Near El Arish, in the northern Sinai, twenty-five miles across the pre-1967 border, a cluster of red-roofed concrete boxes stands defiant on the sand dunes—Neot Sinai, one of the seventeen Israeli settlements that have been built in this area since Israel took it over from the Egyptians in 1967.
There are only twenty families in this cooperative, set up in 1973. All of them are stout supporters of Israeli Premier Menachem Begin. “We’re the government’s people, and this is the government’s cooperative,” declares Yitzhak Regev, a tanned and bearded figure who is Neot Sinai’s secretary. The framed letter bearing the crest of the state of Israel and displayed beside his desk underscores his point. “Dear friends,” it reads,
I was happy to read your letter telling me of your members’ meeting decision on 12 November, 1977. In the name of my wife and I, please accept our thanks for your unanimous decision to accept us as full members of the cooperative.
The letter was signed by Menachem Begin and dated December 1, 1977, just one week after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s momentous visit to Jerusalem.
The premier intends to make Neot Sinai his home when he retires, much as Israel’s founding statesman David BenGurion, a lifelong enemy of Begin, whom he referred to as “that man,” retired to a kibbutz in the Negev desert. But while Ben-Gurion chose his home inside Israel proper, Begin has chosen his inside Egyptian territory.
Menachem Begin never tires of saying that no man on earth wants peace more than he. President Sadat says he has offered just that: peace in return for the Arab territories conquered by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, and specifically, for Egypt, the return of the Sinai Peninsula including Neot Sinai and the other settlements. But as many times as Premier Begin has said that he wants peace, he has also said that the northern Sinai settlements will remain under Israeli control. And his loudest statement to this effect was not in any public speech, but in the letter proudly displayed in a sandy office cubicle 100 miles from Jerusalem.
Even before Begin’s rise to power a year ago, Israel’s settlements in the territories it conquered in 1967 never seemed to be negotiable—whether on the Golan Heights to the north, in the West Bank of the Jordan River to the east, or in the sands and rock of Sinai to the south. The Allon plan of the late 1960s called for returning much of the West Bank territory populated by Arabs while retaining the West Bank settlements. Wherever and whenever Israelis have set up civilian settlements, these have been permanent. This is part of Israel’s ideology, part of the way it established its borders in the 1948 war of independence, when it lost only the few settlements whose defenders were killed to the last inhabitant.
It is a matter of pride that Israel has never given up a settlement of its own will. As Golda Meir put it in July 1969: “Wherever we settle, that’s where our borders will be. Outsiders have never, and will never, determine our borders.” The sentiment has been echoed throughout the years by former premier Levi Eshkol, former defense minister and present opposition leader Shimon Peres, former premier Yitzhak Rabin—and, of course, current premier Menachem Begin.
The settlements were not seen as bargaining points, something to be conceded were the Arabs to retract their three “no’s” of the Khartoum Summit in September 1967: no peace, no recognition of Israel, no negotiation. They were predicated on the permanence of these “no’s,” and thus on the impossibility of returning territory for nothing. Their role was to strengthen Israel’s claim to the land it had occupied, to “establish facts” in the style of Israel’s pre-independence days in the faith that with time the world would recognize Israel’s claim to the land it had settled.
Time did not do what Israel’s leaders thought it would do. Israel saw peace as always awaited, never to arrive. And while ostensibly waiting, the country acted in the conviction that it would not arrive. Then the impossible happened, in the unlikely form of President Sadat addressing Israel’s parliament on November 20, 1977.
Ever since 1967, Sadat said, Israel had maintained that the basic problem was not territories, or even refugees, but the Arab states’ refusal to come to terms with and accept Israel’s presence in the Mideast. Now he offered the three elements that Israel had always stressed above all: direct talks, no more war, and, more important, recognition of Israel’s sovereignty. The quid proquo was the only thing that Israel had to give: territory.
Over a month later, Premier Begin formulated Israel’s answer: Israel was willing to recognize Egyptian sovereignty over Sinai, but insisted on retaining control of its civilian settlements there, and of the three major military air bases close by. On the West Bank, however, Israel would not concede territory: the most it would consider was self-rule for the Arab inhabitants of the West Bank, with Israel maintaining military control of the area, and with its settlements remaining where they are.
