The New Real Estate Sharks

Like many pioneering and protest movements before it, the settlement movement has gradually become a political-economic lobby that aims to leverage its political strength to suck money and land from the state.

At the height of the settlers' protest against the plan to leave Gaza five years ago, a cynical friend said to me: "Don't get upset by the demonstrations and the blocking of roads. It's just a battle for money." What do you mean, I said to him. Most of the demonstrators aren't even from Gush Katif. They're bused in from the West Bank. "Exactly," said my friend. "They know that everything they manage to get in Gaza will be the ground floor for compensation when the time comes to evacuate them from Judea and Samaria."

Eran Wolkowski
Eran Wolkowski |

I recalled this conversation when I saw the advertising campaign run by the Yesha Council of settlers calling for a full-speed-ahead renewal of construction in the settlements when the moratorium ends on September 26. I also remembered it when I read about the endless demands to increase compensation to the Gaza evacuees and when I read about the "green track," "red track" and "business owners' track" for receiving compensation for the current moratorium in the West Bank. There was also the demand for compensation from the government for the Palestinian Authority's boycott on products from the settlements.

Like many pioneering and protest movements before it, the settlement movement in the territories gradually became a political-economic lobby that aims to leverage its political strength to suck money and land from the state. Today there is no difference between the demands for building subsidies and compensation money of the Yesha Council and its Knesset allies, and Shas' demands for National Insurance Institute allotments, the privatization of land on the kibbutzim or the workers' lobby at the Israel Electric Corporation. The economic discourse has so taken hold of the settlers that even their acts of revenge against the Palestinians are called "price tag."

This is apparently the inevitable development of ideas that turn into organizations, accumulate resources and political influence and later disengage from the ideology and fervor. They are busy swelling the bank accounts of their members, supporters and associates. The IEC was not founded to arrange huge salaries and generous pensions for its workers, but as a Zionist development project. The successors to Pinchas Rotenberg, "the old man from Naharayim," discovered the power of the electricity monopoly and its ability to enrich its employees. It now serves as a model for every lobby and power group in Israel.

A similar thing has happened to the settlement movement. There, too, they started with dancing and singing on the hills and reading the works of Rabbi Kook. Today they are working through lobbyists and advertising agencies, just like the cellphone lobby, the Israel Banks Association and the car importing sector. The settlers have won a government monopoly on developing the land of the West Bank and are strengthening and leveraging it, under cover of "Zionist fulfillment" and the "struggle for the Land of Israel."

How is this any different from Shas' pursuit of "restoring the crown to its former glory," which has developed into an extensive economic project gradually taking control of power positions and budgets? Or from the equality and collectivity on the kibbutzim, which have become real estate developers and dealers? Behind Yesha's campaign to renew construction are extensive real estate interests: building and earthworks contractors, architects, guarding companies, real estate agents, lawyers, property assessors, furniture merchants and moving companies. All of them will benefit from the moratorium to some extent.

And even in the current situation things are not at all bad in the West Bank. Yehuda Eliyahu, director of the Regavim movement, wrote in an article a few weeks ago that in the past few years tens of millions of shekels have been invested in building prefabricated transportable homes, "thanks to which about 2,000 souls have been added to the settlements." Who got this money?

Eliyahu suggested to his colleagues in the settlement movement that they save on the tremendous expenses of marginal building and concentrate on a public, legal and political fight - like the company Tnuva, which is launching a new brand of chocolate beverage "and investing millions of shekels in advertising, public relations people and the like." Eliyahu says this is a more effective way to save the settlements from those who aim to dismantle them. This process is already underway. The settlers have given up the chance of stirring the ideological fervor anew and are focusing on ringfencing their project and expanding it, like food companies Tnuva and Strauss.

There is something encouraging about this: Anyone so engaged in sucking money from the government has a "price tag." Just as the government bought the Gush Katif settlers, it will be able to cut a deal with their colleagues on the hilltops as well.