Peres’s historical dance with the settlers

There was little love lost between the settlement leadership and Peres in the last 23 years.

September 30, 2016 00:03
4 minute read.
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Shimon Peres greets a young Nahal Brigade soldier working in the field at a sett

THEN-PRIME MINISTER Shimon Peres greets a young Nahal Brigade soldier working in the field at a settlement in Gush Etzion in 1986.. (photo credit: HERMAN CHANANIA/GPO)

On a wintry day in 1976, well-known right-wing activist Daniella Weiss gave then-defense minister Shimon Peres a bouquet of flowers.

For most of their lives, they, and many of the settlers, would be bitter foes.

There was little love lost between the settlement leadership and Peres in the last 23 years. This was due to his role in the 1993 Oslo accords, which was intended to pave the way for the creation of a Palestinian state – precisely where they were trying to build a Jewish homeland.

But on that rainy day, he had come to the military camp of Kadum, in Samaria, after brokering a deal that allowed 30 families, including hers, to live there.

“It looked like a gypsy camp with rain and mud.

We said, ‘we’ll bring him to our school and we took a bouquet of flowers and gave it to him,” recalled Weiss.

At the time, she considered him an ally, in the Labor-led government, under prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Just two months earlier in December 1975 Peres had taken a famous helicopter ride to the site of the former Sebastia train station.

It was a tense moment.

The Gush Emunim settlers movement, or the “Bloc of the Faithful,” had illegally set up camp around the train station so that they could build a community there.

The ministers were under pressure to prevent a standoff between the army and the settlers.

In a Channel 2 interview with Peres aired on Wednesday night, he recalled his first meeting with the group led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, Hanan Porat and Weiss’s husband, Amnon.

“I came and they greeted me with joy and applause.

I said, ‘you have erred. I did not come to make you happy, I came to ask you to leave here,” recalled Peres.

He proposed a compromise to relocate them to the nearby Kadum military camp, which was initially met with despair. But it was followed by a meeting the next day in Peres’s office, in which a formal relocation plan was drawn up.

When they returned to Sebastia, Levinger announced he had just returned from a meeting with Peres who had “agreed to have the first Jewish settlement in Samaria,” she said.

His tone made them think they had something to celebrate and they placed him on their shoulders, in a historic moment that was captured by photographers at the scene, she recalled.

At the time, she said, every step forward seemed like a victory. For Weiss, and the settlement movement in general, that moment in Sebastia marked the turning point, in which it became clear that they were a powerful movement that could not be ignored.

In the past few weeks, the settler movement has recalled Peres, not for his role in Oslo, but for the assistance he rendered them during his time as defense minister from 1974 to 1977.

At a settler rally in Jerusalem earlier this week, residents of Ofra, who are fighting to save nine homes from demolition, spoke of Peres’s role in securing initial approvals for their settlement.

They recalled how he had even come there to plant a tree.

In the interview, Peres dismissed the significance of his actions, even as he acknowledged that as defense minister, he had a hand in the formation of some of the first West Bank communities.

In a number of interviews given in his later years, Peres said his support for the early settlements had to do with the security needs of the time and his desire to preserve a united Jerusalem.

“I initiated a number of settlements particularly around Jerusalem, to strengthen it. One of them was Ofra,” he told Channel 2.

In a 2012 interview for Al Jazeera with David Frost, he explained, “We were against 40 million Arabs. We hardly had an army. The Arabs had seven armies.

“We used all our settlements to defend,” he said.

“In that particular case of Ofra, we wanted to have a radar station next to Jerusalem, and so we made a settlement around the radar station to defend it. We did not want to take over the land,” Peres said.

It was the Likud, he argued that truly grew the settlement enterprise and it was only when the population numbers went up, that it became an issue.

“Until 1977, do you know how many settlements and settlers there were in Israel: 22 settlements, 6,000 settlers that is all.

“After the Likud took over in 1977, they had a different vision and they started settlements in a large way.

The problem with the settlements started when they went into large numbers, 200,000, 300,000,” he said.

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