Israel’s Religious Right and the Question of Settlements
20 July 2009
Benjamin Netanyahu is in a bind. Israel is facing arguably unprecedented pressure to halt all settlement activity, led by a new and surprisingly determined U.S. administration. But the prime minister also heads a distinctly right-wing coalition and faces intense domestic pressure from settlers and their allies. However important, what will emerge from current discussions between Washington and Jerusalem will only be step one in a long process designed to achieve a settlement freeze, settlement evacuation and a genuine peace agreement with the Palestinians. Understanding how Israel might deal with these challenges requires understanding a key yet often ignored constituency – its growing and increasingly powerful religious right.
The effort to settle in the occupied territories once was led by secular Zionists. No more. Today, the settlement issue is being quickly transformed by the shifting dynamics of the religious right. Tens of thousands of national-religious Jews populate the settlements; they enjoy political, logistical and other forms of support from hundreds of thousands inside Israel proper. In addition, an equal if not larger number of ultra-orthodox who initially shared little of the national-religious outlook, gradually have been gravitating toward their view; many among them are now settlers. Together, the national-religious and ultra-orthodox carry weight far in excess of their numbers. They occupy key positions in the military, the government and the education and legal sectors, as well as various layers of the bureaucracy. They help shape decision-making and provide a support base for religious militants, thereby strengthening the struggle against future territorial withdrawals from both within and without state institutions.
The religious right believes it has time on its side. Its two principal camps – the national-religious and ultra-orthodox – boast the country’s highest birth rates. They have doubled their population in West Bank settlements in a decade. They are rising up military ranks. Their political parties traditionally play important roles within ruling government coalitions. Many – in the leadership and among the grassroots – are preparing the ground for the next battle over settlements and territorial withdrawal, animated by a deeply rooted conviction in the rightness of their cause. Treating every confrontation – however insignificant the apparent stake – as a test of wills, religious militants have responded to the demolition of plyboard huts with revenge strikes on Palestinians, stoning their cars, burning their crops, cutting their trees and occasionally opening fire. Mainstream religious leaders for the most part appear powerless to condemn, let alone tamp down the violence.
In the run-up to the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, some analysts and even a few decision-makers predicted violent clashes and hard fought evacuations. They were mistaken. Disengagement proceeded remarkably peacefully and smoothly. But it would be wrong to veer to the other extreme and assume that what happened in Gaza will be replicated in the West Bank. There are differences in numbers, background and militancy of the respective settler populations. Plus, Gaza taught lessons to all sides, the government but also the militants. Since then, the latter have been preparing for the next round. They are banking on their support within state institutions to discourage the government from taking action and on their own rank and file to ensure that every attempt to evict an outpost or destroy a structure comes at a heavy price. For that reason, some security officials worry that unrest could spread, with violence not only between Israeli Jews and Palestinians but also among Jews; they also fear discord in military ranks that could complicate action.
Some steps are long overdue. Having long given succour to the settlement enterprise, the state needs to rein it in; while it at times has acted against the excesses of individual religious militants, it too often has shown excessive lenience toward anti-Palestinian violence or hateful incitement, especially with a religious content. Rabbis who call on soldiers to defy army orders to remove settlements or who justify violence in many cases continue to receive state salaries; religious colleges with a record of militancy continue to operate without oversight or regulation; inflammatory material finds its way on to army bases. All this should stop. Judicial and law enforcement agencies need to investigate and prosecute cases of anti-Palestinian violence and hate crimes. The army should show the same determination in protecting non-Jewish as it does Jewish civilians in the West Bank.
But Israel’s religious right has deep roots, and even its most militant expression cannot be dealt with exclusively through confrontation, however effective U.S. pressure might be. Along with necessary firmness, there are other ways to defuse the problem:
* The government could help pass an early evacuation compensation law, providing for advantageous financial terms to those settlers who agree to move, thereby isolating their more hardline members.
* Unlike what happened with the Gaza disengagement, the government could start early planning for settler relocation by building alternative homes inside Israel proper.
* While some settlers will be determined no matter what to remain on what they consider their Biblical land, here, too, ideas are worth exploring. In negotiations with Palestinians, Israel could examine whether and how settlers choosing to remain might live under Palestinian rule.
* Israel’s religious parties should be made to feel part of the diplomatic process, rather than as its mere spectators or even its targets; in this spirit, third parties such as the U.S. should be reaching out to them.
The current mix of neither strict law enforcement nor effective outreach is a recipe for greater difficulties ahead. To ignore the reality and weight of Israel’s religious right would hamper an already uncertain path to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and, should an agreement be reached, toward a lasting and sustainable peace.
Jerusalem/Brussels, 20 July 2009