Nicolas Pelham: Israel’s Religious Right and the Peace Process

IOA Editor: “National-religious” is an accurate translation from the Hebrew. The origin of the term goes back to 1956 when a political party by that name was founded (see Wikipedia).  However, in the current political context, this term is misleading.  It would be far more appropriate to call these political segments nationalist-religious.



By Nicolas Pelham, Middle East Report Online – 12 Oct 2009
www.merip.org/mero/mero101209.html

It would be easy to describe the residents of the outpost of Amona as radicals. In February 2006 they led protests of 4,000 settler activists, some of them armed, against 3,000 Israeli police who were amassed to make sure that nine unauthorized structures in the West Bank were bulldozed as ordered. In the ensuing clashes, 80 security personnel and 120 settlers were wounded, more than the entirety of the casualties during the 2005 “disengagement” from settlements in Gaza, in a showdown that became the symbol of the West Bank settlers’ resolve to resist the state’s efforts to tear down encampments, like their own, that were erected without the state’s permission. “How do I explain to my children that the army that came to protect us behaves like our enemy?” laments Amona resident Irit Levinger.

But what is disturbing about the settlers in Amona is not how distant they are from other Israelis, whether geographically or politically, but how connected. They are national-religious; that is to say, they are devout in their Judaism, but unlike many other religious Jews they believe equally fervently in the secular Zionist project. The national-religious fly Israeli flags from their lampposts and serve in front-line units in the army. Six months after the confrontation at Amona, half of the outpost’s men joined the draft for the 2006 Lebanon war, and a resident was one of the nine Israeli soldiers killed in the Gaza offensive of 2008-2009. In addition to military officers, the inhabitants’ ranks include university lecturers, a policeman, civil servants and lawyers. Levinger herself is a Hebrew lecturer at a state university. Two of the wounded in the clash with police were members of the Knesset from a larger settlement nearby. The national-religious settlers may agitate against the state, but they are directly linked to the state’s levers of power and benefit from its protection.

Outpost is a misleading term. It conjures images of cowboys braving the elements and fending off their enemies in Wild West locales. But most outposts in the West Bank are well-equipped caravan sites adjoining comfortable estates of red-roofed houses, built either at the state’s behest and expense, or with private money and state approval. Most are umbilically tied to these established settlements’ water, road and electricity networks and rely upon their neighbors to rise in protest if agents of the state come knocking at the caravans’ doors. They are snapshots of the way many settlements looked a decade or two ago and, in fact, how towns inside Israel looked after its 1948 conquests. They are symbols of Zionism’s onward march.

Despite international outrage and an Israeli undertaking to remove outposts dating back to the 2003 road map, few outpost residents genuinely fear for their future. Most recently, Defense Minister Ehud Barak marked 22 outposts for dismantlement “within weeks.” That was in May. All are still standing.

The settler movement appears similarly unfazed by the temporary construction freeze that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu floated in late August as a sop to former Sen. George Mitchell, the special envoy dispatched by President Barack Obama to secure such “confidence-building measures” from Israel and its Arab neighbors. Enforcement of past freezes has been minimal, and Netanyahu’s offer of a nine-month hiatus was laced with enough prior licenses to permit a full year’s construction. The freeze proposal was less sword of Damocles than pacifier for squalling foreigners. In the event, Mitchell was drawn into protracted haggling over the minutiae of when and where the freeze might take effect, and what existing construction could continue, to the point that his previously firm position on the freeze eroded. As of late September, the effort to achieve a freeze had been shelved. Bulldozers licensed by the Housing Ministry will continue to smooth the Holy Land’s hilltops for settler housing estates.

Demographic Weight

At first glance, it is hard to explain the success of the West Bank settlers. Numerically, excluding the 200,000 settlers in illegally annexed East Jerusalem, they constitute just 4 percent of Israel’s population, and are often resented by the rest for the disproportionate share of the national wealth they consume. A mere 1 percent live in the heartland of the putative Palestinian state, east of the separation barrier that Israel has built in the West Bank. Of these, thousands, most of them secular, have expressed interest in moving westward in return for financial incentives. Some — uncomfortable with geographic isolation, fears of violence and the mounting religiosity of the settler movement — have already left. Relocating the remainder seems a small price to pay for sparing Israel the worldwide opprobrium that comes with maintaining and advancing the settlement project.

