongly opposed granting any such rights and expressed support for a long-term continuation of the occupation’s status quo, in effect to make it permanent.

In practice, there is no status quo. The number of settlers has increased steadily, as they stressed with pride, and some of the regional councils in the West Bank have growth rates among the highest in Israel. The catastrophic experience of binational states - see Syria and Iraq, or Ireland - does not appear to have penetrated their levels of denial.

Our interlocutors repeatedly labeled our group, members of Commanders for Israeli Security,with their ultimate epithet/slur: “leftists.” Not entirely accurate, but I have been called worse.

Children play in the Israeli settlement of Havat Gilad, a cluster of homes sprinkled across a hilltop surrounded by Palestinian villages deep in the West Bank in the occupied West Bank. July 24, 2019
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

What was not acceptable was the bogus claim that we had failed to learn the lessons of the Gaza disengagement and we were willing to risk exposing all of central Israel to similar rocket and other threats.

No, we repeated, but to no avail. We do not advocate unilateral military withdrawal from the West Bank, but an end to actions on Israel’s part that lead inexorably to a binational state and prevent any possibility of future separation, that is, an end to settlement outside the primary settlement “blocs.” Two states? Maybe in the future, if and when the necessary conditions emerge, including the security ones.

Everyone we met was caught up in feverish activity, intimately familiar with every detail of local topography and with an enviable ability to whip out data, from memory, about state, agricultural and private land, new pipes, buildings and infrastructure under construction, what used to be known as “a dunam here and a dunam there.”

In a rather barren area, they see so many trees that they cannot see the forest, not even close up.

It was this inability to face reality and what the future holds in store for us that was most disconcerting. Our interlocutors correctly emphasized the limitations inherent in predictions of future trends, and the fact that unexpected, but good things do happen, for example the aliyah (immigration) from the former Soviet Union.

Indeed, one of the more prominent spokesmen expressed his belief that aliyah will be the solution – as if major diaspora communities were loudly banging on our doors to be allowed in, or the settlers and right-wing had not alienated a significant portion of American Jews, the only large community remaining in the Diaspora. No mention was made, maybe for good reason, of president-savior Trump.

The unspoken message our interlocutors sought to convey was that the reality they have created is irreversible. I am not convinced.

One’s heart bleeds over the vast sums, sweat and ideological fervor squandered on the settlement project. But Israel has successfully faced greater challenges. If we were able to absorb 30,000 people each month at the height of the Russian immigration of the 1990s, we can certainly resettle five times that many Israelis over an extended period – in exchange for peace.

But there is always the chance that that parallel settler reality becomes the real one. Then, it would be their otherwise admirable Zionist fervor which will have brought about the destruction of the Zionist enterprise.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and a professor at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of "Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change" (Oxford University Press, 2018). Twitter: @FreilichChuck