If the Golda Meir government had seemed intransigent on the issue of territorial concession on the West Bank, all the more so the Begin government, led by a man for whom History counts even more than military security. As soon as Begin came to power, his political language was introduced throughout the Israeli press. “Liberated territories” instead of “administered territories” (“occupied territories” had long been lingua non grata); “the land of Israel” to indicate all the land within the present borders, including the occupied territories; the Biblical names of Judea and Samaria for the West Bank. Asked right after the elections if he would annex the West Bank, Begin replied: “We don’t use the word annexation. You annex foreign territory, not your own.”
A man for whom the events of four thousand years ago are as real politically as those of a week ago, Begin sees the West Bank as part of the historic land of Israel—and thus as part of modern Israel. To let it go into foreign hands again is for him unthinkable. And to give up any settlements elsewhere, such as in Sinai, is a precedent for giving up settlements and territory in the West Bank.
Begin’s senior aides have a more recent sense of history, one based on the twentieth-century story of Israel’s fight for independence and the continuing Mideast conflict since then. At his right hand on the settlement issue is “mon général,” as Begin calls him—the flamboyant Arik Sharon, whose election to parliament as the head of a two-man faction enabled him to become both agriculture minister and the influential head of the ministerial settlement committee, responsible for settlement policy.
Sharon’s cowboy style both in private on his ranch and in public is in keeping with his treatment of the territories as if this were the Wild West, where land is up for grabs for those with the daring to grab it. He is a forthright expansionist, whose thinking is guided above all by military strategy but also, one suspects, by the aura of “Arik King of Israel,” the title accorded him by the public when he turned the tide of the 1973 Yom Kippur war by leading Israeli paratroopers over the Suez Canal. He likes room to maneuver in, both militarily and psychologically. Explaining his policy some months ago, he said:
It all depends on what kind of Israel one envisions: an overcrowded, nervous, irritating and ecologically sick strip of concrete along the coast, or an ecologically healthy country with a sound distribution of its millions of inhabitants over a much larger area.
At Begin’s left hand is Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, the only one in Israel’s leadership to have struck up good personal relations with President Sadat. An urbane politician and former head of Israel’s air force, Weizman favors “proper” organized settlement in large numbers in the West Bank, as opposed to what Israelis call the “partisan” style favored by Sharon, who still operates in the “stockade and watchtower” style of Israel’s pre-independence days when settlements were set up literally overnight.
A man of political common sense, Weizman insisted on a freeze on all new settlement work while negotiations with Egypt and the United States were underway—a freeze imposed belatedly and now apparently lifted. He wisely refrains from talking about his settlement plans, aware of the explosive potential of the issue at this time. Even Arik Sharon is now cutting down on what one observer called his “open-mouth policy,” though a February remark by his chief aide that “settlements in Sinai are more important than negotiations with Egypt” passed unreprimanded by Begin.
In the shadows of the cabinet is Deputy Premier Yigael Yadin, who won a fifteen-man faction in the parliament but whose murky policy consists of generalized principles with no specific plans. Though he favors some form of territorial compromise, Yadin joined a government adamantly opposed to any concession on the West Bank. Thus while purporting to play “the good guy” from within (“I can do more to influence government policy from within than without”), he is doing little more than assuring the government a comfortable majority. And his integrity was seriously undermined when, to what should be his everlasting shame, this internationally respected archaeologist did not resign from a government that used archaeology as a blatant excuse to cover up an illegal settlement attempt at Shilo on the West Bank in March 1978.
Shilo, the center of a short-lived international furor, is a group of eight caravans surrounded by a barbed-wire fence on an exposed rocky hillside twenty-five miles north of Jerusalem. Its only access is the steep pot-holed gravel lane carved out by the settlers themselves in March.
This is indeed a rich archaeological site, the first center of the Israelite religion after Joshua led his people into Palestine and a major shrine in the times of the Biblical judges. But the eight families now living there have never used an archaeologist’s spade in their lives. “We had an arrangement with government authorities that we’d be allowed to live here as archaeologists until they could arrange a regular residential permit,” Shilo’s young secretary, Shevah Weiss, explained to me. “No,” he smiled, “none of us is doing any archaeology. It was merely an arrangement of convenience.”
