On a Clear Day in the West Bank, You Can See the Israel You Lost Forever

A visit to a settlement leader whose vision of Israel’s future borders includes parts of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon and even Iran

Daniella Weiss in her house in the settlement of Kedumim
Meged Gozani

HAVAT GILAD, West Bank — It took me a long time, many visits to the West Bank, before I realized that this is the place where dreams come to die.

Dreams of a democratic Israel, one which respects and values minorities. Dreams of a free and independent Palestine. Dreams of peace.

Haaretz's Bradley Burston on a tour in West Bank settlements with Daniella Weiss

Many of my friends had dreams like that when we moved from North America to Israel as young people in the 1970s. But we watched those dreams get crushed, one after another, cut down and trampled and intentionally rendered impossible by the settlement movement, its allies, and the extremists on both sides who play into their hands.

At the same time, in this, the eternal capital of the zero-sum, there are settlers aplenty who will tell you, without the merest ounce of cynicism, that they are living the dream.

A few weeks ago I paid a visit to one of them, Daniella Weiss: prophetess, politician, fanatic, great-grandmother.

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I came to her home in the settlement of Kedumim to ask her, a person whose long-ago predictions for the future have already largely come to pass, what she believes lies in store for Israel in the long term.

More than forty years ago, when my friends and I were struggling to found a kibbutz in central Israel, Weiss saw something which we did not. It was something in the occupied territories, a settlement project, then non-existent, which would in time effectively come to run the state of Israel as a whole.

“I came to Shomron with the idea of it becoming an inseparable part of the state of Israel,” Weiss says, using the Hebrew term for the northern West Bank, the biblical Samaria.

Weiss, her husband and their two small children were part of the group of 10 families who in 1975 became the first settlers in the region.

It was clear to her from the very beginning – even before the beginning – the goal, the way things were going to take place, the way they would eventually look here: “Just as I saw the small state of Israel with millions of people, I was going up the hills [of the West Bank] to see the state of Israel getting broader and bigger, with millions of Jews settling the hills. That was the picture.”

Bradley Burston and his wife Varda Spiegel during solidarity action with Palestinians in the West Bank
Courtesy of Bradley Burston

‘My philosophy blocked the two-state solution’

Bradley Burston describes his visit to the West Bank with settler leader Daniella WeissHaaretz

From the very beginning, Weiss had a sense that this was an undertaking which would utterly transform Israel. From the very beginning, Weiss’s creed never changed.

She wanted then, and wants today, to bring the country to a standstill, to set it on its ear, to convert it to her way of thinking, “because my revolution affects not my life, but the life of every single person there, even if he doesn’t know it.”

At that very time, in the mid-70s, as Weiss and her group were squatting on land which had in part been confiscated from neighboring Palestinian villages, my friends and I were establishing a lost colony of Woodstock near the ancient site of Gezer - young people whose dreams were shaped by what they sensed had gone wrong in America, and what might just go right in Israel.

We dreamed that Israel could progress on a path toward a true social democracy, expanding existing government safety nets for the disadvantaged, building on pioneering models of health care, education, collective ownership, affordable housing, agriculture and industry.

To prepare me for this new reality, the kibbutz movement trained me to be a shepherd.

What we failed to recognize, what we did not want to acknowledge, was something that Weiss already sensed: The revolution of the labor movement, which had founded Israel and run it for decades, was dying of old age. In time, the revolution of the settlers would take its place.

Just as members of kibbutz and moshav collectives had wielded disproportionate influence across many spheres of life in Israel, particularly in government and the military, they would be supplanted by true believers of settlement, among them settlers themselves – like Weiss’s neighbor, the often openly bigoted firebrand politician Bezalel Smotrich.

Daniella Weiss in the settlement of Havat Gilad ahead of a planned evacuation, 2003
Milner Moshe/GPO

In her suburban-style home in Kedumim – whose population has now grown from those 10 tent-squatter families to nearly 10,000 residents – Weiss cordially welcomes us, a film crew from Haaretz, widely viewed by settlers as an institution so left-wing as to constitute an enemy.

She and I realize that we have often been at the same place at the same time: She as a settler, me as an occupying soldier; she as a settler, me as an anti-settlement protester; she as a settler, me as a journalist from a hated media outlet.

She expresses sympathy for my political distress, my obsolete dreams, and concedes that the settlement movement has been instrumental in shaping the reality I so abhor. And yet, she continues, for her, the overriding feeling is one of satisfaction, “that my philosophy has had the upper hand, and indeed, it blocked the two-state solution.” 