Yet internally, the settler movement is — in the words of a former West Bank army commander — “Israel’s most powerful lobby.” Fearful of additional Amona-style faceoffs with Zionism’s foremost ideologues, few Israeli politicians dare confront the movement. It is growing fast: The drift of the secular-minded out of the West Bank (though not East Jerusalem) has been more than compensated for by the movement’s burgeoning hard core of national-religious activists, who from the outset have promoted Jewish settlement throughout the biblical Land of Israel as a sacred duty. In addition, the movement has coopted Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and traditionally non-Zionist communities, desperate for room for their large families. In so doing, the settlers have jettisoned the slowest-growing sector of Israeli society, secular Jews, and conjoined the two fastest to their project. The West Bank settler population, again excluding occupied East Jerusalem, has tripled from 105,000 on the eve of the Oslo agreement in 1992 to over 300,000 today.

The population expansion has given the settler movement an ever more religious hue. Ma’ale Ephraim, a settlement on the cliffs above the Jordan Valley whose secular population largely wants out, has opened a hesder yeshiva, a school combining religious study and army training. And in the valley below a national-religious community has entirely taken over Yitav, a once secular settlement. The caravan sites littering the West Bank are also markers of growing national-religious strength in the settlement enterprise and the readiness of the national-religious to put ideology before comfort. In the vicinity of Nokdim near Bethlehem, for example, 30 couples have pitched mobile homes on the hilltop, the latest influx turning a community that once had equal numbers of secular and pious families into a predominantly religious settlement. The Gush Etzion bloc of which Nokdim is a part has no secular school. Like others, it teaches that the Bible, as a local teacher puts it, is a God-given land registry.

Prompted by cheap housing and subsidized mortgages, ultra-Orthodox population growth is even starker, particularly in the overspills near Jerusalem. Beitar Illit, overlooking Bethlehem, has grown from scrub brush to a town of 40,000 in little over a decade. Erected on hilltops west of Jerusalem in 1996, Modi’in Illit is already the largest settlement and is projected to grow to 150,000 people by 2020. Even so, building fails to keep pace with demand, leading families to move ever deeper into the West Bank. The influx has replaced ultra-Orthodoxy’s traditional detachment from the Arab-Israeli conflict with attachment to the land that is now home. Ultra-Orthodox notables are as vocal as the national-religious in protesting any freeze on construction. Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai, leader of the Shas Party, has called for rebuilding the four far-flung West Bank settlements from which Israel decamped in 2005.

The demographic weight of pious Jews has increased inside Israel as well as in the settlements. Goaded to multiply by their rabbis, the religious marry younger and have more children than their secular counterparts, fostering three generations in the time that secular Israelis raise two. “Normally one must not delay marriage beyond the age of 20,” advises Yaakov Yosef, head of the Hazon Yaakov yeshiva and son of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. From 2007 polling data, the Israel Democracy Institute estimates that 8 percent of Israel’s Jewish population aged over 50 and 32 percent of the population aged between 18 and 30 are either ultra-Orthodox or national-religious. By contrast, says the Institute, totally secular Jewish Israelis have declined from 23 percent to 17 percent of the population in a decade.

Numbering about 1.5 million, the religious Jews in Israel proper provide a rear base of moral, electoral and logistical support for the vanguard in the settlements. “We have more followers in the army inside the Green Line than in the West Bank,” says Yisrael Ariel, assistant to Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, whose militant sermons attract both an ultra-Orthodox and a national-religious audience. “They help us obtain weapons.”

Secular Jews seek to dam the religious tide washing over their neighborhoods, their children’s schools and even their roads, in the middle of which the pious stroll on the Sabbath to obstruct traffic. “Taliban!” chimed the secular press after the Jerusalem municipality ordered dancers unveiling a new bridge to cover their leotards with cloaks. Amid the influx, secular Jerusalemites have left for the coastal plains in the tens of thousands, leaving the ultra-Orthodox — after a century of Zionist settlement — as again the city’s largest community, and together with the national-religious, the power brokers in occupied East, as well as West, Jerusalem.

