There is a new and troubling alliance developing in Israeli society that, if unchecked, will radically reshape the future of Israeli society and could drive the country into a predicament from which it will be difficult, if not impossible to extricate itself.
This alliance, manifested yet again during the recent Hebron events, is the alliance is between two disparate ideological and political groups: the radical Israeli settlers on the one side and the vast majority of Israelis, whose hopes for peace in the near future were shattered as a result of the last Intifada and the Palestinian response to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, on the other.
On the one side lie some of the more extreme manifestations of the settler movement. Members of this movement adhere to the belief that the primary responsibility of the Jewish state is to maintain control over as much of the biblical Promised Land as possible. The success or failure in this domain, more than anything els,e affects the Jewishness of the state of Israel. This belief is not grounded on foreign policy or security considerations, but rather on deeply religious ones, in which the land of Israel is seen as the embodiment of God. According to this ideology, disconnection from the land disconnects us from God as our source of religious inspiration, and distances us from God’s beneficence, love, and ultimate redemption.
Hebron: Settler, Palestinian, IDF soldier (Photo: Nagillum, from Flickr via Creative Commons License)
In accordance with this ideology, the Jewish state must create as many settlements as it can, as close as possible to major centers of Palestinian settlement, thus both declaring and helping to maintain the claim of Jewish, and not simply Israeli sovereignty over all of Eretz Israel. Every mountaintop must be populated, every road must be traveled as often as possible, and every olive grove must be contested. Palestinian independence, sovereignty and ownership of the land undermine Jewish title over the land through which God and the Jewish people are eternally wed.
This belief is doubly potent and enforced when on the table is not simply any mountain or town, but a city such as Hebron, the home of the Caves of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (ma’arat ha-machpela), with their central place in the Jewish historical narrative and tradition.
On the other side stands the majority of Israelis, from the center right to the left, (approximately 70% of the Jewish population), who since the Oslo accords have adopted the notion of "land for peace." While there is still a debate over what constitutes peace, and how much land may be offered (the Likud Party, for example, was willing to speak about 50-60 percent, while the Labor and Kadima parties talk about 80-90 percent), the notion that the Jewishness of Israel is contingent upon our relationship to all of the land became the minority opinion in Israeli society.
While these two sides may have difficulty sitting in a coalition government together, the years that followed Oslo, which saw the second Intifada, the outbreak of terror, the growing radical Islamicization of Palestinian society, and the violent response to the disengagement from Gaza, have all deeply affected mainstream Israel. While they have not withdrawn from their commitment to the notion of land for peace, there has been a significant withdrawal in the belief in its efficacy. Most Israelis today believe that there is nothing they can do to bring about a commitment to peace on the part of Palestinian society, leaving the country’s citizens with a deep sense of confusion with regard to the future and an ambivalence and suspicion toward any broad-ranging "peace proposals."
This reality has molded the foundation for the new alliance. While kindness and closeness between fellow Jews is always important and a value to be pursued, it is problematic when it is at the expense of core ideological commitments that are central to the future of Israel. Most Israelis are unwilling to prioritize holding on to settlements in the midst of major centers of Arab population, including Hebron. Yet as was clearly evident during the last Hebron demonstrations and in Israelis’ general response, or more accurately, lack of response to radical settler’s violent activities over the last two years, there is also no political will to confront the radical settlers, or to curtail their behavior. Beyond that, there is almost no significant moral apprehension over what is being done to the Palestinians. As those who have rejected the path of peace, in any conflict with settlers, Israelis will always passively take the side of the latter. Palestinians have come to inhabit the status of being inherently guilty of aggression toward our society.
As a result, under the rules of the new alliance, as long as the settlers refrain from attacking soldiers and from overt acts of terror and murder, (rules which are not always kept), mainstream Israelis will maintain and passively support the status quo on the West Bank. In this manner, mainstream Israel is now creating a safety net within which even the most radical settler ideology can flourish and effectively redefine the future of Israeli society.
I believe, as do most left-, center- and right-leaning Israelis, that some land for peace is not only acceptable but crucial to the future of Israel as a Jewish state. The Jewishness of Israel cannot be defined solely by its geography, but rather by its policies. A Jewish state must have a Jewish majority, be open to peaceful relations with our neighbors if and when this becomes possible, and be committed to moral obligations to all who are created in the image of God. In addition, the Jewishness of Israel will be determined by the Jewishness of what occurs within our borders, and not by the location of the borders themselves.
The danger of the above complicit alliance is that it is eroding the place of the above belief in our political and national discourse. As a result of our disappointment with the Palestinians, Israelis are allowing policies to take root and to define our relationship with our Arab and Palestinian neighbors that are antithetical to their own beliefs and ideologies. Our great challenge over the next couple of years is neither to fall into the trap of simple peace plans, nor to harden our hearts to the possibility of peace. It is to do everything necessary to preserve our security during dangerous times and in a precarious neighborhood, but not to cross the line and allow any and all injustices to befall Palestinians under the umbrella of security. It is to hold on to the land that gives us security, but not to believe that in doing so, it is the Palestinians who are the strangers in the land.
It is our responsibility to always look to the future and never allow the unfortunate contingencies of the present to alienate us from who we are and who we want to be. We cannot afford to allow our depression at the Palestinian rejection of peace to cause us to abdicate our responsibility to maintain the highest standards of Jewish moral practice.
On a practical level, therefore, our leaders must continually maintain an official and practical policy of both exploration and action. One never knows when one will encounter a true partner who is both sincere in ideology and committed to and able to act, so talk must be continuous. We must set clear rules of engagement and commit to the rule of law in our relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. The vast majority of settlers have for decades lived by these moral and legal standards, even in the face of extreme danger, and it is a minority who now believe they will be allowed to redefine these rules. They must be disavowed of this belief and their behavior placed outside the acceptable norms of our society.
Despite the lack of an obvious horizon, Israel must fastidiously live up to our commitments in the Road Map, even if the Palestinians have yet to do so. This is not simply so that we will find favor in the eyes of the world and the new American administration, although this is significant unto itself. But more importantly, it must do so to continually educate and shape our national vision, horizons, and aspirations. As long as we do so, the notion that the Jewishness of Israel is not defined solely by the amount of land we hold but by the extent of Jewish values we embody, will remain the central aspect of Jewish and Zionist ideology. This is not about politics or security alone, but about the soul and future of Israel.