How do you react, I ask her, when someone says those words, two-state solution?

“First of all, I know that it will not happen. Practically, we see here hundreds of thousands of Jews. We see even in the eastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem 300,000 Jews in the areas which were liberated in the Six Day war, so where will there be a [Palestinian] state? Even Netanyahu understands that [the most] he can afford to do here for the Arabs is no more than autonomy.” 

A state just for Jews

Weiss takes us on a tour of the unauthorized settlement outpost of Havat Gilad, “Gilad’s Farm,” long a flashpoint of violence. She was instrumental in founding the outpost, built as a memorial to the murder of a settler, a murder which led to acts of vengeance against Palestinians, then spirals of bloodshed, concentric vicious circles which have yet to be broken.

There is a stretch of soil here, rocky, pale as death, which, when you add water, sticks to your shoes like nothing else.

Weiss, who knows these things, tells me to avoid stepping in a certain unremarkable, shallow-looking puddle.

“It’s like quicksand,” she says. I look down, thinking of the Hebrew homonym – botz tova’ni – in a play on words, “mud that makes demands.”

The ridges surrounding us are dotted with settlements. One of them, Har Bracha, boasts high-rise apartments. We were both there when she helped found it, on Independence Day 1983. I was on leave from reserve duty in Lebanon, my pregnant wife and I among a group of Peace Now protesters hoping to stop the settlers. I ask Weiss to look again into the future.

A line of marchers walking along a road during a two day hike in the West Bank, organized by the settler organization "Gush Emunim". 1975.
Moshe Milner/GPO
Kedumim, 1982.
Zaslavski Avraham/GPO

“Would you like Israel to expand further, beyond Gaza, beyond Judea and Samaria? Would you like Israel to extend beyond the Jordan River?”

“Yes, I want to have for the Jewish nation the promised land from the bible, the land that was promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, from the Euphrates to the Nile. And I’m sure it will be. Of course, I cannot know how many years it will take, because it wasn’t specified by our prophets.”

“What about southern Lebanon?”

“It is part of it. All of it. Even parts of Syria. Part of Iraq. Part of Iran. It’s huge! This is the promised land. The only question I have is, ‘Why does it take so much time?’ But I also learn from the prophets that the plan of God is not a human plan.”

­“Do you think you have any way of convincing people that that would be a good idea?”

“I’ve convinced many. All the people that are connected with a movement that I run, and many, many, many religious people are sure that this will be the future. Many people believe in it.”

“When the Likud party was Herut,” she says, referring to the staunchly right-wing party founded by Menachem Begin in 1948, “when it was [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky, the right-wing parties and movements believed in the promised land in biblical terms. So I don’t see anything extreme in my approach. This is the basic Jewish approach. The clearer we make this point, the better it will be for all of us – for Jews and Arabs alike. That this is going to be a state just for Jews.”

Young settlers at the unauthorized Havat Gilad outpost, northern West Bank, 2003.
Moshe Milner / GPO

What will life be like in that future Israel?

“I believe that the future of the state of Israel is a religious country run by religious laws. Yes. So I believe,” she says.

Moreover, “Only when you take the bible completely, all of it, on the personal and national and human, universal level, only then do you feel free.”

I change the subject. Or so I think.

“Let’s say that under a certain administration in Washington and a certain coalition in Israel, the government decides its time to move some settlers elsewhere. How do you feel about that idea?”

“We will not let it happen. I know it happened there – I know it happened in Gaza. I’m fully aware of these things. But thank God, we have passed here the line where things like that can happen again. Because in the communities around here there are 500,000 Jews – half a million Jews. And this is power. To evacuate here means five times the evacuation of Jews from [Inquisition-era] Spain.”

“Do you oppose the evacuation of even one?”

“Even one settler.”

“From anywhere, even from settlements which Israel considers completely illegal?”

“No doubt,” she says, adding, “The settlement movement is very strong, and affects all fields of Israeli society, atmosphere and politics.”

She notes that there are now 250 settlements in the West Bank, nearly the total number of kibbutzim that existed when we founded Gezer.

In the end, our small kibbutz, a moribund labor movement and the weaknesses and inconsistencies of Israeli democracy were no match for the single-minded crusade of the settlers, with their Old Testament vision, scope and antipathy to compromise.

The funeral procession of slain Rabbi Raziel Shevach at the Havat Gilad outpost, January, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

“I could spend my life as a great-grandmother. No, but I’m dedicated to the covenant between God and the Jewish nation, in Sinai, where we got orders,” she says. “What I see is the direct blessing of God. Now we are in a time of redemption. And in a time of redemption, the blessing of God is immediate.”