No one has yet discovered who gave the Shilo group the go-ahead, if anyone. They, of course, are not saying. But they are also not budging.
The Shilo settlers are all members of Gush Emunim—the Faith Bloc—a small but vociferous movement, fiercely nationalist, with strong antiliberal views and an element of racism. Its members’ fervent national and historical consciousness is based on religion: since they believe divine law overrides secular law, they dismiss democracy with contempt and direct their public appeal to the emotions and away from rational thinking.
Though the “Gush” was formally established only in 1974, its members have been a vexation for all Israel’s governments since 1967, because of their insistence on settling the heartland of the West Bank—the hill areas of the Arab population centers. Gush Emunim’s dramatic tactics include midnight sorties to establish “facts” overnight, prolonged but bloodless confrontations with the Israeli army, and settlement under the guise not only of archaeologists but also of army personnel—an “arrangement” first worked out with Defense Minister Shimon Peres (now opposition leader) in 1975 and later adopted by Begin on a larger scale.
Despite its tiny size (at most some 2,500 settlers with the support of only a few thousand more within Israel proper), the Gush, and its founders before it, has intimidated Israeli governments, including that of Menachem Begin, into approving its actions. All but one of its seventeen illicit settlements—Shilo—have received ex post facto government approval, whether explicit or implicit.
The Gush’s method of intimidation is based not on violence but on emotional appeal. As the self-appointed guardians of what they call “a great revival movement in the Jewish nation,” the Gush people weigh heavily on the consciences of politicians who have to make the daily compromises of office. “The state of Israel doesn’t know why it exists,” says Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a leader of Gush Emunim, an ascetic-looking man with yellowish pallor, bad teeth, and a voice that rarely descends from hysteria. “That’s why we’re here, to make the state realize what it exists for.”
Israel’s existence, the Faith Bloc zealots claim, is part of the process of redemption, and will eventually lead to the coming of the Messiah. On the way, Israel will have to fulfill to the letter every condition in the Bible, including Israeli conquest of all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates. This is the true meaning of Zionism, they claim, and nothing can stop it, since it is a divinely imposed process.
Nevertheless, the divine will can be helped on its way. As Levinger explains it, eyes glowing with faith, “Sometimes, a loved child can be bad, and so you have to beat him. You ask how, if I’m talking about justice and honesty, I can lead people into action against the laws of the state of Israel? Simple. If the government makes laws against the natural way of the Jewish people, then it’s just not normal, it’s unhealthy. So we have to use force in such situations. The state will realize that we’re right in the long run, as will the whole world.”
While tear gas, truncheons, and even guns have been used against Arab-Israeli demonstrators, and water cannons and truncheons against Israeli leftists, no force has ever been used by either army or police against the demonstrations and unauthorized settlements of Gush Emunim. For having set itself up as the conscience of Judaism, the Gush manipulates a deep emotional appeal. No Jewish premier could stand up to the accusation of “how could one Jew do this to another?” and least of all Menachem Begin, for whom the very idea of a Jewish army spilling Jewish blood is abhorrent. Thus, although Israeli law stipulates two years in jail as the sentence for illegal settlement in the occupied territories—i.e., residence for over forty-eight hours without a military government permit—this sentence has never been imposed. Indeed, no case has ever been brought to court.
There are other reasons for the tolerance accorded Gush Emunim. The movement has the support of a variety of members of the Knesset, all for their own political reasons. Its religious hysteria, for example, can only be anathema to the heartily secular Arik Sharon, but its actions coincide with his plans for settling the heartland of the West Bank—and also aid him in cabinet infighting.
Moreover, the Gush has the passive support of many Israelis who agree with neither its tactics nor its ideology: at worst, they see its actions as impolitic. There is a widespread consensus in Israel that Jews do have a historic right to settle in “the land of Israel,” although the consensus on how to implement this right is not nearly so firm.
Despite its authoritarian ideology, then, Gush Emunim has no need to oppose Israeli democracy. It gains its aims partly within it, partly despite it, using the gaps in the bureaucratic administration of democracy to play one government institution off against another and to establish its settlements as facts meanwhile. The government is then left with the job of covering up—whether by calling the new settlers defense ministry employees or archaeologists.
The sheer confusion of Israel’s settlement policy throughout the years has also aided the Gush. This confusion reaches down to even the most basic fact of all—the number of all Israeli settlers in the occupied territories.
The Jewish Agency, which works with the World Zionist Organization to finance new settlements in the territories, quotes three different sets of statistics, from 6,500 to 10,000. “You think you’re confused?” a high agency official quipped. “I’ve been working on this for years, and I’m confused.” The central bureau of statistics says that the number is “about 10,000.” Arik Sharon, head of the ministerial settlement committee, quotes a total of 11,000. Leftist politicians claim there are only 6,000; and the defense ministry, under whose aegis the military government administers all affairs in the occupied territories, gives the figure of 13,750.
One startling fact emerges from this confusion: average all the numbers and you find that the Israeli settlers are barely one-third of one percent of Israel’s Jewish population.
The figure is amazingly small in view of the obstacles the settlers pose to peace. The government clearly feels the same way. In 1970, the Jewish Agency planned for 20,000 Israelis in the Golan Heights by 1978, but there are only some 3,000 there today. Arik Sharon speaks bombastically of two million Jews throughout the territories by the year 2000. Defense Minister Ezer Weizman envisions six towns in the West Bank with a population close to a quarter of a million. Menachem Begin’s Likud party plans forty-three new settlements in the territories within the next three years, and the Jewish Agency thirty-one. Neither planners nor politicians, however, can say where these new settlers will come from. Certainly most of the Israeli population prefers to stay where it is.
All Israel’s governments have pointedly refrained from annexing the territories (with the exception of east Jerusalem). Some Israeli leaders have wanted to hold open possibilities for partial return of the territories, as in the Allon plan, but a stronger motive has been fear of absorbing another million and a half Arabs into Israel’s population of three million Jews and half a million Arabs. The principal argument between the former Labor governments and the present one is thus not over annexation, or even over expansion, but over the size of expansion.
Israel will not return to the 1967 borders, with only a seven-mile-wide strip of land between the West Bank and the Mediterranean, right at the country’s most heavily populated sector. The vulnerability of such borders was largely responsible for the Israeli tendency to equate territory with security. Territory would, it was widely felt, provide the primary elements of security, such as warning time in case of attack, an area to fight in away from population centers—what the professionals call “strategic depth.” Israel proper, with its main population centers right on the border, affords none of these elements. Thus, very few Israelis envision the “minor adjustments” of the 1971 Rogers Plan as possible borders in a peace settlement. Nevertheless, there is a wide variety of political views to choose from between the Rogers Plan and maintaining the present borders. (Among the possibilities discussed, to cite only one example, is phased withdrawal of Israeli occupation troops combined with closely inspected demilitarization of each area they leave.)
Israel’s previous governments never committed themselves to any particular view. True, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan stated in 1973 that the settlements would establish Israel’s future borders. And Premier Yitzhak Rabin declared in January 1977 that settlement was “a challenge for all those who wish to renew, expand, and establish defensible borders for Israel.” But the issue of exactly how much would stay part of Israel in the unlikely event of a peace settlement was left deliberately vague. Both the Meir and the Rabin governments resolutely refused to “draw maps.” as they put it. Little wonder, for as more and more settlements went up—to a total of ninety-one today, including four townships—it became impossible to draw any map that would not involve giving up settlements.
Despite its avowed intention of increasing settlement in the West Bank, the Begin government has deliberately caused more confusion on settlement policy, especially since the Sadat visit made the issue central to possible peace negotiations. The government has increasingly resorted to devious steps to maintain its settlement momentum in the face of the peace momentum that the United States is trying to sustain.
When Menachem Begin visited Washington for the first time as premier in July 1977, for example, a senior aide told Israeli reporters that they were being unpatriotic if they asked questions about the new government’s settlement policy. Since Sadat’s visit, it is even harder to find out exactly what policy is in effect. While negotiations were going on with Egypt in January, Arik Sharon ordered bulldozers in northern Sinai to clear the land for new settlements. In the ensuing hue and cry, government agencies and ministries fell over themselves in contradictions, maintaining that the bulldozers were merely expanding existing settlements, that they had already stopped work, and that in any case they were never there.
