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Behind the Headlines: Jewish Settlers of Mixed Minds About Netanyahu Government

August 21, 1996
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Yechezkel Missel, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Beit El, is still waiting for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deliver on his campaign promises.

A technical writer who moved his family from Jerusalem to Beit El more than a year ago, he is anxious to see whether Netanyahu will redeploy Israeli troops from most of the West Bank town of Hebron, meet with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat or permit the establishment of new settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Missel, an observant Jew, would also like to see the prime minister “put Judaism back into the Jewish state.”

Although admittedly impatient to right what he perceives as “the wrongs” of the Rabin and Peres governments, Missel — unlike some of his fellow settlers — is willing to wait a while before passing judgment.

“People expect instantaneous change” whenever there is a new government elected, he says. “But running a country like the U.S. or Israel is like driving a Mack truck, not a Porsche. It takes time to slow the momentum and to enact change.”

While Missel is giving Netanyahu some breathing space, many other settlers are not.

Exactly one year ago, settlers were being dragged down from West Bank hillsides by Israel Defense Force soldiers sent by the Rabin government to prevent the demonstrators from staking new claims for expanded settlements.

A year later, with a Likud government in power, one might expect that the settlers would largely be happy with the change.

But according to the comments of many in the settler movement, the issue of Hebron has made their reactions to the new government more complex.

Settlers also have engaged in an internal dispute on whether to shift the focus of their advocacy efforts to addressing local municipal needs.

Fearing that Netanyahu intends to redeploy IDF troops in the disputed city — a move stipulated by the Interim Agreement — settler activists and their supporters are planning an intensive public campaign against the redeployment.

Exactly how the campaign will proceed is still being discussed. According to settlement leaders, initial efforts will almost certainly include the distribution of bumper stickers stating, “Netanyahu is Good for the Jews – – Withdrawal from Hebron is Bad for the Jews,” as well as the circulation of a nationwide petition.

Despite media reports to the contrary, one leader said in an interview that demonstrations might be in the offing.

Settler leaders, who have met several times this summer to plan their strategy, say their upcoming campaign falls under the heading of “loyal opposition,” not all-out war against the government.

Flying high just after the elections, they now find themselves caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Two months into the new administration, they had expected Netanyahu to take a tougher line with the Palestinians and to permit the establishment of new settlements.

At the same time, they do not want their actions or words to be construed as anti-government; the settlers themselves helped vote Netanyahu and his Likud Party into power.

The result: Settlers renowned for their outspokenness have suddenly adopted the tone of career diplomats.

“We don’t think we should come out against the government, but we do have to work on Hebron’s behalf in the streets,” Ya’akov Novic, a leader of the activist group Mateh Ma’amatz, said in a radio interview this week.

“If we don’t do this now, we might soon be compelled to engage in anti- government activity, for lack of any other option.”

Rachel Klein, spokeswoman for the Municipality of Kiryat Arba, which adjoins Hebron, agrees.

“We may hold demonstrations all over the country, ones similar to the ones we held during the Labor government,” she said. “Unfortunately, this has to be done with this government as well.”

Adopting a more conciliatory tone, Klein adds, “We have to give Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt that he will make the right decisions. Our job is to help him see what needs to be done in Hebron.”

“This is not a personal campaign against him,” she says, “simply an expression of our concern and worry.”

Yehiel Leiter, spokesman for the Yesha Council, which represents settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, is equally cautious when grading the government’s performance.

“Of course we would like Netanyahu to move with the same swiftness in building new housing that Labor moved in curtailing it. What’s important to remember, though, is that although Netanyahu hasn’t said he will build new communities, he hasn’t said he won’t, either.

“This is real progress over the previous government, which ruled out building entirely.”

As impatient as they are for what they term “real progress,” most settlers agree that Netanyahu’s election victory has given them a great morale boost.

“Peres delegitimized us, demonized us, made us the scapegoats,” says Leiter. “He made us the Jews of Israel.”

In contrast, he says, “Netanyahu refers to us as pioneers, people who are committed to this country. That’s all changed in the past two months.

“We hope that this change will not only be figurative, but substantive.”

While the majority of settler leaders are intensifying their political activities after a post-election lull, several others say it is time to concentrate more on municipal affairs and less on politics.

To this end, the heads of seven towns and settlements in the territories last month threatened to walk out of the Yesha Council unless the body started paying more attention to the everyday problems that affect their communities.

Reports in the media also pointed to a rift between these seven leaders, most of whom are not religious, and the majority of Yesha board members, whose claim to a “Greater Israel” is based to a greater or lesser degree on Jewish Messianic beliefs.

According to Leiter, the tiff “had nothing to do with religion or messianism. All of us are people committed to a Jews’ right to live in the Land of Israel.

“There was simply a difference of opinion on whether to concentrate on municipal or political matters. They have come back to the fold, more or less, since the prime minister refused to meet with them separately. They have no power base being out in left field.”

Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman, one of the seven leaders, says the group never left the Yesha Council in the first place.

“What we did was form a subcommittee and told the other Yesha members that it’s not enough to talk about the [security arrangements for the] grave of Yosef in Shechem.

“We need to talk about our own security problems, about education and industry,” Nachman says.

Nachman believes that he speaks for the vast majority of settlers when he says, “We see reports on CNN, on the BBC, we watch the pictures on the screen and ask ourselves, `Is this us?’

“We don’t recognize ourselves in these reports.”

Instead of making up petitions and slogans, Nachman says, “what we have to do now is attract as many people as possible. We have to improve our communities so that more people will join us, and those who already live in places like Ariel will enjoy a better quality of life.”

If it were up to him, Nachman says, Yesha and other settlers groups would abandon their high-profile tactics and get down to the nitty-gritty work of wooing Israelis in search of a better way of life.

“We need to build our communities, not with a lot of sound and noise, but with determined silence.”

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