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If Pressure Won’t Move Settlers, Activists Think Cash Might Do It

May 14, 2003
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Where pressure and persuasion have failed to grease the wheels of Israeli-Palestinian peace, cash will.

At least that’s the thinking behind a new campaign powered by such figures as actor Ed Asner, novelist Michael Chabon and cartoonist Art Spiegelman.

They and other celebrity Jews, academics and religious leaders have signed on to a petition by the group Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, titled “A Call to Bring the Settlers Home to Israel.”

The Chicago-based group, also known by its Hebrew name Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, sponsored national newspaper ads last week that call for offering around $3 billion in cash incentives to 16,000 settler families — or nearly $190,000 per family — to move back inside the Green Line, as Israel’s pre-1967 border is known.

The money would come from U.S. foreign aid and from the European Union, according to the plan’s backers.

The drive is fueled by a recent Israeli poll that said 80 percent of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip came to the area not because of religious or political ideology but because of government subsidies in the form of cheap mortgages, tax breaks and free schooling.

Engineered by a former dovish member of Knesset, Marcia Freedman, the petition aims to settle the issue of Jewish settlements, which Freedman calls “a major obstacle to peace.”

“We can take away one of the core issues” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “by demonstrating that the settlers would like to get out of there, and that there is no sense among Israelis generally or among the settlers themselves that the settlements are required for security,” Freedman said.

The plan dovetails with the U.S.-backed “road map” toward peace, which also calls for Israel to stop settlement activity. But it’s not the first time that activists have considered the idea that money can help buy peace.

In January, Americans for Peace Now urged members of Congress who were considering $9 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to Israel to “set aside” 20 percent to build new homes for settlers who would relocate inside Israel proper.

That followed a U.S. condition to the loans stipulating a dollar-for-dollar reduction in the guarantees for money Israel spent on settlements.

“This is something that Americans for Peace Now has been pointing out for some time,” said the group’s assistant executive director, Lewis Roth. “But we’ve directly tied it to new funding that was being considered for Israel and was provided for Israel.”

In fact, these cash-infused conflict resolutions follow familiar American political signposts when it comes to the Jewish state.

Scott Lasensky, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, recently wrote a paper titled “Inducing Peace: Nixon, Kissinger and the Creation of Middle East Peace.”

President Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, instituted a significant change in U.S. policy toward Israel, Lasensky said — the notion that “you can’t make demands of Israel. You provide positive incentives that will have certain cascading effects inside Israel.”

In 1991, the first President Bush tied $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel to the issue of settlements — a move then- Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir fought.

The twist, however, is that financial inducements “work best in a political framework, when there’s something to latch on to,” Lasensky added.

Enter the road map, which was drafted by the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia and formally presented to Israel and the Palestinian Authority a few weeks ago.

“If the stars become aligned and we begin to move through Phase One” of the road map, “it’s not so outlandish to begin to think of a situation where new American aid” funds the relocation of settlers, Lasensky said.

With many barriers remaining to the road map– including ongoing terrorist attacks — Lasensky could not predict how soon a settler-relocation plan could go into effect.

Yet the road map could make the petition drive relevant, some say.

Tamara Wittes, Middle East specialist for the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank, said the Bush administration has made an end to settlement-building a central fixture of the road map.

That opens the door for American Jews opposed to settlements to hone in on the issue, Wittes said.

The settlements are “one of the stronger levers they have,” she said.

Peace activists said the petition also is built on the notion that with the country’s economy in shambles, Israelis might be eager for financial help.

In January, Peace Now released a study showing that Israel spent $440 million in fiscal 2001 on settlements, not including defense costs.

Not only would Israelis generally prefer that the money be used for pressing economic needs, but most settlers would grab a buyout right now, Freedman said.

Her group bases the notion on a July 2002 poll by Israeli pollster Micha Hopp that said half of the settlers would accept compensation to leave, while 80 percent would not fight an eviction order.

In large part, the readiness of some settlers to abandon their homes stems from the Palestinian intifada. Many have found their dream — not to mention their real estate values — shattered by the violence, Freedman said.

As for those settlers still driven by religion or ideology, “that’s going to have to be part of a negotiated settlement,” Freedman said.

Israeli public opinion will not support them, if it ever did, she added.

Israeli legislator Naomi Chazan has proposed similar cash-for-relocation plans annually, but they never got off the ground.

The resettlement plan seems to be gaining some traction in the United States. Freedman said the group’s petition, which is online, is drawing about 200 signatures daily.

If the petition garners 10,000 signatures, the group will begin lobbying Congress, beginning with Jewish legislators, Freedman said.

Some American Jewish leaders opposed to the road map criticized the thinking behind petition drive.

“That any Jew would support a campaign to make any area ‘Judenrein,’ ” or free of Jews, “is revolting and racist,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

If 1 million Israeli Arabs can live among 5 million Israeli Jews, why can’t 200,000 settlers live among 2.5 million Palestinians? Klein asked.

The logic is that “the basis for the Arab war against Israel is Jews living in Judea and Samaria, when in fact between 1948 and 1967 there were three wars and constant terrorism when there was not a single Jewish settlement” in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, he said.

“People refuse to realize the real cause of the conflict is the existence of a Jewish state, not settlements,” Klein said.

A spokeswoman for the Israel Consulate in New York, Dina Wosner, said the Israeli government would not comment on the plan.

Wittes cautioned that many of the hard-core settlers remain defiant, and their outposts are filled with idealists for whom hardship is a “natural way of life.”

“These guys,” she said, “aren’t going to take a check to move back inside the Green Line.”

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