The Right Girds Its Loins (Extract)

Settlers, rabbis, right-wing parties and NGOs move to block the Annapolis peace-making process

18les (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract from an article in Issue 18, December 24, 2007 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe. Under a full moon and purple winter sky, rings of Orthodox teenagers are dancing ecstatically to the syncopated sounds of trumpet, electric guitar and synthesizer blaring from a makeshift stage at Paris Square near the center of Jerusalem. They have come from dozens of settlements in the West Bank to protest Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan to negotiate a peace agreement with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen), based on two states for two peoples. It is the night before the late-November Annapolis peace conference called by U.S. President George Bush, and Olmert, Abbas and Bush are the main targets of settler scorn. One banner held aloft by leaping youths reads "Agreement between Olmert and Abu Bluff will blow up in our faces;" another bemoans "Bush's war against G-d, who gave this land to Israel." "Olmert is a traitor," they chant. "Olmert is a traitor." Just off the stage, a wide-eyed woman wearing sackcloth is signing people up against concessions on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. Pamphlets she hands out call on the public to join a small far-right group called "the Temple Mount Faithful" in a protest march from Jaffa Gate to the holy site on Hanukka. Nominally the 20,000-strong disco-demonstration in Paris Square is against concessions on Jerusalem. But the main message the young settlers and their leaders want to get across is that any attempt to evacuate West Bank settlements as part of a future peace deal will meet much fiercer resistance than the pullout from Gush Katif in Gaza did in the summer of 2005. Cars parked near the square still fly the orange ribbons of Gush Katif defiance. Even the streetlights on the square blink orange. But speaker after speaker on the stage promises that this time the right-wing campaign against concessions will be much broader and far more organized. The speakers have deliberately been drawn from a wide spectrum of oppositional voices, from settler leaders and rabbis to politicians from the right-wing opposition, but also from Olmert's coalition and even his own Kadima party. Nevertheless, the event shows early cracks in right-wing unity. National Union Knesset members Arye Eldad and Effie Eitam have elected to stay away in protest at the presence of coalition speakers. Dani Dayan, head of the Renewed Judea and Samaria Settler Council - ("renewed," to distinguish it from the council that failed to stop the evacuation of Gush Katif) - takes the podium. One of the few people at the demonstration without a skullcap, he gets straight to the point: "What blindness, what stupidity!" he bellows. "Just two years ago they abandoned a thriving part of the Land of Israel, expelled its inhabitants and caused a national catastrophe. Now they want, God forbid, to do the same in Judea and Samaria. We have come to say to them, enough!" Dayan tells the rapturous young crowd that now they are stronger than ever. "There were some who thought we were beaten after Gush Katif, and to them we say: 'You made a big mistake. We are here, full of energy and strength and resolve. And in this struggle, we w-i-ll w-i-n," he declares. The demonstration reflected the broad right-wing opposition Olmert is likely to face nationwide in his post-Annapolis peacemaking efforts: settlers intent on keeping their homes, rabbis invoking religious law against territorial compromise, politicians trying to galvanize a Knesset majority to topple his government; advocacy groups pushing special issues, like the unity of Jerusalem. Already their cumulative efforts have had a significant impact; the Israeli-Palestinian joint declaration at Annapolis did not so much as mention core issues of contention like borders, Jerusalem or refugees for fear of upsetting right-wing coalition partners, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, who had threatened to bolt the government if any of those highly-charged questions found its way onto the Annapolis agenda. Yet, despite his climb down on the core issues, Olmert insists that he remains determined to achieve a two-state solution. At Annapolis, the parties agreed to make a supreme effort to cut a deal by the end of 2008; and the day after the conference, Olmert declared that unless there were two states, the idea of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people would be "finished," as calls for a one-state solution with an eventual Palestinian majority would grow. Right-wingers retort that it is the two-state model that could "finish" Israel, and the broad front they are building is designed to preempt it. Once again the Israeli left and right are arrayed on opposite sides of a looming battle with major implications for Israel and the Middle East as a whole. In mid-November, Dayan led a settler delegation that met with Olmert to warn him against evacuating West Bank settlers on a grand scale, as a part of a two-state solution. Like all settler leaders he paints an apocalyptic picture, aimed at deterring any would-be evacuator. He estimates that any territorial deal with the Palestinians will entail evacuation of between 100,000 and 120,000 Jewish settlers, and, he tells The Report, he warned Olmert that taking on such a project could destroy Israeli society. "I told him it would be a tsunami, not just for us, but for Israeli society as a whole. The day after, whether or not they succeed, Israel will not be the same. It will be a society with a broken backbone," he predicts darkly. That, though, is still some way off. For now, Dayan is focusing his efforts on fighting the first phase of the new peace process: Israeli evacuation of unauthorized West Bank settler outposts and freezing of further settler building in return for Palestinian action against terror, as stipulated by the international peace road map, reaffirmed at Annapolis. "For us, this is an obscene equation: It means Israel agrees to equate the need to fight a terrorist who is about to blow himself up in a cafָ in Tel Aviv with a young couple who want to build their home near the wife's parents," he declares. The demagogic flourish is probably intended, at least partly, for government consumption. Dayan knows the Defense Ministry is