Finally, at Defense Minister Weizman’s insistence, the land-clearing work was stopped—for a time. In April, the freeze was lifted, or more precisely, “redefined.” This became necessary because of a series of Israeli press reports that work was going on—in the Gush Emunim West Bank settlement of Nebi Salah—despite the official freeze, and that 270 new families would settle in northern Sinai later this year.
Government policy, one suspects, is readjusted to fit what the public knows, and the clear impression from government spokesmen is that the less the public knows, the better. “Everything was nice and quiet on the settlement issue until these reports about Nebi Salah started appearing,” one senior spokesman complained.
In late April, Arieh Naor, the cabinet secretary, gave the latest formulation of government settlement policy. For the time being, he said, there will only be expansion of existing settlements in Sinai, and no new ones will be built. But he stressed that this limitation on new settlements does not apply to the West Bank. This reformulation came just a few days after the whole issue of settlement policy was put under wraps: the cabinet decided to transfer responsibility for settlement policy from the ministerial settlement committee to the ministerial security committee—all of whose work is top secret.
The security committee will now decide in secret on whether to settle, and if so, when, and where, while the settlement committee will deal with the details of how. This unprecedented reclassification of settlement policy as a matter of top security reflects the government’s awareness of its sensitivity at this time, and its wish to keep its policy as shrouded in silence as possible. But the government is also misusing the powers of the security committee: the issue of settlement does indeed concern security in so far as Israel runs a serious risk of another war if it goes ahead with its settlement plans. But the issue is essentially a political one.
The Begin government, it appears, is attempting to juggle two diametrically opposed concepts into an impossible harmony: more land settlement, and a peace settlement too. Its main purpose seems to be to deny the need to decide which kind of “settlement” it wants more.
Riding the horns of the government’s dilemma are the settlers themselves, people who are far removed from the world of international negotiations and whose main concerns in life are everyday ones, of home and livelihood. Very few among them are fanatics or sympathetic to Gush Emunim. Most of them live in settlements affiliated with agricultural movements associated with the Labour Alignment, although in the last election over half of them voted for Menachem Begin’s Likud bloc. Many are young idealists who believed that pioneering was a good and useful thing to do and never thought much about the implications of their actions.
Time has caught up with them too, although they are reluctant to consider the political implications of the settlements. Zeevi Maor, for instance, is the good-looking, soft-spoken secretary of Kibbutz Kalya, a group of squat white buildings on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, just three miles from the lowest point on earth. This too is the West Bank. Steep gullies divide the kibbutz from the surrounding duncolored slopes. Above it rise the cliffs of Qumran, where the Essenes ran their heretic Jewish community two thousand years ago.
It is not hospitable country: “A commune is the only possible way to survive here,” Zeevi told me. The average age of Kalya’s thirty-five members is twenty-three: some of them belonged to the last military group that lived there when Kalya was still an army outpost (from 1967 to 1974, when it became a civilian settlement). Youth is perhaps essential for the exhausting and frustrating work of trying to raise crops on some of the saltiest land anywhere, in temperatures that can soar to over 120 degrees in summer.
Zeevi blushes at the word “pioneer”—it seems to make him uneasy. “You know, the question is, what is a pioneer? Someone whom others follow, or a victim, a flag? We are trying not to be anyone’s flag, but simply to build our lives as we want. Most of the people here have been through one war already, and we dream of something very different. I don’t think there’s any tendency to see ourselves as the spearhead of some kind of struggle, if that’s what pioneering means. I guess what we’re doing is pioneering in a way, but without thinking too much about the goals we might be serving. We just want to build a home here.”
Despite the earnest dedication and the cheerfulness with which they face their difficulties at Kalya, or perhaps because of them, there is an almost blithe avoidance of the fact that by living as settlers they may radically alter their country’s future—and their dreams of never fighting another war. Zeevi’s very first remark to me was: “Listen, you should know one thing about this place: the people here really aren’t into politics.”
The avoidance of politics is echoed twenty-five miles up the Jordan Valley in the cooperative of Phatsael, where Katchke Caspi maintains that politics played no part in his decision to settle here seven years ago.
