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Settlers step up protests, but Netanyahu is politically strong

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West bank settlers and their supporters, including yeshiva students, try to block traffic entering Jerusalem on Monday to protest the settlement freeze. Abir Sultan/Flash 90/JTA

JERUSALEM – In the wake of the Israeli government’s freeze on building in west bank settlements, Jewish settlers are planning widespread protests and demonstrations, including blocking roads in Israel proper.

Their aim is to delegitimize the freeze decision among the public. The danger for the settlers, however, is that if they are perceived as too extreme, their actions could actually hurt their public standing.

In a campaign reminiscent of actions by the far right in the aftermath of the Oslo agreements in the mid-1990s and the run-up to the Gaza disengagement in 2005, young radical settlers plan to keep the police guessing as they turn up randomly at major thoroughfares at different times to block the traffic.

Their first target was traffic to and from Jerusalem, where dozens of settler youths were quickly dispersed by police Monday after trying to block the main entrance to the city.

Settler youths also have been at the forefront of moves to harass government inspectors entering the settlements to issue warrants against further building. In several cases this has led to violent confrontations between settlers and police protecting the inspectors.

The worst settler violence, however, has been against Palestinians. In what they call “the price tag” policy, extremists attack nearby villages whenever they feel the government is trying to restrict settlement in any way. Over the weekend, settlers rampaged through the village of Einbus, near Nablus, torching vehicles and setting a home on fire.

Although settler leaders have spoken out against violence, they are not fully in control of the situation, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned the settler community not to cross the fine line between legitimate protest action and open rebellion. And while the mood is not as ominous as it was in the days leading up to the Rabin assassination in 1995, the Shin Bet security service has intensified its already close protection of the prime minister.

Besides the protests and demonstrations, the settlers plan legal and political action against the freeze. They have petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that the authorities had no right to implement a political freeze without the settlers first being given a hearing.

Their main hope, though, is in the political arena, where the settlers are banking on a rebellion within the Likud Party. Although the two most hawkish parties in the government, Yisrael Beiteinu and Jewish Home, have expressed deep sympathy for the settlers, they show no sign of bolting the coalition over the freeze.

Inside Likud, there has been a degree of unrest, as government ministers and Knesset members criticized the freeze as antithetical to party ideology. No one, however, has threatened to resign over it, and the chances of a full-scale rebellion within the party — like the one against Ariel Sharon over the Gaza disengagement in 2005 — are remote.

In 2005, Sharon found himself under attack from leading Likudniks like Uzi Landau and Netanyahu himself, who were ready to resign their ministerial posts to throw in their lot with the settler cause. That is not the case today, and there seems to be little likelihood of Netanyahu’s government being shaken by internal party ferment.

Nevertheless, given the threat, Netanyahu has been working hard to cultivate wide party support. He has been able to play on the trauma of the break with Sharon and to urge the rebels not to take action that again could split the party.

His second argument has been to stress that the freeze is for 10 months only and will not be repeated. On the contrary, Netanyahu says, as soon as it lapses, building will be resumed at an accelerated rate.

The prime minister also assured would-be rebels Sunday that there would be no second disengagement Gaza-style, and that the future of the west bank would be decided only in a final peace deal with the Palestinians, who thus far are showing no interest in making peace.

Apart from the fact that no ministers or Knesset members have walked out on him, Netanyahu has received strong backing from some 50 of the Likud’s veteran mayors. His position in the party seems unassailable.

Despite all the settler agitation, the government has been unwavering in its determination to implement the freeze. It has taken satellite photographs of the region to make it easy to pick up any new building, and mobilized dozens of inspectors to monitor the situation on a daily basis. Seasoned officers in the Israel Defense Forces say that for the first time, the government has issued clear and serious instructions on how to implement a building freeze.

The big question, though, is how serious Netanyahu is about using the freeze as a springboard for cutting a deal with the Palestinians. Serious implementation of the freeze doesn’t necessarily mean serious strategic intent, and several leading pundits see the freeze as nothing more than a tactic to blame the Palestinians for failure to make peace. Netanyahu himself has hinted as much, adding that the freeze also was necessary to get America in Israel’s corner on other key issues, like Iran.

His message to the settlers seems to be to wait out the 10 months, during which time nothing will happen on the Palestinian front, and then, together with the government, they can go back to the business of settlement building.

The trouble is, the settlers don’t trust Netanyahu and fear that, under pressure from the international community, he will sell them out and the freeze will serve to prepare public opinion for a territorial compromise with the Palestinians at their expense.

JTA

 
 

With wineries and tourism, settlers try to rebrand settlements for Israeli public

_JStandardWorld
Published: 24 September 2010
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The winery in the Jewish settlement of Psagot, in the west bank. Abir Sultan/Flash90/JTA

PSAGOT, west bank – Inside the cool of a cavernous wine cellar stacked high with oak barrels of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, the tensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem to fade away, even at this Jewish settlement in the heart of the west bank.

This is precisely the message a stop at the Psagot Boutique Winery is meant to convey.

It’s part of a new strategy by settler leaders to “rebrand” settlements, offering tours of settlement communities in a bid to win over an Israeli public they fear may have abandoned them either through apathy or outright hostility.

“We have been feeling that enough is enough. Stop making us look like monsters,” said Yigal Dilmoni, who directs the newly created information office for the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella organization, which is organizing the tours.

“Most people don’t realize how regular our lives here are. People wake up in the morning, go to work and are not engaged in the world of politics,” Dilmoni said.

The tours are meant to strike a stark contrast to what Dilmoni described as the common media image of settlers as violent radicals on the prowl for brawls with neighboring Palestinians.

For the Yesha Council, the significance of not having the Israeli public behind the settlement project hit home in wake of the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, when some 8,000 Jewish settlers were evacuated, some forcibly. It was a traumatic episode for the settler movement — not only because of the evacuation, but also because there was no broad Israeli uproar against it.

It was a lesson, too, in the important role played by opinion-makers — journalists, media personalities, and business leaders — in shaping Israeli society’s views, settler leaders said. This is why the Yesha Council has decided to start bringing such opinion-makers to settlements as the first phase of their attempt to improve their public standing.

Avri Gilad, a well-known Israel media personality, told listeners on a radio show the day after he returned from such a tour that it dramatically changed his view of the settlements.

“I went on a tour that revolutionized my awareness of settlements in Samaria,” he said on the show. “I visited places I was raised to detest. I returned in a state of confusion: confusion about the injustice done to citizens who were called on by the state to settle, given building permits, and then frozen out. I was surprised to meet people with whom I had a lot to talk about, with great warmth and intimacy.”

An earlier public relations strategy, an ambitious project of billboards and advertisements briefly launched in 2008 under the slogan “Judea and Samaria, The Story of Every Jew,” proved successful but too expensive to maintain over the long term, Dilmoni said.

Dilmoni, 40, an earnest and energetic geographer and urban planner by training, believes that no one comes away unmoved from seeing the settler enterprise up close, even if political opinions remain unchanged.

About 320,000 Israeli Jews live in the west bank. They believe the land is their biblical birthright, and successive Israeli governments have supported that notion. But the land also is territory that Palestinians claim as their future state.

The settlements, viewed as illegal by much of the international community and a threat to the country’s long-term survival by critics inside Israel, have become one of the major issues of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

They also threaten to derail the recently relaunched direct peace talks between the two sides. (See pages 15, 16, and 27.) Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has declared that he’d pull out of the talks if Israel did not extend a 10-month freeze on construction in settlements that is set to expire Sept. 26.

The message of the tours, Dilmoni said while driving visitors along a stretch of highway that cut through a valley surrounded by ancient terraced hilltops, is “Come here and see what has been built here and then decide what to think.”

The settlement tours constitute a packed day. They begin early in the morning, end at sunset, and include stops and conversations at a range of settlements — large and more urban ones like Ariel, and smaller ones like Kida, which have sweeping views of the desert unfolding into Jordan. They end with a return to the Israeli side of the Green Line — the pre-1967 border between Israel and Jordan that demarcates the west bank.

In the past, when settlers gave tours of Judea and Samaria — the biblical name for the west bank — the focus was on security and the role of their homes as strategic buffers because they sit on the mountain range overlooking the Mediterranean coastal strip to the west and Jordan to the east.

Now a “softer,” more human-interest spotlight has been purposefully chosen, one in which visitors can do a wine tasting at the winery in Psagot, part of a new multimillion-dollar visitors’ center for the Binyamin region that is set to open over the Sukkot holiday.

During a visit there last week, workers were rushing to finish building a room that will house more than a dozen touch-screen computer terminals offering information about the area. The center is a sleek new complex that also boasts event space and a small movie theater with plush orange seats that will show a short feature film about a young man who, on the verge of leaving the country for a job in London, “returns to his roots” to tend land on a settlement.

The itinerary for the settlement tours also includes home visits. At the edge of the settlement of Eli, home to 700 families, a woman named Eliana Passentin, 36, stands in her backyard overlooking an expanse of sloping terraced hillsides and speaks of her passion for living alongside the history of the Bible.

Explaining the view, she points out an Arab village whose name in mentioned in the Bible for producing especially fine wine. She also points to the ancient site of Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was once housed, providing the central site for Israelite worship for 400 years.

Passentin describes how her home, located in a neighborhood the Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled was built illegally and has ordered to be razed, was built with the area’s history in mind.

“The dining room windows look out onto Shiloh,” she said, “and from the living room we can see the site of Judah Macabee’s first and then final battle.”M.p<

JTA

 
 
 
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