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Israel’s Religious Right and the Question of Settlements – International Crisis Group Report

Friday, August 14th, 2009

The Obama Administration’s apparent willingness to get serious about halting Israel’s settlement expansion has caused a fracas in the Jewish state.  It prompted Likud’s Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled to tip toe into the delusion that the basis of the US-Israeli relationship is one of equality.  He wrote to government colleagues saying that Israel should retaliate against Obama’s hostile acts by imposing sanctions on the U.S., explaining that Israel could purchase military hardware elsewhere,  sell sensitive equipment which the U.S. quarantined, and play off  other countries against the U.S.  Identifying those countries could be problematic; it is the U.S., on behalf of Israel, which stymies the implementation of the  international consensus on an equitable resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict.  Peled’s most provocative recommendation was for Israel to intervene directly in U.S. congressional races to weaken Obama and to support candidates more closely aligned with Israel.  The Jerusalem Post labeled Peled as part of the Likud’s “left flank.  An Israeli diplomat’s reward for warning that his country’s obduracy toward the settlements was causing strategic harm with the U.S. was to be labeled “unprofessional” and ordered back home.

Many in Israel now worry that  radicalized settlers are turning against the Israeli state. A number of extremists have declared they will continue building settlements whatever the Israeli government says or does; others threaten violence against Israeli authorities and even Obama himself.

The International Crisis Group’s timely publication of Israel’s Religious Right and the Question of Settlements offers a concise but in-depth look at the settler movement.  What distinguishes the present-day settlers from their predecessors is the eclipse of secular leadership by extreme religious nationalists.  Eighty percent of the 70,000 settlers residing east of the West Bank “separation wall” are either religious nationalist or the ultra-orthodox followers.  They view complete Jewish possession and settlement of the land as the means to achieve Jewish redemption and to expedite the coming of the Messiah.  Many younger settlers view the government  as an obstacle, and no longer a partner, in their messianic mission.  A sense of hostility against central authority is shared among this new generation of radical settlers.  Armed, so called “hilltop youth,”  have created religious communities separate and distinct from the older and traditional settler community. They establish outposts on Palestinian land intended to impede government withdraw commitments and halt Palestinian urban expansion.  ICC quotes one former military official complaining about the “futility” of negotiating with the Yesha – the settler’s traditional leadership organization: “They are not the people who decide. It’s the crazy youth, where there’s a real extremist trend.”  When the government tears down unauthorized settlement outposts, this new generation of settlers retaliate by attacking nearby Palestinian persons and property in the hope of triggering a larger conflict.  Israel’s internal security chief warns that “the faith-based community” has adopted an attitude of  “through war, we will win” and may take up “live weapons” to halt the diplomatic process.  Their targets would not be limited to Palestinian Arabs.

While the religious right represents a small minority within Israel,  its influence far exceeds its size. They hold a fifth of Knesset seats, representing about forty percent of the current ruling coalition. Ultra-orthodox politicians – who once eschewed secular politics – now hold posts in the Netanyahu government overseeing settlement development.  Adherents to the religious right are filling the ranks of armed forces, representing perhaps as much as half of the soldiers in officer training colleges.  As one solder told the ICC:  “there’s a revolution in the ranks: 12 per cent of the population is now dominating the lower army command.  In ten years, senior commanders will be largely national-religious as well.”  That many of these soldiers reside in West Bank settlements complicates terribly any government attempt to remove the settlements.  Israeli officers concede that some of these soldier act as the “eyes and ears within the security apparatus,” providing settlers with advance warning of impending military action against them.

The ICC points out that the Israeli government rarely acts against growing Jewish religious militancy in the West Bank. This is largely due to the government’s long history of promoting settlement expansion for religious and security related grounds. Even with President Shimon Peres and Olmert warning that the religious radicals could spark a civil war in Israel, the government – Labor and Likud – persistently has provided ample financial support to the settlements.  The military continues to provide protection to settlers despite the “pogrom” (Prime Minister Olmert’s description) against Palestinians.  A significant portion of secular Israelis sympathize with the settlers; a  majority of Israelis oppose Obama’s call for a complete settlement freeze.

The  White House will have to exert firm pressure on Tel Aviv to compel a halt – if not evacuation – of the settlements.  Success also will require an honest commitment by the Israeli government to stop the settlements and the ICC offers meaningful steps that should be taken.  But with religious right solders expected in the next few years to make up the majority of Israel’s brigade commanders, controlling everything from F-16 fighter jets to submarines (and who will control the nuclear weapons?), Washington may soon have to rethink completely the U.S.-Israel relationship.

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