The Opportunity in the Freeze

The time has come for settlement activists to elevate themselves to leaders of a movement.

The day after his electoral victory in 1977, Menachem Begin came to the settlement of Kedumim and, referring to another settlement, declared, "Many Elon Morehs will be established." Rabbi Moshe Levinger, deeply moved, responded with his own announcement: We are depositing the settlement portfolio into your hands, Mr. Prime Minister. But Begin, whether because he personally was never involved in settlement or because he had already begun to crumble under pressure, did not meet these expectations.

Thirty years ago this month, the Yesha Council of settlements was set up. Not long after its establishment, Begin returned from one of his frequent visits with U.S. president Jimmy Carter - many of which were superfluous and merely invited pressure - and announced a settlement freeze. The freeze, especially coming from Begin, aroused the settlers' wrath. The new council began to take energetic measures, including nonstop demonstrations, political pressure, personal visits to veteran members of Begin's Herut movement and a prolonged (and genuine) hunger strike.

At its height, Begin invited the striking council leaders for a meeting. "I promised Carter to freeze [construction]," he explained, with genuine sorrow on his face, "and a prime minister must keep his promises."

"But before that you promised the people of Israel to establish many Elon Morehs," one of his guests pointed out. And Begin, always ready with a sharp retort, fell silent.

The settlers' determined struggle led not only to the gradual abolition of the freeze but also to soul-searching among their supporters: If a freeze was possible under Begin, who knows what might happen if Likud were not in power? And thus, as settlement activists began combing every city and neighborhood in search of new settlers, the great settlement boom of the 1980s began. It was this surge - and not necessarily the pioneering but closed settlements established by Gush Emunim - that created irreversible facts on the ground that even the construction freezes and loss of life that followed the Oslo Accords could not defeat.

Even during the worst periods of terror, the settlement movement had reserves of young people who provided revitalizing reinforcement to the veteran settlements. And this was happening at a time when the kibbutz movement - most members of which joined the battle against settlement in Judea, Samaria and Gaza - was already in an advanced stage of calcification on the ideological and, as a result, on the human level.

This vitality - the consolidation of a generation that will constitute another link in the chain - is what those enforcing the freeze are now seeking to crush. There is no other explanation. Benjamin Netanyahu, though he does not share the desire to destroy the settlement enterprise, lacks the strength of character to abide by his promise to resume construction in another 10 months. The U.S. administration, the Europeans and the settlements' domestic foes (whose activity against the settlements and the Netanyahu government is financed by European money) will not let him.

They understand that in the long run, if there is no place in the veteran settlements for young people, these settlements will eventually die. And therefore there will be no need to uproot settlers by force - something that after Gush Katif even they realize no Israeli government will be capable of doing.

The freeze has outraged residents of central Israeli towns like Givat Shmuel and Petah Tikva no less than Begin's freeze a generation ago outraged settlement supporters in Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan. Thus if those leading the struggle make do with unfreezing a few hundred building permits, or even more, they have been graced with neither strategic vision nor an understanding of history.

The time has come for them to elevate themselves from mere settlement activists - an important job in normal days - to leaders of a movement. The freeze, which a priori appears detrimental, actually presents them with a positive challenge: to reinvigorate the drive and capacity for achievement of the movement that succeeded in reviving Israel's pioneering spirit.