I’d come to the West Bank to see how they did it. How they won. How they ruined any chance that the extraordinary Israel we moved here hoping for could become reality.

What I learned was that the settlers are nowhere near done yet.

‘You have to brainwash all the time’

When I talk to young North American Jews, by far the strongest element in their alienation from Israel is the settlement movement, the strength of the occupation and what the occupation represents in terms of the denial of rights to millions of Palestinian people.

“It is very clear to me why the young Jewish generation in the United States in North America are very much aggravated by what people like me do here,” says Weiss. “It’s very clear.”

“People say to me, why don’t you explain to the Jews of the United States what it is exactly behind your thinking? I explain,” she laughs, “‘You have to brainwash all the time. You have to say it, to explain it, to live it, to cope with it.’”

“You know, we have a family confrontation,” she continues. “My husband says to me every week, ‘Why do you speak to your children all the time about Zionism, pioneers in Judea and Samaria, settling and settling?’ And all my family are settlers here. Because this is the only way to continue Zionism. If there is no enthusiasm, there is no sex. If there is no sex, there is no pregnancy. If there is no pregnancy, there are no babies. This is the problem in the United States today.

“Also, [regarding] the young Jewish generation, when they come here, if they come here, and they live [here] a few months, and they encounter difficulties, and they cope with the things we cope [with], not just in the settlements but in the state of Israel, they gradually change their mind.”

“Now, you may ask,” she says to me, “but you live here, and you know the things that I’ve said, and you do not change your mind. ‘Okay. Why didn’t the brainwashing work on me?’ Because I didn’t do it on you. Two hours of a meeting is not brainwashing. I do it to my children a few hours every day. My husband says to me, ‘What do you do all the time?’ I brainwash.”

Let me suggest why the brainwashing didn’t work on me. In an Israeli army uniform I got plenty of brainwashing from many people in several languages. In the context of that uniform I occupied northern Sinai, southern Lebanon, this area, Gaza, East Jerusalem, I occupied everything that it was possible to occupy. And all that I have come away with was: It’s occupied. That’s all I’ve managed to come away with.

“This brings me to the very primitive analysis of mine. About the left-wing mind.”

Earlier in our conversation, when I’d told Weiss that I would not buy wine made in her settlement, nor in any West Bank settlement, she’d told me that this did not upset her at all. She said, “There is a right-wing mind and a left-wing mind. These are two different creations. You have a left-wing mind.”

“Let’s say your victory is final. The West Bank stays in Israeli hands. Why shouldn’t the Palestinians here have full rights, in particular the right to vote?”

“The reason that the Arabs of Judea and Samaria cannot have the right to vote for the Knesset is because if the Arabs should have a right to vote, it’s dangerous to the future of the Jewish nation in the land of Israel.”

In the future, she continues, “It will all become a Jewish state. The Arabs can be here [in the West Bank], not as citizens with full rights, but just human rights. But not the right to vote for the Knesset.”

There is no point in changing what [Israel’s first prime minister] David Ben-Gurion did in granting citizenship to Arabs within the pre-1967 borders, she continues, “but by no means [can we] enlarge the right of Arabs to vote for the Knesset, God forbid, to Arabs who live here.”

Why should the Palestinians agree to this?

“If we utter these words clearly, and we are self-confident that this is the truth - and it’s not anti-democratic, and it’s not against human pride – then the Arabs will be affected by it. They will know that the Jews have come here to stay. For good. Forever.”

I mention that President Reuven Rivlin of the former Herut party and the founding generation of Likud has suggested that the Palestinians of the West Bank be granted the right to vote in Israeli elections.

“Rivlin,” she laughs, “has become a leftist since he became a president.”

“Some on the far right think the solution is expelling the Palestinians from here: transfer.”

“I am very much not for the idea of transfer. I believe that the right thing for us to do – us, the Jews – is to establish more and more [West Bank] communities and encourage more and more Jews to come to Israel. Immigration from the United States from England, from France.”

This, after all these years, is what I know, and Daniella Weiss does not:

They won’t come. Those millions of Jews from America. They’re not coming now. They won’t come specifically because of what the settlement movement has done to Israel. And this is how I leave her: “I am worried. I am worried that this is the place that will result in the end of Israel.”

“Oh no,” she says, with the broadest of smiles. But not at all in a cruel way. She is absolutely sincere. And matter of fact.

“This is the future of Israel.”