The listener may try to argue the point. After all, Katchke knew that Phatsael was in occupied territory: he knew that by settling there he was making it far less likely that Israel would ever withdraw. How can he deny that it was a political act?
Katchke just laughs. He tilts back on his chair, his submachine gun resting on his knees. Wearing blue overalls, and with a full day’s growth of beard, he looks anything but a farmer. “Listen,” he finally says, “we came here because it was a new place to be, a chance to start out a new life of our own.” Sweeping his arm in an expansive arc over the vista of the valley, bisected by the rivulet of the Jordan, he says, “Look at it, it’s beautiful land. So what if it’s in the West Bank? We came to build our homes here, not to do politics….” He raises his hands high. “Politics! Politics is what you make out of it. You ask about giving up the West Bank, so for you it’s a question. For me? It never occurred to me that we’d give it up when I came here, and it never occurs to me now. This is where the government decided there’d be a settlement, for good security reasons, and this is where I came. I leave the politics to others—it has nothing to do with me or my life.”
Katchke Caspi and Zeevi Maor, however, can’t help being aware that their settlements have become of political importance. In fact, it is their very awareness that makes their denial understandable. For it is a sine qua non for nearly every Israeli one talks to (except for members of Gush Emunim, for whom peace is irrelevant) that Israel wants peace more than any other nation in the world. And for any Israeli even to entertain the thought that he may be hindering rather than advancing peace is to be put in a completely untenable position.
So the settlers concentrate on the idealistic pioneering side of their lives, often describing it with the romantic adventurism of youth. Nearly all of them “went up to the land,” as the Israeli phrase introduced sixty years ago has it, in their early twenties. Their average age now is about twenty-eight. The idea of building a new society together with their friends has an intense appeal for these young people: gaining the territories presented a new opportunity for those who felt that the excitement and challenge of Israel’s prestate days was past. As Katchke Caspi puts it: “Every pioneering generation has its own time, and this is ours.”
This feeling is especially strong in the Rafiah Salient, the triangular ninety-square-mile area of sand dunes bordering the Mediterranean Sea in northern Sinai, just below the Gaza Strip. The township of Yamit, with nearly 2,000 people, is meant to be its commercial and cultural center. From a distance, it looks as though a child had been playing with building blocks in a sandpit, neatly pushing the blocks together into rows and then building a fence around them to keep the sand out. If the sea were not just down the road, with its fringe of palm trees, the harshness of sand and concrete would make Yamit a nightmare.
Adi Smoler, a construction engineer, was one of Yamit’s first citizens (who have cheerily called their home a city since they first came here in 1975). His grandfather was a pioneer farmer in California’s San Fernando Valley, who is now very proud of his pioneering grandson. Adi grins and shrugs. “I missed the early settling movement in Israel,” he says, “so I figured I’d start something new here, at Yamit. People would say ‘you came to Israel as a nine-year-old kid, you didn’t really have any choice in the matter, you were just brought here.’ So okay, here’s a pioneering decision I made on my own.” About withdrawal from the area, all he says is: “To return this land is simply not a question. It’s obvious that Yamit is essential to Israel’s security.”
Another of the township’s founders, the journalist Zvi Arenstein, is one of the few settlers I talked to who have become disillusioned. “The government assured us that there was no problem with our being in occupied territory,” he remembers. “They said it would become part of Israel. Everyone was trying to make us feel secure here. When I look back, I realize we just took it for granted when they said there was no problem, because that’s what we wanted to believe, we were so caught up in this dream of starting something from nothing, a new town rising from the dunes.”
Five miles down the road is the cooperative of Sadot, close to a collection of concrete pillars each topped with a rusted fragment of charred tank that is a memorial to the dead of Israel’s tank brigades in the 1967 war. The first civilian settlement to go up in northern Sinai, in 1971, Sadot is also the most prosperous. It is not hard to do well on these farms. Like the Jordan Valley settlements, most of the Rafiah settlements concentrate on high-value winter export crops for the European market, in particular tomatoes, flowers, and more recently, mangoes.
“It was clear that we’d stay when we came here,” said Shimon Ilan, a sturdy man with a solid farming background, someone who clearly prefers to do rather than to talk. “Who had to think about it? There was no room for any questions as to whether this would stay part of Israel. It was obvious it would.”