Even in the coastal plains, however, the proportion of the pious is growing. Some national-religious Jews have left their outposts behind “to settle in Israeli hearts,” a process hurried by the 2005 removal of ideological settlers from Gaza upon the orders of ex-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as well as the phenomenon of population growth outpacing construction. Fired up by the motto, “Never again,” the national-religious establish cells — in Hebrew, garinim — in secular Jewish towns, as well as the towns of Palestinian citizens, opening hesder yeshivas and synagogues and promoting religious Jewish supremacy. While Israel’s secular universities are amalgamating departments due to a shortage of students, the hesder yeshivas are expanding exponentially.

Political Inroads

Pampered by the state since 1967 to cement Israel’s hold on the West Bank, the settlers have an institutional clout that far surpasses their numerical strength. They are entrenched in government bureaucracy, the legal and educational systems, and, above all, the armed forces, a traditional path of upward mobility and the backbone of Israeli society. Where the army once recruited its crack troops from the secular kibbutzim of Israel’s founding fathers, today their elite corps comes from national-religious ranks. To attract the national-religious and boost enlistment rates that first began to erode after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the army has opened scores of hesder yeshivas, where school-leavers mix military drills with study of the rules of holy war. Recruitment statistics are classified, but Yigal Levy, a military analyst at Israel’s Open University, estimates that 40 percent of the personnel in combat units and the corps of junior army officers are religious. “There’s a revolution in the ranks,” says an army intelligence officer. “Twelve percent of the population is now dominating the army command. Within a decade, they will lead the Central Command.”

The settlers’ impact on army strategy and conduct is subject to debate. During the 2008-2009 Gaza war, military rabbis delivered pre-battle addresses and accompanied the troops into the field, offering advice, for instance, on whether paramedics should treat Palestinian wounded. “It was common to see rabbis on the battlefield,” says a combat soldier who fought in Gaza. “The rabbis prepared us for a biblical struggle, and portrayed the fighting not as a battle to stop the Qassams, but a sanctification of the Holy Name. No one said it directly, but they wanted us to go back to reverse Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza.” Off the battlefield, too, rabbis boosted nationalist morale. “The campaign is a war against Amalek,” Shmuel Eliyahu, Safed’s chief rabbi and son of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Mordechai Eliyahu, told a gathering of religious youth.

In the West Bank, too, the national-religious claim that they are influencing the army’s mission. Amid threats by Defense Minister Barak to remove some of the outposts, a council of settler rabbis, led by Kiryat Arba’s chief rabbi, Dov Lior, ruled that settlers should disobey orders. An army chaplain echoed his call, warning that certain military orders are illegal if they violate religious law. During Sharon’s Gaza disengagement, the army command abandoned plans to use combat units — where religious soldiers are most prominent — for the task of removing settlers and stationed them instead on the outermost cordon around Gaza. Anxious about division within the ranks, Army Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has repeatedly sought to shift the burden of outpost clearance onto the police. Although in Gaza, the ranks remained remarkably orderly, army commanders have preferred not to test their troops’ loyalty in the far larger and more unruly West Bank settlements. “Their commitment to the Israel Defense Forces versus their commitment to a particular rabbi can be a big dilemma for soldiers and officers,” says a reserve general who advises the Defense Ministry on outposts. “There are some rabbis who are very influential.” Should Barak give the order to move against outposts, wrote Israel Harel, a former Yesha Council leader, in the daily Ha’aretz, “he may bring about the collapse of the army and the police.”

On the ground, too, soldiers have often intervened in support of armed settlers, perhaps because unlike soldiers from other localities, settlers often serve in their local units. “The army helped us build the synagogue, and fired their guns to chase off the stone throwers,” said a national-religious student after settlers from Bat Ayin near Bethlehem staked out a neighboring hill by building a house of worship. Eighteen Palestinians were injured. East of Bethlehem, soldiers confiscated tools from workers building a USAID-funded park after settlers laid claim to an adjacent former army base. “If you control the army, you control the country,” says the rabbi of a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City Muslim Quarter.

After failing to stymie the Gaza disengagement and being drubbed in the 2006 polls, religious and pro-settler politicians regained their mandate in the 2009 elections. Of the 75 parliamentarians in the ruling coalition, 27 are religious; collectively, they exercise a veto. While other parties turn their backs, Netanyahu astutely courts the vote of these fast-growing constituencies, making pre-election deals with Shas, the largest ultra-Orthodox party, including United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party, in his coalition and promoting national-religious figures in his party’s ranks. Under Sharon, only one Likud parliamentarian was national-religious; under Netanyahu, six are — almost as many as in the national-religious parties themselves. Party activists estimate up to a third of the Likud’s 3,000-strong central committee has national-religious affiliations. In his June 14 keynote address at Israel’s national-religious university, Bar Ilan, the Israeli premier honored settlers as “an integral part of our people, a principled, pioneering and Zionist public.” Given Israel’s coalition horse trading, politicians from other mainstream secular parties often opt for silence rather than antagonize this powerful bloc.

The policy has yielded dividends: Likud’s share of the vote in national-religious settlements increased from 12 percent in 2006 to 23 percent in 2009. But it has also imposed constraints. Netanyahu’s proposal for a partial settlement freeze had minority backing not just in his coalition, but also in his party, and threatened to stir up sufficient internal opposition to unseat him. The threat would not be empty should the settlement freeze idea again rear its head: His last term as prime minister ended in 1999, when the settler lobby in the Knesset abandoned him in the wake of the Wye River agreement and the partial pullout of the army from the West Bank town of Hebron. He has since repeatedly had to ward off challengers who sense an opportunity for the religious right to seize control of their first mainstream party. In Likud’s 2007 primaries, Moshe Feiglin, a national-religious settler, won 23 percent of the vote. A year later, he mustered the largest caucus inside the party.

The religious right has also made significant inroads into the bureaucracy. National-religious employees staff most of the Civil Administration, the military body governing the parts of the West Bank under direct Israeli control, and whose responsibilities include approval of settlement construction and reassignment of state land for settler use. In the judiciary, ultra-Orthodox judges apply religious law (halakha) in matters of personal status. In other courts, where halakha is only one source of law, religious factions have campaigned against the overly secular bent. In 2009, after the intervention of the national-religious Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, the Supreme Court appointed three new judges, two of them Orthodox.

Law of God, Law of Survival

The one impenetrable bastion of governance is the peace process. Viewed through the eyes of the religious right, negotiations have served as a platform for their secular detractors to bolster their own international legitimacy, wage a campaign to demonize religious factions domestically and internationally, and target their ideology and assets. The settlers withdrawn from Gaza, for example, were dumped in bleak, out-of-the-way caravan parks. External mediators have done little to make the peace process more inclusive. Geneva Initiative meetings funded by Western embassies are devoid of religious participants. In short, peace process dynamics have pitted religious against secular factions, stoking a counter-process in which religious groups act with considerable success as spoilers. Each fresh attempt at outside mediation accentuates Israel’s religious-secular divide.

The latest US attempt at intervention indicates which side has the upper hand. Statist religious politicians advocating continued Jewish rule of the Occupied Territories remain relaxed, convinced that time’s pendulum has swung in their favor. “Israel’s secular leaders need an agreement now, because they know that in another three decades ultra-Orthodox and national-religious Jews will be a majority,” says Israel Zeira, a national-religious contractor who is building housing complexes on both sides of the Green Line. “The demographic threat to dividing the land is not just Arab; it’s Jewish.”

But in the wake of the Gaza disengagement, some religious groups despair of gradualism, and have adopted a more radical approach. No more ready to surrender their manicured luxury assets in the West Bank than the founding elites are to vacate their kibbutzim inside Israel, a minority are preparing to resist removal by all means — fair and foul. Some who once invested the Israeli state with redemptive powers now view it as sunk in corruption for withdrawing from biblical land. Fearful of again relying on an Israeli government that might discard them, they have bolstered autonomous coping mechanisms. Today, settlements have their own paramilitary groups, kitot konnenut, operating under a settlement security officer with largely nominal army control, and maintain their own arsenals. “I have to defend myself against Jew or Arab,” says the leader of Kfar Tapuach, a national-religious settlement. “If someone is coming to attack your home, you kill him. The only law here is the law of survival.”

Rabbis also run their own schools, media outlets and paralegal courts, applying a higher Holy Writ, which for their communities supercedes state law. Some rulings concern daily life, others national affairs. “We must cleanse the country of Arabs and resettle them where they came from, if necessary by paying. Unless we do, we will never enjoy peace in our land,” opined Dov Lior, the West Bank’s leading rabbi. “More and more of [the settlers] do not accept the authority of the Israeli government as supreme,” says a former Civil Administration head, who claims that, during his tenure, they tried to bribe his employees and intimidate him and his family, all for the higher cause of taking land. “Who is Barak to issue an order that contradicts the Law of God?”

As some settlers withdraw from the state, they move ever closer to the traditional ultra-Orthodox stance of efforts to keep the state at arm’s length. For their part, the ultra-Orthodox have moved closer to the national-religious positions on Palestinians. Pollsters report that ultra-Orthodox Jews are the most anti-peace process constituency in Israel. In an April 2008 survey, a two-state settlement attracted 82 percent support among secular Jewish Israelis, and only 36 percent support among the ultra-Orthodox. Twenty-eight percent of ultra-Orthodox Israelis supported negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, compared to 69 percent of secular Jews. “The ultra-Orthodox have undergone a transition from being anti- to ultra-nationalists, embracing several pillars of secular Zionism, such as ownership of Jewish territory, though they hate to admit it,” says the poll’s coordinator, Tamar Hermann. The headlines on the front page of the Jerusalem Post on July 21, 2009 depict an alliance of agendas. “Settlers Burn Trees, Block Roads to Protest Demolitions,” reads one headline, and below it: “[Chief Rabbi] Amar: US Policy on Settlements Contravenes a Torah Obligation.” A firebrand ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Shlomo Dov Wolpo, warns of a religious civil war in the event that the government concedes to renewed US pressure on settlements: “There will be a war of Jew against Jew — as in the Amona pogrom. It won’t be like Gush Katif [in Gaza] where Jews couldn’t defend their communities. Our children will risk their lives and give their last blood.”

It remains unclear how long this alliance between the ultra-Orthodox and the national-religious would hold should Israel’s leadership muster the will to embark on another strategic withdrawal. While uneasy, ultra-Orthodox rabbis kept silent during the Gaza campaign. “They were bought with more yeshivas,” says a yeshiva lecturer in Immanuel, an ultra-Orthodox settlement deep in the West Bank.

But Gaza had no ultra-Orthodox population. In the West Bank, where they constitute the largest single settler group, some ultra-Orthodox sects — including strains of the Bratzlav and Lubavitch Chasidic groups — have played a prominent role in militant ranks. Some have joined the national-religious who enforce the “price tag policy” — whereby every state move constraining settler activity is answered with a settler attack upon the soft-target Palestinians. After the December 2008 eviction of settlers from a Hebron house, ultra-Orthodox students joined protesters stoning Palestinians and torching mosques across the West Bank. During the Gaza disengagement, the authorities detained ultra-Orthodox students plotting to fire rockets at the Dome of the Rock.

