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With Withdrawal Approaching, Settler Leaders Work U.S. Ties

March 23, 2005
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At one end of a long conference table, Shaul Goldstein talks animatedly on his cell phone. During lulls in the conversation, Goldstein, vice chairman of the Yesha settlers council, leans over a sophisticated-looking speaker phone and — after several unsuccessful tries — patches into a radio station’s switchboard to set up an interview for Uzi Landau.

Landau, a Likud Knesset member and outspoken opponent of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, is reviewing his notes as he prepares to field questions from the host of a local Jewish-affairs radio program.

At the other end of the table, Adi Mintz, former chairman and a current board member of the Yesha Council, rifles through a folder filled with papers and then hurries into the hallway, where he breezes by Pinchas Wallerstein.

Wallerstein, mayor of the Binyamin Regional Council in the West Bank, is speaking on his telephone as he paces through the Jewish National Fund’s New York headquarters. JNF allowed the men to use its space last week, but did not sponsor their visit.

The atmosphere around the leaders and supporters of Israel’s settler movement is frenetic. It’s Friday morning, they’ve recently arrived in New York from Israel and they have a series of meetings and interviews before Shabbat begins.

Their mission is urgent: to raise money and political awareness among American Jews to fight the government’s plan, which gains a further sense of inevitability with each day.

“I feel we have hope,” Goldstein says. “But today it’s obvious that Sharon has succeeded in every step he took” toward withdrawal.

The trip follows an unusual, last-minute decision of the Yesha Council’s board to dispatch the four-man team to the United States. The council is engaged in an existential battle against the “disengagement” plan, which would uproot some 1,700 settler families from their homes in the Gaza Strip starting in July.

“This is not our private struggle,” Mintz says. “Whenever the government of Israel will begin to withdraw from Gaza and from Samaria,” the biblical name for the northern West Bank, “the real perspective of the Arabs will be that the Zionist dream begins to stop. This is the beginning of the end of Zionism.”

The settler leaders and their Knesset backer are not in the United States to convince anyone of the legitimacy of their cause; it’s too late for that. They’re here to appeal to their base of hard-core supporters.

“We didn’t come here to convince. We came here to raise support. Today we need mainly financial support and a little political support,” Goldstein says. “We don’t have any money anymore. We need at least $3 million urgently. If we raise one-third” on the U.S. trip, “it will be a good achievement.”

The four met with American Jewish leaders, including representatives from the American Friends of Likud and the Orthodox Union. They spent Shabbat in several New York-area Jewish communities.

It wasn’t immediately clear if they reached their fund-raising goal, but their message seemed to resonate. Norman Shabot, a friend of Landau’s and an active member of New York’s Syrian Jewish community, took Landau to three Syrian synagogues in Brooklyn over Shabbat.

“Between the three shuls, there were approximately 1,000 people in attendance, and only one had a negative comment,” Shabot says.

“They’re all quite concerned after the Oslo experience as to exactly what this experiment might end up bringing out,” he says, referring to the 1990s peace process that ended in the violent Palestinian intifada, which has continued for four and a half years.

For Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, however, the decision on whether or not to disengage from the Palestinian isn’t one for Diaspora Jews to make.

“I believe that it’s an issue to be decided by the generals and the leaders of the Jewish state, and that’s where it’s best left,” says Goldin, of congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J.

“Those religious authorities who would turn to us and say, ‘You have to help us enlist support against disengagement because it’s anti-halachic,’ my response would be that it is not a clear halachic issue,” he says, referring to Jewish religious law.

Goldstein says Yesha’s campaign will involve banners and ads in the media, but no violence.

With withdrawal approaching, both proponents and opponents of the plan are feeling the need to make themselves heard. On March 16, as the first of the Yesha leaders was arriving in New York, Israel’s point man on disengagement fielded tough questions from leaders of the Orthodox Union.

Yonatan Bassi, head of the government’s Disengagement Administration, answered questions from O.U. officials on a conference call, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the O.U.’s executive vice president, told JTA.

The queries largely sought to determine whether Bassi is “truly going to be sensitive to the people who are going to lose homes and schools and synagogues and graveyards” when Israel withdraws, Weinreb said.

Landau says terrorists, from Khan Yunis in Gaza to Kashmir, will view an Israeli withdrawal as a victory.

“It’s immediately clear that this disengagement is going to tremendously boost terrorism,” Landau says. “Terror organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad say it’s because of terror that Israel left Lebanon; because of additional terror Israel is now leaving Gaza; with some more terror Israel will leave Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem — and then the road to Tel Aviv is open.”

Palestinian groups already are trying to portray Israel’s withdrawal as proof that terrorism works. But Steve Masters, national chairman for advocacy and public policy at Brit Tzedek V’Shalom, a dovish group, dismisses that reasoning.

“I find that argument really ridiculous,” because the withdrawal plan is “sending the opposite signal,” Masters says. “It’s sending the signal that Palestinians who are committed to nonviolence and working with Israel to guarantee a secure future for Palestinians and Israelis — they’re the winners in the disengagement plan. They’re the people Prime Minister Sharon is working with as a partner.”

Goldstein, for his part, criticizes Sharon’s treatment of the settlers, who once were among his staunchest supporters.

“We think that the prime minister and his advisers must stop their incitement against our public,” he says. Otherwise, “it will push us to a corner, like a spring that you push, push, push — and finally” it lashes back at you.

The settler leaders hope to convince Sharon to initiate a public referendum on the withdrawal plan.

Many withdrawal supporters depict a referendum as a stalling tactic. But the settlers insist a referendum would delay the pullout by only a few months, and is worth the wait.

Asked if he could put a number on how confident he is that the settlers’ campaign will bear fruit, Goldstein smiles and says, “A very good Israeli number: so-so.”

Then he turns back to the business at hand, patching Landau into yet another radio show for another interview.

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