The settlers I spoke to lean heavily on the word “obvious.” They tend to be politically naïve, willing to follow their government, and, for their own reasons, are not inclined to think too much about the implications of their actions. They are the rank-and-file, the ones who actually go out and do rather than plan policy. Actively encouraged by their government to settle, they invested physical and emotional energy and sometimes also money in building what they considered permanent homes. Now they cannot conceive that these homes might be anything less than permanent. They can be compensated for the financial cost, but not for what they have spent emotionally and physically. The thought that they might have wasted seven, eight, or ten years of their lives on an unsuccessful political exercise would be unbearable to most of them.
The chief rationalization for settlement, used by all Israel’s governments since 1967, is security. But ironically, as Yamit’s Zvi Arenstein pointed out, these same governments made great efforts to ensure that the settlers themselves felt secure, that they could count absolutely on government support. What was obvious to the settlers, then, was what the government wanted to be obvious to them.
Taken literally, the security argument does not hold up. “Kindergartens on the border are hardly a great contribution to defense,” the Ha’aretz military commentator, Zeev Schiff, wrote in April, pointing out that the Golan Heights settlements had to be evacuated on the first day of the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
But there is a political as well as a military side to the security argument. Some policymakers from the Meir and Rabin days explain that the settlements’ purpose is to establish a political claim for the presence of military forces: the army could justifiably be deployed so as to defend the civilians, thus assuring Israel secure borders away from the main population centers. Other advocates of the settlements see their main value as a tripwire: if an agreement is broken and an Arab country moves missiles or tanks up to or over the border, the lives of Israeli civilians in the settlements would be threatened, thus giving Israel a solid political justification for a defensive war. Either way, the settlements are predicated on the permanence of the risk of war.
The settlers concur. None I talked to could really conceive of peace, not even after the Sadat visit. When the argument is pushed to a hypothetical choice between abandoning their settlements for peace or staying there without peace, they do indeed—with the exception of Gush Emunim—say “yes,” they would leave. But they follow up very quickly with “but that’s not possible,” or “but that will never be.”
They seem to have little conception of peace as a process or an achievable goal, nor do they have any sense that Israel’s security needs may be as much a matter of political circumstances as of territory and topography. In this respect, the settlers express the prevailing feeling in Israel.
Perhaps it is inevitable that Israelis find it so hard to conceive of peace at this point in their history. Defense Minister Ezer Weizman expressed part of this inability while reflecting on the emotional shock of his first visit to Cairo in thirty years: “When suddenly, after thirty years of warfare, a hand is extended, the predictable occurs—you distrust the outstretched hand.” What Israelis call their “security problem” is compounded by feelings of insecurity—a national insecurity that strikes deep in the consciousness of all Israeli citizens.
One of the people outside Israel who has described the dimensions of this feeling is Egypt’s President Sadat. “The Jewish people have a special problem,” he told Anis Mansour, editor of Egypt’s October magazine in January.
The Jews have been living in fear for thousands of years. They lived in ghettos fearing majority populations everywhere…. They were exposed to many massacres and persecutions. All that deepened their feeling of fear….
Life itself is their problem. They are not threatened by a lack of food or housing. But they are threatened in merely maintaining an existence. That is why they have been truly terrified by the slogan “we will bury you in the sea.” That is why the word “security” means “life”—that is, to be or not to be.
President Sadat, in this statement, perceived the depth of meaning the word “security” has acquired for Israelis, who have found a bitter irony in the fact that the one place they thought to be safe, Israel, has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for a Jew to be. After thirty years of existence, Israel still must defend its right to exist.
Israel, then, is tightly bound into the elementary struggle of the Jews to survive as an entity. And in reaction to fear, as part of this struggle, Israelis have developed a deep distrust of all but concrete proof. Most Israelis dismissed the disengagement and interim agreements with Egypt in 1974 and 1975 as “mere pieces of paper,” which of course they were. For the Arab contribution to the peace process is one of intangibles, of agreements and pledges, whereas the Israeli quid pro quo is the most tangible thing of all—territory, a place to build homes, grow food, run factories, the real concrete everyday things of life which carry within them the reassurance of continuity of that life.
