The hilltop youth’s self-defeating zealotry

A new poll shows that extremist settlers are undermining support for their own cause.

Tag Mehir graffiti 370 (photo credit: Iyad Hadad, B'tselem)
Tag Mehir graffiti 370
(photo credit: Iyad Hadad, B'tselem)
Congratulations to the price-tag vandals and the more extreme settler rabbis: in their zeal to protect the settlements, they have undermined the very cause they claim to support.
A new poll by Ariel University, which examined how Israeli Jews inside the Green Line view the settlements, found that support for them has dropped significantly since last year’s poll, by almost every measure. The proportion of respondents that supported dismantling most or all settlements under an agreement with the Palestinians rose to 33 percent, from 22% in 2012 and 13% in 2011. The proportion that deemed settlements a waste of public funds rose from 24% last year to 39% this year. The proportion that deemed them an obstacle to peace rose from 22% to 31%. The proportion that considered them “true Zionism” fell from 64% to 52%. And the proportion that viewed them as Israel’s “safety belt” fell from 57% to 46%.
But the punch line was people’s response when asked what kept them from identifying with the settlers. The number-one factor was the “hilltop youth” – a term that to most Israelis is shorthand for extremists who engage in violence against Palestinians and/or Israeli soldiers (though in reality, of course, not all “hilltop youth” are extremists and not all extremists are “hilltop youth”). It was cited by 53%, up from 42% in 2012. The extremist views of settler rabbis, especially toward women, followed close behind, cited by 50% (up from 37% last year).
Granted, pollsters sometimes slant questions to get the results they want. But a poll commissioned for a conference on “Judea and Samaria studies” by the only Israeli university in the territories would almost certainly have preferred to find an increase in support for settlements rather than a decrease. And double-digit declines can’t be dismissed as mere statistical error.
Yet it would be simplistic to conclude from this that violence and extremism simply don’t pay. In some situations, they pay handsomely: for instance, threats of Arab violence have kept Jews from praying on the Temple Mount for 46 years now. And though there’s no hard evidence, it seems likely that the violence accompanying outpost demolitions in recent years truly has reduced the number of demolitions, while also spurring the state to promise compensatory settlement construction when court orders make demolitions unavoidable. Last year, for instance, the government promised to build alternative housing nearby if settlers peacefully evacuated two sizable outposts, Migron and Beit El’s Ulpana neighborhood. But it might well have refused to undertake this extra trouble and expense had it not badly wanted to avoid violent clashes.
Religious extremism also serves a purpose: By erecting walls between group members and outsiders, it strengthens the group’s internal cohesion and reduces attrition.
But these benefits come at a high price – especially for groups like the settlers, whose future ultimately depends on public opinion. After all, it’s the government that will decide whether to evacuate settlements, either unilaterally or as part of a peace deal, and whether to freeze construction there in the meantime. And while public opinion isn’t the only factor affecting government decisions, it is an important one; few governments will risk a decision that they know is deeply unpopular with the electorate. It’s very unlikely, for instance, that the Knesset would have approved the disengagement from Gaza had public opinion polls not consistently shown a roughly 60% majority in favor of the plan.
Moreover, because people are emotional rather than strictly rational beings, emotional revulsion often trumps rational considerations. There’s no logical reason, for instance, why price-tag violence and rabbinic extremism should reduce the number of respondents who view the settlements as Israel’s “safety belt”; the settlements’ security function isn’t dependent on the views or behavior of their residents. Yet the poll indicates that they did.
Violence and extremism are particularly self-defeating because there are strong arguments to be made for the settlements. And as the poll shows, most Israelis would be open to hearing them were it not for this behavior.
By way of example, I’ll stick to the easiest of these arguments: security. First, settlements protect the rest of Israel by serving as the front line. It’s no accident that rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel shot up hundreds of percent after the Gaza pullout; until then, most such attacks targeted the Gaza settlements, but post-disengagement, the Negev became the new southern front. And without the West Bank settlements, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem would be the eastern front.
Perhaps even more importantly, settlements anchor the army. Even advocates of unilateral withdrawal now say they favor evacuating West Bank settlements, but not the IDF, since the army is needed to prevent the area from becoming a rocket-launching pad like Gaza has. But without the settlements, the army wouldn’t stay. It’s no coincidence that Israel’s first unilateral withdrawal was from Lebanon, where there were no settlers, and the second from Gaza, where there were only about 8,000, while in the West Bank, with some 350,000, the IDF still operates freely. Israel is always under immense international pressure to withdraw, but redeploying soldiers is much easier than either evicting people from their homes or leaving them unprotected in the heart of Palestinian-controlled territory. Without that human brake, the army would soon quit the West Bank as well.
To many Israelis, however, an even more powerful argument is the area’s identity as the Jewish people’s religious and historical heartland. That’s why, despite the alarming decline, a majority of respondents still view the settlements as “true Zionism.”
Nevertheless, most Israelis don’t consider either vandalism or religious extremism to be “true Zionism.” Thus the more they associate such behavior with the settlements, the less they will view the settlements as a Zionist enterprise.
For this reason, the short-term gains achieved by the “hilltop youth” and extremist rabbis (like preventing house demolitions) pale beside the long-term cost. They are discrediting the entire settlement enterprise among mainstream Israelis at a time when international pressure to dismantle the settlements is intensifying. And given the important functions the settlements serve, they may thereby be imperiling not just their own cause, but all of Israel.