Josef Olmert

On settlements; history, ideology, tactics and strategy

Writing on settlements requires me to open with a simple statement ; I am a life-long supporter of the undisputed right of Jews to live everywhere in the Land of Israel.

This has been my secular religion, the belief in Greater Israel, and it has never been a light affair for me, a tactical issue, a lip-service to the education at home and in the Beitar youth movement.

This has been my bread and butter, the heart and soul of my Zionist convictions.

So, when writing an essay in high school in Binyamina, Israel, in April 1967, about Israel since independence in 1948, I, as a matter of fact, wrote that the Zionist dream cannot be fulfilled ONLY by having a state, as the state has to stretch over the entire Land of Israel. I wrote it few weeks prior to the great war of self-defense known as the Six days war, and so, in the heady days which followed I stood in street corners distributing the leaflets declaring ”Shetach Meshuhrar Lo Yuchzar”
[ the liberated territories will not be returned]. Later came the 1973 war, after which the ”Bloc of the Faithful” [Gush Emunim] was established, and nothing seemed more natural to me than joining Hanan Porat, Rabbi Levinger and other iconic figures in establishing , with my friends at the Hebrew University, the group which later settled in Ma’ale Edumim. With my friends we went to the old Turkish railway station in Shomron [Sebastia], alongside thousands of other eager and enthusiastic lovers of Zion. However, it was sometime then, in 1975 and onwards, when I had my first doubts, the first seeds of second thoughts. Not about the Ideology, never about the right, but about the applicability, the prioritization of fulfilling the great vision in face of harsh demographic, geographic, political and strategic realities.

For me, Jewish statehood, Jewish education, ingathering of the exiles , social justice and Peace, yes Peace with our neigbours/enemies, and equality of all citizens in our state, in line with the Jabotinsky teaching of ”there they will live in happiness and affluence, the Son of Arab, the Son of Nazareth, and my Son”, constitute a package deal, something to be achieved, surely goals to pursue.

Settling all over our homeland was definitely a goal, a significant element in having a return to Zion, and Zion was much more Hebron and Beit El, than Ramat Aviv and Rehavia. Still, the right of settling everywhere in OUR country, was not conceived by me to be one which surpasses in importance other elements of my political agenda, and chief among them, the centrality of statehood. By this term I mean, the need to obey the democratic decisions of governments, which approved by the Knesset, the need to obey the Law of the land, the need to accept that a sovereign state has a variety of interests to contend with, when deciding on policy issues of the utmost national importance, and not ONE consideration only, that of the sanctity of Hityashvut [settlement] all over the land. It became clear to me already in the late 1970’s , that the Religious Right and the Secular Right share a vision, that of Greater Israel, but DO NOT share the same approach as to the attainment of the vision. For the Religious Right, settling all over the land is a Mitzva, for the Secular Right it is an aspiration, a desire, a goal, a vision, but NOT an inviolable rule. This is why I supported the Sinai peace deal with Egypt, this is why I supported the Gaza Disengagement plan of 2005, in both cases, the human and ideological price was huge for me, almost unbearable, but just almost.

Those who recognize rights are those who can give up on the fulfillment of All of them, and this is exactly why non-Zionists, anti-Zionists and even tired Zionists, like a lot of the established Left-Wing in Israel CANNOT really be the ones who make peace, or try to make it, knowing what the price is, which is tearing parts of our national body, dismembering our homeland, surrendering rights. Those who do that need to feel the pain, a lot of it, and they cannot be those who think that Jews are ”occupiers” in the Land of Israel. This is oxymoron, as Jews can never be ”occupiers” in their historic homeland. Menachem Begin was torn from within when he signed the peace treaty with Sadat, and so was Yitzhak Rabin signing the Oslo Accords, and I believe also Ariel Sharon  when
ordering the forced removal of the settlers of Gush Katif.

The centrality of settlements cannot come on the expense of every other consideration of our national interests, and the settlers, surely, the ideological hard core of them, should realize, that they already established two important facts, that cannot be denied.

First, they reasserted the right of Jews to live all over the historic homeland of our people.

Secondly, their numbers are such, that whatever the political solution with the Palestinians, if one is at all possible, there will still remain MANY Jews in parts of Judea and Samaria.

The settlers can claim with a great deal of justification, that BECAUSE of their existence in these lands, not DESPITE it, there was and there is even the limited Palestinian readiness for negotiations leading to a political settlement [and this is VERY limited readiness indeed…]. This is so, because the Palestinians may have been led to the conclusion that negotiations with Israel are the way to stop the construction and enlargement of settlements, something which will make the establishment of a Palestinian state a virtual impossibility. So if we talk politics, we
can use the settlements as a bargaining chip, but if we talk ONLY religion and messianism, then there is nothing we can do, other than believing in our case, taking pride in materializing our undisputed national, religious and historic rights, and at the same time, leading ourselves to a position of self-imposed isolation in the world.

As unfair and unjustified as it is, the vast majority of the world, including most of our friends and among them a majority of Jews abroad, think that the settlements are an obstacle to peace. They are WRONG, and the Gaza experience, i.e the forced removal of ALL the Jews from Gush Katif, leading to two wars with Hamas, rather than to peace, should be the proof of that, but old habits die hard, and so also old beliefs and conventional wisdoms, and so, many in the world believe that it is ALL about settlements.

National strength is measured in many ways, and among them it is the ability to to know what fights to pick up, what rights to give up, what decisions should be taken, even if they are tantamount to taking bitter pills, many of them! To be specific, the acceptance of the two states solution is one of these pills, and it is an Israeli NECESSITY, though a concession.

With that come other bitter pills;

We need to try and remove the settlements issue from being the key issue in the negotiations, and this is because it is an issue which pits us against our friends.

We need to freeze new construction, we need to agree to have blocks of settlements, and if maintaining them will lead to a Palestinian demand for an exchange of land, so be it.

We need to be ready to evacuate a significant number of settlements, and the price of doing that should be included in the overall bill for a settlement of the refugees problem, and refugees mean JEWS and Palestinians, not just the latter…

We need to raise the idea that there could stay JEWS living in a Palestinian state, as much as Arabs live in Israel.

Let the Palestinians reject it, let them explain that Jews cannot live among them.

Let them espouse and defend a policy of Apartheid.

Can Jews be REALLY safe in a Palestinian state? Well, not really, and I believe that those whose settlements will not stay under Israeli jurisdiction will opt to leave, but in negotiations like in negotiations, you raise options and scenarios, you try to put the onus on the other side, you maneuver in order to achieve the best possible result.

And if the negotiations will fail, which is a strong possibility, let them fail over issues, on which we can mobilize world support, and also support among our own people.

In case the talks fail we still have the option of a unilateral withdrawal to lines agreed upon by our leadership, both military and political.

Even that option entails the removal of MANY settlers. It follows, that the status quo with regard to the settlements cannot be maintained, so why not come to our own national agreement as to what we CHOOSE do before we are FORCED to do by others.

Can we come to such national consensus?, I doubt it, but not rule it out completely, but we need to bear in mind, that the search for consensus as desirable as it is, should not incapacitate our ability to come to decisions, PAINFUL decisions that is.

For that to happen, there could be another coalition government, but whatever we do about settlements, let us ALWAYS remember, we are going to surrender parts of our homeland, not to give away lands which belong to others.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina
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