No, Settlers Don’t Control Israeli Politics

An Israeli family in the Jewish settlement Amona in the West Bank this month. Credit Amir Cohen/Reuters
An Israeli family in the Jewish settlement Amona in the West Bank this month. Credit Amir Cohen/Reuters

A government that is repeatedly described, with only partial justification, as Israel’s “most right wing ever” is about to evacuate a Jewish settlement in the West Bank named Amona.

The settlers there have pushed back as hard as they can, screaming from rooftops, threatening the government and deriding Israel’s High Court, which ordered the evacuation on the grounds that some of the houses there were illegally built on privately owned land. But ultimately they will have to leave. The government — even if reluctantly — abides by the law and will follow the court’s ruling. The deadline for the evacuation is Dec. 25.

In today’s political conversation both inside Israel and outside, it’s now a cliché that the settler movement has an undue influence over the Israeli government. But the Amona evacuation is evidence, once again, that this common knowledge is wrong.

This is not the first time Amona, an outpost of about 40 families, has become a major point of contention for Israel. The government evacuated houses in the settlement once before, in 2006. There were violent clashes between the settlers and the Israeli police, but the evacuation ended as the government had planned. That event, not long after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon evacuated 25 settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, shook the country and deepened the rift between the settler movement and the rest of Israel.

Since then, Amona has been a symbol of sorts. The settlers learned a lesson and also taught one to the government: Evacuating settlements can quickly turn ugly.

That’s only one reason the current Israeli government is less than enthusiastic about having to evacuate Amona. In addition to fears of clashes with the settlers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will have to act against its own constituency, a plurality of which would like the evacuation avoided.

And yet the government has little choice. Attempts to circumvent the court’s orders legislatively, by introducing a law to make the settlements legal by forcing the owners of the land to accept compensation, have failed. Mr. Netanyahu now finds himself in a situation like that of right-wing prime ministers before him: Ariel Sharon, one of the fathers of the settlement movement, evacuated settlers from Gaza. Ehud Olmert, a longtime Likud Party minister, clashed with the settlers of Amona in 2006. It is now Mr. Netanyahu’s turn to make clear that the dog wags the tail — the Israeli government evacuates settlers when it needs to do so.

The idea that the settlers are the true movers and shakers of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories is convenient for both Israel’s detractors and defenders. For critics, it is proof that Israel does not truly seek peace and that it is hardly a country of law and order. It is proof that militias of armed citizens, their politically active lobbyists and the public behind them control Israel’s actions, and hence that any attempt to negotiate with the democratically elected government of Israel is futile.

For Israel’s defenders, it is also convenient to make the settlers the scapegoat for all of Israel’s supposed sins. It is not us — it is them. The bad people, the occupiers, are the unruly, armed, bearded zealots, settlers whom we cannot control. Israel, in this telling, wants peace, but its quirky political system gives too much power to small ideological groups and so the country cannot overcome settlers’ obstructionism.

But there is ample evidence in Israel’s political history that the settlers do not have veto power over government policy. They failed to prevent Menachem Begin’s government from withdrawing from the Sinai Peninsula in the early 1980s. They failed to prevent Yitzhak Rabin’s government from signing the Oslo accord in 1993. They failed to prevent the Sharon government from pulling out close to 15,000 settlers and their allies from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. And they will fail to prevent the evacuation of Amona in the coming weeks.

All this does not mean that the settlers have no influence on Israel’s policies. They do. They have the backing of many Israelis, and of many politicians. They have influential lobbyists. They are more dedicated to their ideology than most other Israelis, and they are willing to invest their energy and time in advancing their goals. They should be admired, not denigrated, for these qualities. They are exemplary citizens — involved, patriotic, highly engaged and serious.

The policies they preach are the problem. Most Israelis — at least for now — do not want Israel to annex the West Bank and become a binational state. Most Israelis — at least for now — want Israel to remain a country of laws. The settlers’ attempt to blur the line between Israel and the Palestinians doesn’t sit well with Israelis’ desire for separation from the Palestinians.

But the settlers are a small minority: barely a quarter of a million in a country of eight million. Their staunch supporters have power in the Parliament, but it is hardly unlimited.

When Amona is evacuated, it will be useful to be reminded that whenever the power of settlers was tested against a firm government, they were on the losing end. They don’t deserve the blame for Israel’s actions or its inaction. They are just one of many groups shaping Israeli policy toward the Palestinians — but hardly the main driver of meaningful political decisions.

Shmuel Rosner is the political editor at The Jewish Journal, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a contributing opinion writer.

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