preparing a plan for outpost evacuation by agreement with the settler council. Easing building restrictions in existing settlements could be the payoff. As for the bigger picture, Dayan says the settlers hope to derail the peace process before any showdown on the ground. The goal is to replace the Olmert government with a right-wing administration that will break off the talks with Abbas and unfreeze settlement building. Here rebel Kadima Knesset members, like Zeev Elkin, could be key. Elkin, the Ukrainian-born rookie legislator, who voted for a bill that would make any territorial concessions in Jerusalem contingent on a majority of 80 of the 120 Knesset members, was one of the Knesset members invited to address the Paris Square demonstration. Much to his consternation, he was greeted by the teenage audience with boos. "Kadima, go home!" they shouted. His voice breaking with emotion, Elkin urged them to be "smart, not just right … The struggle will be decided in the Knesset and you will need to get coalition Knesset members on your side. The success of this demonstration and future demonstrations will be judged by one thing only: How many coalition Knesset members you persuade to come," he insisted. Elkin maintains that the opposition in Kadima to Olmert's peace plans - especially concessions on Jerusalem - is by no means negligible. "It came out clearly in a debate in the Kadima Council in September, where everyone except Olmert and (Minister Without Portfolio) Haim Ramon spoke against dividing Jerusalem. As a result of that meeting, Olmert shifted down a gear on the road to Annapolis, and the Jerusalem issue was taken off the agenda," he told The Report. He points out that no fewer than 15 of Kadima's 29-strong Knesset faction signed a petition opposing territorial concessions in Jerusalem. The petition, initiated by the Likud's Yisrael Katz, received a total of 71 Knesset signatures and was sent to Bush, as a paper reflecting the majority view in Israel's parliament. The opposition to Olmert in Kadima is coalescing mainly around Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, and, pundits say, if there is a break over peacemaking with the Palestinians, Mofaz could lead a majority of Kadima Knesset members back into the Likud. Elkin does not rule this out. He argues that any agreement with the Palestinians would almost certainly run counter to Kadima principles on Jerusalem and borders. It would entail dividing Jerusalem, as well as special arrangements for the Temple Mount; and it would almost certainly force Israel to give up some of the settlements inside the security fence. "Then Olmert will have to choose between an agreement that reflects the dovish Meretz platform or the Kadima platform, which insists on a united Jerusalem and a border that includes all the settlements inside the fence and more," says Elkin. "I hope that if he chooses a Meretz-style agreement, the majority in the faction will remain loyal to the voters, and if the prime minister then wants to break away, he will be free to do so. Things like that have happened before." A more immediate threat to the Olmert government, however, comes from his two right-wing coalition partners, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, who, with 23 of the 78 coalition seats, could bring him down. They will closely monitor the Annapolis process, and move as soon as they feel Olmert is going too far. Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman is already deeply involved in merger talks with the Likud. He and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu anticipate a change in the electoral law, under which the leader of the largest party automatically becomes prime minister. They believe a Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list would almost certainly guarantee the premiership for Netanyahu, with Lieberman as his deputy. For now, however, both Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas seem to have been placated by the post-Annapolis format: at least a year of negotiations without any implementation on the ground. "There will be negotiations until the end of 2008. They won't be able to do anything without first bringing it to the government and the Knesset for approval. So I don't see any need for elections or for leaving the government before there is anything concrete on the table," Shas legislator Nissim Zeev told The Report. Shas has good reason to remain in the coalition: It wants to maximize allocations in the upcoming 2008 state budget for its education system. As for Lieberman, he sees himself playing an important role as strategic affairs minister vis-a-vis Iran. Still, both parties are almost certain to oppose any deal Olmert reaches with the Palestinians. "Olmert does not have a coalition for the division of Jerusalem, the return of refugees or two states with dubious borders," says Zeev. He explains that Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, despite his ruling that peace takes precedence over land, will not support withdrawal from territory, "until he knows down to the last detail what will be on the other side. Otherwise we will get Gaza in Judea and Samaria, Qassams and more sophisticated rockets fired at us from the territory we evacuate." For Rabbi Yosef, saving lives is the most important criterion; any proposed withdrawal will be judged by the degree to which it promises to reduce or increase terror, says Zeev. But there is another factor making a Shas withdrawal from a peacemaking coalition almost certain: Its electorate is far more hawkish than its spiritual leader. In the past, Shas has invariably played to its militant political base and left governments on the verge of major peacemaking moves. Indeed, the competition for right-wing electoral support is having a deleterious effect on some right-wing unity. Lieberman and the National Union, the Knesset party most settlers support, are at loggerheads. Lieberman dismisses National Union leaders like Eitam and Eldad as the "delusional right," and says they cause immeasurable harm to Israel and the right-wing national camp. They retort that he lacks ideology and is simply clinging to his government office. Eldad is of particular concern to Lieberman: He hopes to lead a new right-wing secular party called "Hatikva," which could cut into Lieberman's support base, especially if he links up with the Likud. Extract from an article in Issue 18, December 24, 2007 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe.