While the Israeli public was lighting memorial candles for its fallen soldiers and clustered around the mangal this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quietly took advantage of the smoke and the haze to assemble members of his cabinet to retroactively approve three new settlement outposts in the West Bank. The timing of this policy change was no coincidence, as the government coalition was seemingly determined to supplant the acrid odor of judicial outmaneuvering at Migron with the sweet scent of bonfires on the hilltops. Yet, as the State of Israel blows out its 64 birthday candles, what does this move mean for the Zionist project?
As announced on Sunday, the prime minister took to creating his own facts on the ground in the form of a sympathetic council of four — himself, Revisionist Zionist heir Benny Begin, Likud party stalwart Moshe “Bogey” Ya’alom, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak — to bypass a Knesset vote on the matter of the settlements’ status. If the outcome of these deliberations was ever in doubt, vice-premier and party apparatchik Silvan Shalom later broadcast on his Facebook page that “the settlement flag is the central flag of the Likud movement, and the evacuation of settlements is simply out of the question.” Two days later, the committee agreed to the post-factum recognition of the state territory upon which three northern West Bank settlement outposts were built and a stay on the evacuation of the Beit El neighborhood of Ulpana built on private Palestinian land.
Each of these communities has a storied history in the last two decades of the Israeli settlement enterprise. Bruchin, a burgeoning township at almost 400 Orthodox settlers founded in 1999-2000 between Ariel and Rosh Ha-Ayin, boasts not only of a panopoly of services offered to residents but that “[it] is a family.” Like its internet page, Sansana, a community of approximately 50 families in the Hebron hills half an hour from Beersheba, remains under construction, originating as a Nahal settlement in 1996 and later transferred to civilian authorities in 1999. The current population of Rechalim is the latest in a series of groups that have squatted at the site near Kfar Tapuach since the early 1990s. All three settlements were built either in explicit or indirect response to terrorist attacks against Israeli settlers in the occupied territories. Last but not least, the Ulpana section of the West Bank settlement of Beit El, established during the tenure of Ehud Barak himself in 1999, is only one of many neighborhoods and outposts built during the so-called settlement freeze.
As the international community (including the United States, European Union, and the United Nations) condemn this recent policy decision, it is worthwhile to reflect on the words of left-wing activist and Yesh Din legal counsel Michael Sfard to The New York Times on the eve of Israeli Independence Day. To him, the day had arrived where, “this government only now reaches the crossroads, the dilemma: it has to choose between the rule of law and ideology.”
This observation brings to mind a profound passage in the opening pages of Shlomo Ben-Ami’s memoir “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy” (2006), where he recounts an interview he gave before his “last ditch effort” to salvage the Oslo Process in 1999:
A normal state is not supposed to settle beyond its legitimate borders. We have created a state, we have been admitted to the UN, we strive to have orderly relations with the international community, yet we still continue to behave as if we are a Yishuv. The entire peace enterprise of this government is aimed at leading the nation to choose, once and for all, between being a state or a Yishuv.
The Israeli diplomat’s distinction here is not merely a semantic one; the choice between settlement and statehood is a fundamental characterization of the Zionist project. Does the state, in the form of authorizing settlement outposts, continue as an expansionist enterprise? Or does it safeguard 64 years of history and remain a state within its borders (if those will likely include territorial swaps for existing settlement blocs that will be attached to Israel in a final peace agreement?)
As The Times of Israel’s founding editor, David Horovitz, beautifully wrote in the pages of this newspaper, at the ripe age of 64, “now we have to accelerate our hesitant transition from youthful, all-conquering zeal to a more adult stability. That means we need to decide more precisely, for ourselves, what kind of a grown-up country we want to be.” The Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] teaches that at the age of 60, one reaches seniority, or intellectual maturity. I can only hope that the leadership and people of Israel will chose from this year, ad meah v’esrim and far beyond, to be a state.