Editor's notes: The settlers’ foreign minister

As mayor of Efrat in Gush Etzion, Revivi is used to getting phone calls from his residents. This one though came from a Palestinian.

August 26, 2016 00:34
Oded Revivi

ODED REVIVI speaks to a group on a recent tour of Efrat.. (photo credit: FLASH90)

A few weeks ago, Oded Revivi received a phone call from a resident of a neighboring city. As mayor of Efrat in Gush Etzion, Revivi is used to getting phone calls from his residents. This one though came from a Palestinian.

It was the mayor of a nearby Palestinian village calling Revivi for help with a laundry list of problems he faced – from transportation issues to garbage collection. He even asked Revivi for help in overturning demolition orders the IDF had issued against some homes built illegally in his town.

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Revivi jotted down the list and passed it on to the civil administration, the military unit responsible for coordinating civilian matters between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He urged the officers to do everything they could to help.

“Coexistence is not a red or blue dot on a map like the army is used to seeing,” Revivi explained. “It is gray. Really gray.”

I met Revivi this week since he was recently appointed as the “chief foreign envoy for the Yesha Council,” or what can more simply be referred to as the settlers’ foreign minister.

Revivi replaced Danny Dayan, a veteran leader of the council, who earlier this month took up his new post as Israel’s consul-general in New York. Revivi will serve as the chief envoy alongside his day job as Efrat’s mayor, a position he has held since 2008.

Revivi’s task is daunting. On the one hand, diplomatic pressure on Israel is mounting. The French are pushing their new peace initiative, and hovering above is the fear within the right-wing camp that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will freeze settlement construction to stave off a US-led UN Security Council resolution in President Barack Obama’s last days in office.

To complicate everything further, next June Israel will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, which also marks the liberation of Jerusalem and the conquering of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. While the Yesha Council will celebrate this milestone, the world will not. It will instead mark 50 years of Israeli occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. One of Revivi’s jobs will be to try and shift that narrative.

He seems to have been bred for the task. Born in 1969 in Ramat Gan, Revivi got his first taste of the bigger world at the age of 18 months, when his parents left Israel for Englewood, New Jersey, where his father served as a Jewish Agency emissary. After three years the Revivis returned to Israel, this time to Jerusalem. A few years later his parents again decided to move abroad. Now it was London. Revivi, nine-years-old, had difficulty adapting to the strict British attire – the mandatory tie, jacket and school cap were a bit too much for the free-spirited Israeli youth. But while the British stiffness might not have stayed with Revivi, the diplomatic flair, as well as a slight British accent, did remain.

A few years after returning to Israel, Revivi was sent by the Foreign Ministry to the US as part of a delegation of high school students. He traveled the country, speaking in public schools in places like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Cleveland, and Revivi was struck by the students’ ignorance and lack of knowledge about Israel and the challenges it faced.

“They asked me how many camels my father had, and if the Levis jeans and Converse shoes I was wearing were bought in Israel or in the US and shipped to Israel before the trip,” he recalled.

Revivi, who went on to serve as a battalion commander in the IDF and obtain a law degree in London, believes that the same ignorance exists today when it comes to the settlements, their legality, and the role they play – or don’t – in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While the world largely believes that settlements are a violation of international law, Revivi says they are legally justified; while the world views settlements as the main obstacle to peace, Revivi reminds people that war with Israel started way before the first settlement was ever built; while the world looks at the occupation as the cause for Palestinian terrorism, Revivi says that his constituents are actually catalysts for peace and coexistence; and while BDS might be concerning, Revivi does not believe it is the result of the existence of settlements. Boycotts have been in place against Israel since it was founded in 1948, he says, and will unfortunately continue with or without the West Bank.

To get out his message, Revivi meets with dozens of delegations and diplomats visiting Israel. In March, for example, he met 30 groups, including students from Harvard and Georgetown and professors from Cambridge.

“My objective is to show them the reality, the way we live, why we are here, and why the situation is so complex,” he told me. “I try to confuse them with the facts.”

But do the facts even matter, I asked, when you are going up against the US State Department and the European Union which are consistently critical of the settlements? Can the facts, no matter how right they might be, move the needle even just a bit?

Revivi concedes that it will be an uphill battle, but he is willing to invest the time, one group and one fact after another.

“It is a myth that settlements are the obstacle and that this is a conflict zone,” he says of the West Bank. “The shopping malls we have here, the roads we all drive on, that is coexistence.”

According to Revivi, the status of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank – or Judea and Samaria as he calls it – is incomparable to anywhere else in the world. Egypt, he explained, controlled Gaza before the 1967 war, and then forfeited it after. Jordan did the same with the West Bank.

“It all became unwanted land,” he said. “This has no resemblance anywhere else in the world.”

So, I asked Revivi, what is your solution? The Efrat mayor laughed.

“I always get asked that question,” he said. “Sometimes it gets asked right away and sometimes later on, but it is always asked.”

His answer though was like the way he described coexistence – gray. A one-state solution, he explained, would be problematic for Israel since it would put the country in a position of having to give citizenship to West Bank Palestinians. Due to the demographic ramifications, Revivi said he would need to know more before embracing such a plan.

The two-state solution, he says, is more problematic. First, there is the lack of viability for a Palestinian state, at least from a financial perspective. Second, there is no assurance that the Arabs in the Galilee won’t then ask for their own state. And third, there are the grave security risks a Palestinian state would pose to Israel.

But while the classic solutions might not be viable, Revivi says a lot can be done on the ground to promote peace and coexistence.

“We can build bridges today that will make life easier,” he said, pointing to the recent phone call with his Palestinian mayor-neighbor as an example of how “joint interests can build our relationships.”

But what about the Jewish community in the US, I asked? BDS is gaining strength, and progressive Jews are moving away from Israel. How can he make the settlement movement appealing to those Jews who should be Israel’s natural allies but aren’t?

As an observant Jew and the mayor of a religious settlement, he surprised me with his answer: Israel, he said, is not losing Jews because of the settlements, but rather because of the way the country is treating Jews around the world.

“Religion and state issues need to be solved,” said Revivi, referring, for example, to the ongoing controversy surrounding the construction of a pluralistic prayer platform at the Kotel. “The Jewish world is too small to cut out parts of it.”

Revivi recalled a recent visit to New York where he attended Friday night services – albeit before Shabbat actually began – at Bnai Jeshurun, a progressive, pluralistic synagogue on the Upper West Side. “Seven-hundred to 1,000 professionals are rushing there to experience Shabbat,” he said. “You can’t stay oblivious.”

Being a mayor of a West Bank settlement is a big enough task, but Revivi seems prepared for his new venture as the Yesha Council’s chief foreign envoy. In a few weeks he will make his first visit to Washington in his new role, and begin the campaign to change the narrative. He knows it won’t be easy, and so he will go slowly, one fact at a time.

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