The Robert Slater Interview: Mr. Settlement

Pinchas Wallerstein favors a one-state solution ‘because there’s no other choice’.

Pinchas Wallerstein came to the Jewish settlement movement quite by accident. When he was growing up in Kiryat Ata in the 1950s and early 1960s, Jordan controlled the West Bank, and no Jews were allowed to live there.
Wallerstein could not have imagined that one day he would become the leader of the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank.
Israel gained control of the West Bank in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War.
Wallerstein fought on the Golan front during the war and was severely wounded.
Today, at 64, Wallerstein no longer leads the settlement movement, but he is just as zealous, and just as passionate in explaining why the Oslo accords with the Palestinians were a failure, and why the Palestinians should not be given a state.
Given a state, he insists to The Jerusalem Report, they would attempt to destroy the State of Israel.
Despite his passion, Wallerstein has been considered a moderate within Jewish settlement circles. He favors a one-state solution and he does not want to see a single Jewish settlement evacuated. However, if the people of the State of Israel were to decide that he had to leave his home in the settlement of Ofra, near the Palestinian city of Ramallah, he would leave – with sadness, but also with the understanding that it was his duty as a member of Israeli society to do so.
“I am an Israeli citizen under all conditions,” he tells The Report resolutely.
“Even if they evacuate me from my house, I will be part of the Jewish state. I will demonstrate; I will go to prison; but in the end, I will accept the verdict of the people of Israel. I may have to live in Petah Tikva and not Ofra.” The words do not come easily to Wallerstein, but he utters them nevertheless.
It is certainly a tribute to Wallerstein’s organizational skills that with such “moderate” views, he was able to hold leadership positions in the settlement movement for three decades. A further example of his moderation occurred when Wallerstein resigned from the Judea, Samaria and Gaza Council, the main settlement body, in January 2010 for, in his view, the council’s failure to condemn Jewish “price tag” attacks against Palestinians, and for failing to condemn soldiers who refuse to carry out government orders to evacuate unauthorized Jewish settlements.
We met in Jerusalem, a 20-minute drive from Ofra. Wallerstein walks with a cane.
His five-foot eight-inch sturdy frame makes him seem more the grandfather (he has 26 grandchildren – 13 boys and 13 girls) or corporate manager than a fiery Jewish settler. He is warm, smiles a lot, and ignites the fire in his belly only when talking about his mistrust of the Palestinians.
His parents, both from Poland, arrived in Palestine during the late 1930s. For his mother, Yona Birenbaum, to make aliya, she arranged a fictitious marriage with a man already in Palestine. When the man died a few years later, she married Pinchas’s father, Moshe. They had three children; Pinchas was the youngest. He was born in Kfar Ata, east of Haifa, and attended Bnei Akiva religious schools.
While helping to conquer the Golan Heights in the Six Day War as a young soldier, Wallerstein was seriously wounded over much of the left side of his body. He was in and out of hospitals for the next three years, at first in critical condition.
When he was well enough to consider his future, he thought about living on a kibbutz within Israel’s pre-1967 borders,or perhaps on the Golan Heights. He had no thought of moving to the West Bank (also known as Judea and Samaria) and helping the Jewish settlement movement, virtually nonexistent then. The movement to build such settlements began only in the mid-1970s.
Wallerstein met his future wife, Esther Abramski, at age three. Toward the end of 1968, the Wallersteins decided to move to Kibbutz Ma’aleh Gilboa, a religious kibbutz on the summit of Mount Gilboa, high above the town of Beit She’an. “I wanted to live my life as a kibbutznik,” he recalls. Married in 1971, he and Esther were looking for a Zionist challenge. They have seven children, four girls and three boys, ranging from ages 26 to 41. Four of the married children live in Ofra.
A few years later, Wallerstein decided that he wanted to become a shepherd. But the kibbutz decided that Wallerstein’s walking limitations – the result of his war wounds – made him unsuitable for such a task.
In 1974, he began studying agriculture at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, first at its Mount Scopus campus, and then in Rehovot. He became a high school science teacher, teaching biology and physics.
In 1974, he was teaching and living at Rabbi Haim Drukman’s yeshiva, Or Etzion, in Merkaz Shapira, near Ashkelon.
One day, he looked out the window of the yeshiva and saw Drukman in conversation with Hanan Porat, a leader of Gush Emunim, the then-burgeoning organization that supported Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Porat was a hero to religious Zionists like Wallerstein.
Visiting Wallerstein at his home later that day, Porat explained to him that no Jewish settlement north of Jerusalem had been established – thus far, only Kiryat Arba and Gush Etzion existed to the south. Porat wanted to begin a settlement drive in the northern part of the West Bank. Some 40 settlers were in the early stages of creating a settlement called Shiloh, but it was faltering, and Porat wanted Wallerstein to take over the leadership of the enterprise.
Stunned by the offer, Wallerstein had no idea why Porat had picked him. “I hadn’t been involved in the daily process of building settlements then,” he says. In all likelihood, Drukman had suggested him to Porat as capable of taking on the Shiloh assignment. How could Porat simply install him as the settlement’s leader, Wallerstein wondered? Porat assured him that Wallerstein would win the vote of Shiloh’s members to lead the group. Porat planned to arrange his victory, which he duly did.
