There’s No Schism on the Right When It Comes to Legalizing Settlements

A legislator in Naftali Bennett’s party floats the trial balloon, and the prime minister and defense minister follow along in the blatant land theft.

Bezalel Smotrich.
Olivier Fittousi

The saga of the Dreinoff buildings in the West Bank settlement of Beit El encapsulates all the methods by which the messianic, nationalist right has conquered Israel. Ostensibly, it’s a story about a crisis in the self-described “national camp,” perhaps even a schism.

The story goes like this. Loyalists of MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) and his parade of beasts were evicted by soldiers operating under orders from “the post-Zionist traitor,” aka the former head of Military Intelligence and former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. This guy had the gall to dare uphold the rule of law.

In other words, he prevented people from barricading themselves in houses that had been built illegally, without permits, on stolen, privately owned Palestinian land. For these reasons, these houses were supposed to be razed, on orders from the High Court of Justice.

The settlers are going wild. The 10th anniversary of the Gaza disengagement, the Tisha B’Av fast and other difficult memories have converged in a moment of zealotry and war. The wildcat reoccupation of the destroyed West Bank settlement of Sa-Nur is reviving the spirit of the siege of Masada.

Representatives of the Habayit Hayehudi party are threatening to topple the government. These people include the justice minister, who in a democratic country would be responsible for upholding the rule of law but in Israel defends people violating a High Court injunction that bars occupancy of these buildings, whose use is also prohibited under the planning and building laws.

That’s how things look on the surface, but the truth is different. There’s no schism; nothing of the sort. The settlers aren’t an aggressive, subversive herd defending themselves against the state and the security services. They’re the lords of the land and its milkers, whose occasional nighttime field exercises are replete with mess kits, songs and combat traditions.

Ya’alon isn’t a man from the sane right who’s muzzling the settler ox while it treads the corn, but a presentable, useful face with which to legalize blatant land theft in the West Bank. It seems he understands his role, which he described magnificently in his simple, direct style on Twitter: “I have done and am doing a great deal for settlements in the West Bank, including Beit El, and the sane, statesmanlike majority knows this. But anyone who thinks I’ll break the law is mistaken! I won’t lend a hand to lawlessness!”

Ya’alon indeed made a huge effort, especially over the last few months, to legalize the Dreinoff apartments. He pressured the Civil Administration in the West Bank to issue a permit for the buildings with record speed in order to bolster the contractor’s petition to rescind the demolition orders.

The eviction of these poster boys is actually an important step on the road to this goal, and at the end of this road, the settlers are supposed to dwell in the houses that were built illegally on stolen privately owned land. While the residents of Ashdod, Tiberias and Be’er Sheva are barred, and rightly so, from building a balcony or closing off a room without the requisite permits, the government is backing the settlers’ aspiration to end this trivial matter of Palestinian property rights, even when these rights have been recognized by the authorities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also made clear that the state will join the petition filed by the contractor, Meir Dreinoff, to annul the decision to raze the apartments. That’s what Netanyahu wants and that’s what Ya’alon wants. But according to the right’s plan of action, Smotrich has to run at the head of the camp floating trial balloons, while Bennett, Ya’alon and Netanyahu — each in turn — follow him to whitewash the path.

One can only be jealous of the way the right embraces its radical pioneers and adopts their positions. Unlike the left — which repudiates even moderate organizations, ones separated by a deep, nerdy abyss from the destructive violence of the settlers’ “hilltop youth” — the right encourages its most disruptive elements to expand the limits.

This tactic is successful because it steadily moves the political map further and further to the right. Yesterday’s extremist is today’s moderate, and yesterday’s moderate is today’s traitor. The settlements turn from excess baggage meant to realize a messianic fantasy of Israeli colonialism into the center around which the state revolves. And an entire country, with all its resources, soldiers and taxes, serves them loyally.

Run, Smotrich, run. Forge a new path for us.