ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Settlement Dilemmas 16.9.04

Settlement Dilemmas

16 September 2004

By Yisrael Ne'eman

One would expect Israeli PM Ariel Sharon to lead in organizing a national referendum over the Gaza Disengagement controversy. According to a Teleseker poll taken on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, 58% of Israel's population favors the pullout while 29% is opposed, meaning two-thirds vs. one-third. Gush Etzion's Shaul Goldstein, representing much of the Judea and Samaria (West Bank or "Yesha") settlement leadership concurs fully, despite his public role in opposing any withdrawal. What appears to be a simple remedy is really quite complicated.

Israelis are petrified of two possibilities: a bi-national state and civil war. The Gaza Disengagement is designed to prevent the former, while serving as the first step in an approximately 50% Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Large Arab population centers will be handed over to the Palestinians, defusing the demographic time bomb. Rising demands in Europe and the Middle East for Israel and the Palestinians to form a single bi-national state have left their mark on Israel's right of center leadership led by Sharon and Vice-Premier Ehud Olmert.

The settlement movement is not unmoved by the pressures. Outwardly they are staunchly opposed to any concessions and demonstrate feverishly against all government intentions to remove settlements. Just this past week 70,000 protested against the Gaza Disengagement. But when much of the West Bank religious leadership endorses a national referendum, which they believe they will lose, something is amiss. Settlement leaders Goldstein, Pinchas Wallerstein, Yisrael Harel and others are fully aware of Sharon's efforts to avoid a bi-national state and concur. Calls for Sharon's downfall are just a lot of noise to placate the more radical, messianic elements of Israel's religious right wing.

Any decision to evacuate settlements must be seen as fully democratic and not being made by a minority of Israel's Jewish population. Only a majority decision will be held as legitimate and avoid civil conflict between extreme right wing elements and the state. The Yesha leadership needs to, and wants to, lose any challenge to Sharon and the right of center political leadership, otherwise they will fully absorb the blame for repercussions leading to civil war, a bi-national state, a breakdown in US - Israel relations and/or an economic boycott by the European Union.

The referendum is a tactic to extricate everyone from the brinkmanship mess where extremists are threatening Sharon, Olmert and others with assassination while taking the lead in challenging the state to civil conflict. But the referendum has too many, not so obvious, shortcomings and has been firmly rejected by the PM.

Officially, Sharon claims the legislation to allow for a referendum, will take far too long and upset the time table he has given the Americans. Within a few weeks monies are to be allocated for those willing to leave immediately. Sharon prefers to depend on the democratic apparatus of state, meaning a majority vote in the cabinet and another one to follow in the Knesset. The votes he lost in the Likud central committee and among party members do not interest him, since they are "advisory" at best. His Likud party has members in the government and the Knesset but they are neither the government, nor the elected Knesset.

Questions arise as to how much support he has in the Knesset within the Likud's forty member faction. At minimum he should poll between 15 to 20, and have another 50 from other factions. But still a referendum is seen as the most legitimate form of decision making and would fully cover any criticism of the Disengagement. So why the obstinacy?

Sharon faces three major drawbacks in a referendum. There are those who may support the pullout but are angry with his support for the government's hard line capitalist economic policies and would show their displeasure by voting against the pullout, even if only out of spite. The settlers, through personal contact with voters could convince many not to cause them great personal distress, using such lines as "Look at my 3 year old, your vote will make him a refugee." Many will be swayed to either vote against or not show up, similar to the Likud vote in May.

And there is what no one will discuss publicly, the Arab vote. Here Sharon faces a Lose-Lose situation. If their vote gives him a democratic majority, but he has no absolute Jewish majority, the settlers will see the referendum as illegitimate, since the Arabs will be blamed for forcing them out. The settlers demand a majority of the Jewish adult population. Furthermore, trends among Israeli Arabs not necessarily supporting a two-state solution as they did previously. Quite a few could vote against, their objective being a bi-national state. Arab Knesset members do not have the same latitude, being their votes are public, although this too, cannot be fully written off.

Sharon made a commitment to the American patron and is receiving massive diplomatic support in return. One would think the settlers would understand the necessity of American support. Most do, but need the referendum legitimacy to announce their defeat and accept the verdict of evacuation.

On the other hand, there are those who only see G-d as their patron. The Americans, the Sharon government, a referendum or anything else of this world, interest them not at all. Although a minority, they will not move and can be expected to get violent. The settlement leaders hope to corner, marginalize and neutralize them before they bring down a civil war on everyone's head.

The settlement leadership is more moderate than their demonstrative tactics may have us believe and therefore demand a referendum in the hope of publicly defeating themselves and convincing others to tow the line.