In the heart of the settlement of Ofra there’s a 41-year-old tree residents say was planted when the community was founded by then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres.
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On Wednesday they made sure to distribute the picture of Peres planting the tree in a place that for journalists became one of the symbols of ideological settlement in the West Bank.
The message was clear; after his passing, the settlers also want to embrace Peres.
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Peres and the settlers had a complex relationship – more complicated than what ultimately became entrenched in global public perception. He was an architect of the Oslo Accords, and even as president he was a driving force behind promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace.
But branding him as someone who categorically opposed the settlements is misleading. Just as Peres was the spirit behind the peace process, he was also the spirit that enabled some of the first Israeli settlements built on the West Bank to arise.
The statement issued by the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria upon his death pretty much summarizes this complexity.
“At this time, we choose to remember the great contribution Shimon Peres made to establishing Israel’s security infrastructure from its first days, and his substantial contribution to Jewish settlement in Samaria.
“He was one of the founders and trailblazers of the state, and despite the various disputes over the years we will remember his consistent support for settlement as the defense minister who brought about the breakthrough in Samaria and the establishment of the settlements of Ofra and Kedumim, and for his laying the groundwork for the establishment and consolidation of additional communities.”
Indeed, Peres made a very significant contribution to the establishment of Ofra and Kedumim. In 1975, when members of Gush Emunim, the prominent settler movement of the time, tried to set up an outpost at the abandoned train station in Sebastia, Peres came to visit them.
Although he did insist that the settlers leave the site, he subsequently allowed a few dozen families to settle in the nearby Kadum military base, which eventually became the settlement of Kedumim. That same year, the first settlers moved in to Ofra, as well.
Benny Katzover, one of the early Gush Emunim members among those who demonstrated in Sebastia, says that when Peres came to the site he was welcomed with cries of happiness.
“We were happy because the assumption was that the issue would finally be taken care of,” he said. “Eight times we went there, and eight times we were removed. He would express publicly that we had the right, that we have settle the Samarian mountain ridge, and there was the feeling that his arrival pointed to some kind of arrangement.”
They were surprised to hear Peres say he had come to remove them.
“He told us he’d been sent by the government to demand that we leave. [Ariel] Sharon, who was with us the whole time, gave us the feeling and many hints that things could work out,” Katzover said.
“During that period Zionism had been condemned by the United Nations as a racist movement. [Then Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin recruited all the world’s Jewish leaders to come to Jerusalem. Some of them we even managed to bring to the train station at Sebastia. The feeling was that it was going to work out, but against all expectations, Peres insisted that we leave.”
Peres left the site, but a short time later summoned the group's leaders to his office in Tel Aviv.
“We come to the office in Tel Aviv, and there Peres opened with the announcement, ‘I’m interested in closing this up. Let’s not conduct negotiations like the Histadrut.’
"We wrote up three-four clauses, after each clause he went to a side room and spoke to whomever he spoke to – I understood it to be the prime minister, but he never told us – about every clause, and that’s how we ended up with what is now called the Sebastia compromise, when we were moved to Kadum,” Katzover said.
The connection with Peres continued, and the feeling was that he supported the West Bank settlers, Katsover said. “When he was still the postal minister he set up four telephone centers for us in Kiryat Arba, and his opinions, which today are considered right-wing, were well known. He visited us afterward in Kadum.”
As Katzover sees it, Peres veered leftward at the end of the 1970s.
“He contended for the Labor party leadership twice against Rabin and he came to the conclusion that if he didn’t turn left he had no chance. He donned the cloak of a left-winger in a pretty sharp turn, and I think that since 1979 or something like that he was already talking like a leftist. Until then he had been clearly right wing.”
After a while, Peres was viewed by many of the settlers as a bitter political rival, particularly after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, giving Palestinians a measure of self-rule in parts of the West Bank.
“In my opinion he brought about this disastrous agreement, the Oslo agreement, which led to 1,500 murders,” said Katzover. “It was out of a desire to benefit the people of Israel, I have no doubt about that, but it did incredible damage.
"Perhaps only Sharon’s disengagement was comparable in terms of a cow spilling all the milk it had given,” the settler leader added, referring to a 2005 pullout under Sharon's rule, in which thousands of settlers were evacuated from Gaza and the northern West Bank.