Precedent sends mixed signals. For 30 years, the state has won each battle for withdrawal, from Sinai to Gaza. But in 1995 bullets fired by a law student from Bar Ilan killed Yitzhak Rabin, helping to derail the Oslo process. Subsequently, a host of senior commanders and politicians advocating withdrawal have faced death threats, sanctioned by rabbis who claim that anyone abandoning “Jewish land” is a traitor. Chief of Staff Ashkenazi’s home has been vandalized, and cameras hidden in another senior commander’s home. In 2008, a rabbi at New York’s Yeshiva University advised his students visiting a Jerusalem Old City military college to shoot the Israeli prime minister who negotiates a withdrawal from Jerusalem. (After a recording appeared on the Internet, the rabbi apologized.) Violence is increasingly commonplace. The day the New York Times published an article headlined, “Settlers Will Resist, but Not Fight” and datelined Havat Gilad outpost, the “hilltop youth” of the encampment threw Molotov cocktails and stones at Israeli soldiers, disabled their military vehicles and set fire to Palestinian fields. “Political leaders willing to make concessions risk the threat of assassination,” says a former head of the General Security Service, Israel’s internal intelligence agency.

Shifting the Onus

Flexing its muscles within the government and without, the religious right has grown more assured in its capabilities. Despite the rare external congruence of a seemingly determined Obama administration, a supportive Palestinian Authority and Arab League, and a relatively quiet Hamas, external mediation failed to garner a settlement freeze, let alone an end to occupation.

The alternative of engaging the current spoilers is not attractive. Few groups, if any, have done so much to disrupt the political process, or so blatantly flout the will of the international community. There is no guarantee that engagement would not simply empower the settler movement further, providing them legitimacy with nothing in return.

But a policy that rolls back the military occupation first and settlements last may yet have more mileage than the current pursuit of the reverse. Palestinian negotiators have repeatedly stated their readiness to harbor and protect Jews who choose to remain under their rule. “If they want to live in the Palestinian state, they are welcome, but on the condition that we will have an independent Palestinian state whose capital is Jerusalem,” said Ahmad Qurei, then chief negotiator for President Mahmoud Abbas, in a 2008 interview. Come the time when the sides agree upon demarcation of borders, the onus will be on the settlers to decide whether they value the state over the land, or prefer to live under Palestinian rather than Israeli authority.

The majority would likely head west, tempted by financial incentives as well as the security of the familiar. The more militant settlers may fight to remain in their own separatist enclave. “If the army leaves, we’ll establish a kingdom,” says a rabbi in Nahliel, an ultra-Orthodox settlement near Ramallah. But others have considered acclimating to a state of Palestine. “Jews were here before Israel, and will be here after it. Zionism is disintegrating; Judaism is growing,” says the rabbi’s assistant, who recalls the equilibrium Jews and Muslims enjoyed in more harmonious times. “We’ve lived under the Turks and the British. Why not under the Arabs?” asks a resident of Bat Ayin, another hardline and mainly ultra-Orthodox settlement. During the period of negotiations, those seeking to stay would have an interest in exploring the prospect of better relations with their neighbors and the Palestinian Authority, perhaps to expedite building permits that are currently bound up in Israeli red tape. Already there are issues where settlers and Palestinians might make common cause, for instance, in easing the traffic jams at army checkpoints. Post-statehood, settlers could serve a Palestinian state as guarantors, or at least advocates, of access and movement across borders for family ties, trade and internal tourism, be it to holy sites or the beach. In the words of a stallholder in the market of Nablus, “The principal problem is not the religious Jews who wish to pray at [Nablus’] Joseph’s Tomb. It’s the oppression of military rule.”

Should the parties miraculously achieve the reverse — an effective settlement freeze that jump-starts a successful political process — the outcome of two states living side by side in peace and security might well remain a miasma. Should Israel’s army defy the spoilers and succeed in ousting hordes of settlers, secular-religious tension could again flare, but more intensely, inside Israel’s shrunken borders. As an advance guard of national-religious Jews did in Acre on Yom Kippur in 2008, ex-settlers seething with the desire for vengeance might target Israel’s Palestinian citizens, sparking violence that spirals into actual steps to “expel the Arab enemy,” to quote a placard ubiquitous at right-wing demonstrations. There might be two states, but they would likely be of the strict ethnic-sectarian strain, nursing grievances and goals of battling another day.

Nicolas Pelham has worked in Jerusalem for the past four years for International Crisis Group, which published the report Israel’s Religious Right and the Question of Settlements in July 2009.

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