Wallerstein spent a year in Shiloh, located 45 kilometers north of Jerusalem, helping to build a settlement that by 2011 had 2,400 residents. In 1975, Wallerstein launched plans to create a new settlement that already had buildings on its land and was located on abandoned Jordanian property. He called the new community Ofra, after a reference in the Book of Joshua.
Ofra was one of the first attempts by the Gush Emunim settlement movement to establish Jewish communities in the West Bank. Then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin opposed Ofra; his defense minister, Shimon Peres, supported it. The formal approval for Ofra to become a settlement came only in 1977, after Menachem Begin became prime minister.
Ofra became the center of the entire settlement movement, and the home of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, on which Wallerstein served for 30 years. At first, Ofra residents wanted to keep their community to no more than 50 families.
Today, Ofra has 700 families, and about 3,500 residents altogether.
Wallerstein recalls that when the Jewish settlement movement began, the dreamers had a goal of attracting 60,000 settlers to the West Bank. One left-wing Jerusalem official, strongly opposed to the settlements, guessed that if 100,000 people moved to the settlements, “it would be all over.” Today, there are some 350,000 settlers in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem.
Wallerstein’s views on Jewish settlement are a little hard to figure out, especially when he observes, “I don’t think Ofra is more important than Petah Tikva.” But he does not mean to suggest that he wants an end to Jewish settlements in the West Bank – far from it. Wallerstein believes that ideally, Israel should control the land “from the Jordan to the sea.”
It comes as no surprise to hear Wallerstein debunk the peace plans that former prime minister Ehud Barak put forward at Camp David II in 2000, as well as and those that former prime minister Ehud Olmert presented in 2009 to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Those plans called for the evacuation of the smaller Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and for the settlements near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to be integrated into major settlement blocs.
“I am against those plans,” Wallerstein says with much emotion. “Creating a Palestinian state will destroy the Jewish State. There will be armed Palestinians and they will shoot at us.”
So what does Wallerstein favor? “I want a Jewish state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” he says, but then notes that he would be content to have Jordan create a Palestinian state within its midst. As for the Palestinians in the West Bank, they should be granted autonomy. Palestinians in the West Bank, should they choose, could become Israeli citizens with all attendant rights and obligations; but, he insists, “Israel has to remain a Jewish and democratic state.”
He favors a one-state solution “because there’s no other choice,” he notes. “It is clear to me that an independent Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria in terms of what has already happened to us will destroy the Jewish state. Within their culture and ideology, the Palestinians don’t believe in our right to have a Jewish state.”
As for the 1993 Oslo Accords, which tried to create a framework that would lead to an end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Wallerstein – 20 years later – has an “I told you so” attitude. Even though Yitzhak Rabin eventually signed off on Oslo, Wallerstein believes the slain prime minister continued to be personally traumatized over the first Israeli agreement with Yasser Arafat’s PLO.
Wallerstein theorizes that Rabin agreed to sign the Oslo Accords after watching Tel Aviv residents flee their city when it was targeted by Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War. “I talked to Rabin about it and he admitted that he believed that, in fleeing Tel Aviv, Israelis were saying they did not want to fight any more wars,” he recounts. “Rabin knew we had to come to an agreement with the Palestinians – and fast.”
In our interview, Wallerstein did notbring up the December 1987 incident when, facing Palestinian stone-throwers, he shot and killed one Palestinian and wounded another – actions for which he later had to stand trial. But he had no trouble going into great detail about the incident when I asked him about it.
The incident occurred a few days after the start of the 1987 intifada. It was the kind of event that gave Jewish settlers a bad name, especially as they were often not severely punished for shooting Palestinians. Wallerstein talks of the incident with pride and without remorse, and insists that he did nothing wrong.
It began when an associate of Wallerstein’s phoned him, yelling, “Save me. Save me.” She had been on the road to Ofra, driving several young women.
They suddenly came under attack from Palestinian stone-throwers. Wallerstein rushed to the scene to help. Arriving, with Uzi submachine gun in hand, he fired a volley of shots at the crowd of Palestinians, first in the air, then at their legs. One Palestinian was killed and another wounded. The others dispersed.
The case went to court and Wallerstein was charged with negligent use of a firearm because he had fired a volley at the Palestinians rather than single shots.
In a plea bargain deal, Wallerstein was convicted and was given the very light sentence of four months of community service at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. In his opinion, the judge noted that Wallerstein had fired in self-defense as his life was in danger.
The shooting incident came up when Wallerstein applied recently for a visa to the US and was initially rejected.
Eventually, with the support of Ze’ev Elkin, Likud Deputy Foreign Minister, the visa was arranged several months later – in November 2013.
Today, Wallerstein spends his time trying to boost the number of Jews living in the Galilee and the Negev, a mission that indicates that he is not purely an advocate for Jewish settlement in the West Bank. He is, as he says, “an Israeli citizen.”