The security argument for the settlements cannot be understood apart from such deep feelings of insecurity—it does not depend only on the myriad and often contradictory reasonings of military strategy. And Israel’s decision to settle the occupied territories over the years as if they would always remain part of Israel becomes comprehensible in the light of such deep-rooted fears.
The full dimensions of the security argument also reveal the scope of the psychological change necessary for Israel to take advantage of the unique opportunity offered by President Sadat’s initiative. The main problem is no longer Sinai, where Israel is willing to return most of the territory, but the West Bank. Sadat demands at least an Israeli declaration of willingness for territorial compromise on the West Bank—an area never under his jurisdiction but where some concession is vital to his standing within the Arab world. But the Israeli government has absolutely refused to express such willingness.
On this point, Israel’s formal Labor opposition has finally come to life, albeit on a rather low level. Shimon Peres, the parliamentary opposition leader, has called for the government to declare its willingness in principle for concessions on the West Bank, but that is as far as he goes. For the opposition is bound by its own past. The ironic fact is that the Begin government has set up fewer settlements in its year in power than the Rabin government in the year before it, and it is owing to Labor’s policies throughout the years that territorial concession is now impossible without dismantling settlements.
The “informal” opposition is somewhat livelier. Israel’s first grass-roots peace movement—the “Peace Now” campaign—has sprung up on the issue of settlement policy and territorial concession. In one sense, the Peace Now movement was an accident: its founders were three young reserve army officers who drafted a letter to Begin asking that he be more flexible in peace negotiations and then passed it on to other reserve officer friends to sign. Three hundred did so, but none of them dreamed that this letter would snowball into a movement that could organize a rally attracting 35,000 people or collect 60,000 signatures to a statement including the following points:
We believe that peace today is not an idea that belongs only to the world of magic but a real, attainable value that can be weighed and evaluated in political terms.
We believe that settlements and territories cannot take the place of peace.
We believe that lasting peace is the best security border.
After a late April meeting with Premier Begin, the Peace Now leaders are convinced that he prefers control over the West Bank to peace. They plan to continue their campaign for a softer stand by letters, advertisements, demonstrations, meetings, vigils, and other democratic means of protest.
For Premier Begin, however, it is the non-democrats who have the louder voice—the fanatics of Gush Emunim for whom peace does not matter compared to the glory of possession of the Biblical land of Israel. Their fight is a holy one, which speaks to the heart of the deeply religious premier.
But there are other kinds of holiness, such as that which motivates one of Begin’s most loyal supporters—Yitzhak Regev, the secretary of the premier’s home-to-be in Neot Sinai. Sitting in his office amid the sand dunes of northern Sinai, the premier’s letter on his desk, Regev explained to me what he means by “holy.” “I’m not even thinking in terms of whether this is part of the land of Israel,” he said.
But listen, Israel’s fought over this stretch of land so many times. I’ve fought here only once, and I still have the scars to show for it, like many of the men here. And like many others, I’ve sat hearing the words of a dying friend on the battlefield saying, “next time you come here, don’t let it be by war.”
It’s become a law for the people who fought here that we should never have to fight for it again. I’m sure the place has military value. But for me the main thing is to keep it because otherwise we’ll only be forced into fighting for it again…. Gush Emunim? I respect their motives, sure, but they’re not mine. I respect what’s holy to them, but they can’t grasp what’s holy to me. I can understand why they act the way they do, but I don’t accept it. They have to remember that they’re part of the state of Israel, just as we do, and respect its laws. I mean, they talk about Jerusalem and the Western Wall being holy. Well, for me this place is holy, because a lot of blood’s been spilled here. And if you ask me, personally, which place is holier, it’s here. I haven’t been to the Wall, but here, I’ve fought.
There are indeed many kinds of holiness, but of them all, there is one that Israel holds, and has always held, most holy: security. And a country which has come to equate security with territory, and settlement of that territory, now has to face a new question, the question of where its security lies—in settlements that make a peace agreement impossible, or in a peace agreement that makes settlements impossible. It is a question that Israel’s reserve officers in the Peace Now movement have raised but which its government and much of its population are still trying to ignore.