Judea and Samaria: Where do we go from here?

The next plan for the future of the region might come from, of all places, the YESHA Council.

lieberman yesha hands up (photo credit: ariel jerozolimski [file])
lieberman yesha hands up
(photo credit: ariel jerozolimski [file])
The settlers in Judea and Samaria are beginning to plan a major offensive. This time it won't include moving caravans in the dead of night onto a barren hilltop; the next battle will be carried out by slick PR firms in Tel Aviv in a desperate last-ditch attempt to shift the Israeli mainstream. The next plan for the future of the region might come from, of all places, the YESHA Council. As the dust settles in the aftermath of the war, one part of Israeli society that definitely feels an atmosphere of new opportunities are the settlers. In an incredible reversal of fortune, the movement that was still licking the wounds of disengagement two months ago and had felt itself pushed into such a corner that some of its more extreme elements even advocated refusing to enlist in "Olmert's war," is suddenly breathing a sigh of relief. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert virtually admitted on Monday at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that realignment was off indefinitely, and opinion polls show that a majority of Israelis suddenly think that disengagement wasn't such a great idea, a year afterwards, and increasingly oppose another unilateral retreat. So where does that leave the settlers? Realignment off the table doesn't mean they can stop worrying. After a decent interval, the government is going to come back to the issue of the outposts and demand the dismantling of at least a few of them, though probably not the one next to Eli, the place where two officers killed in the fighting had lived. What is of greater concern to the settlers' leadership are the government's alternative plans, not realignment. "Olmert needs a new spin now," says MK Arie Eldad of National Union, "so it's probably going to be a return to the Road Map. That will allow him to buy time for his government because a return to negotiations with Abu Mazen and with Hamas will take a while." But despite their mistrust of the government's motives, the leaders of the right wing realize that a new diplomatic process could eventually lead to developments on the ground, and they don't want to take any chances. "Our working assumption is that we have a temporary respite, we don't know for how long," says Adi Mintz, a member of the YESHA Council. "A number of forums have already held meetings, and the main conclusion is that we have to use this time to address the deeper issues, the fundamental challenges to the Jewish state." Mintz and his colleagues believe that now is perhaps their last opportunity to convince the Israeli mainstream of the dangers they see in further pullbacks from the West Bank. "It's not clear whether public opinion is ripe for a change," says Eldad. "It has to be put to the test, in a big way. I can write an op-ed column or make a speech in the Knesset, but it won't convince anyone; but now at least there is a feeling that people don't want to take any irrevocable steps, like additional retreats. This is where we have to prove that we also have an alternative of our own." Mintz has already proposed such a plan, with the backing of the council, that outlines a future for the West Bank in which the Palestinians "are allowed to live well, while at the same time it's clear that there is only one nation that can have sovereignty over this land." He admits that "the problems haven't gone away, and the mainstream still doesn't believe in the wholeness of Eretz Yisrael, but there is a willingness to listen that didn't exist before the war. Even left-wing journalists are singing a different tune and admitting that they have new insights. According to Mintz and those colleagues on the council who, in the past concentrated only on making facts on the ground, a serious PR offensive is the most vital step. One of the main problems of the settlers now is obtaining the necessary funds; the movement's coffers are still empty after the huge unsuccessful campaign against disengagement. "It's harder to get donations when there isn't an emergency situation," says Mintz. Veteran journalist and former head of the YESHA Council, Uri Elitzur, agrees that there should be an alternative plan for the future of the territory, but he believes that "it shouldn't be a plan of the council, which will only cast a stigma on the plan and make the public think that this is the most right-wing position, even if we made some concessions. There has to be a consensus among the right wing over a plan." He also thinks that a PR offensive is imperative and believes it should be aimed not only at the Israeli public but "also at opinion makers in Europe and America; there are enough respectable elements there that can conceivably support a position against a two-state solution." "Last year, we were totally disillusioned with the Israeli public," says MK Eldad. "Sharon had managed to do everything he wanted and it seemed that he would just carry on. Now we have to adapt to the new circumstances. There is a new hope that the public will learn the right lessons from what happened in this war. It also means we have to change our tactics. After we were evacuated from Sa-Nur [one of the settlements in northern Samaria dismantled on the last day of disengagement], I told the people there that as much as it may be abhorrent to you, until you send your best sons and daughters to the media, politics and the stock exchange in Tel Aviv, you won't have ensured the future of the settlements in Judea and Samaria."