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A Civil War in Israel Over the Settlements?

By Robert Freedman

      In the past few weeks as rumors of a possible US-Israeli deal for a partial West Bank settlement freeze have surfaced, opposition to such an agreement  has grown in orthodox Religious Zionist and right-wing circles in Israel. This opposition has not only threatened to exacerbate tensions between orthodox and non-orthodox  Jews in Israel and in  the United States, but also to create the conditions for a civil war in Israel.

        In an effort to gather support for the settler cause,  a group of Israeli Orthodox Rabbis, headed by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, sent a letter to US Rabbis and to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, urging them to lobby American authorities to reconsider their policy of seeking to stop the construction in West Bank settlements, asserting that American Jews should "give weight to Halakhic considerations that are binding for the Jews". If the issue of the settlements were not such a serious one in US-Israeli relations, the letter of the Rabbis  could be considered comical, if not ironic. Here are a group of Israeli Rabbis who in past years have done everything possible to delegitimate the Reform,Conservative and Reconstructionist movements in Israel and the United States, with Rabbi Amar taking the lead in many of these efforts, now turning  to American Jews and their Rabbis---90% of whom are not Orthodox---for their support to lobby the US Government "on Halakhik grounds".   Perhaps had these same Rabbis been more solicitous of the needs  of the non-orthodox Jewish communities in both Israel and the United States in previous years their call might have gained more support. As it is, the Reform Community in the United States has already come out in support of the  President Obama's settlement freeze initiative, and it is highly doubtful whether the Conservative and Reconstructionist Jewish communities will support the Israeli rabbis. Indeed, the end result of the Israeli Rabbis' exhortation, may be another exacerbation of relations between the orthodox and non-orthodox Jewish communities in Israel and the United States.

         If  the letter of the Israeli Rabbis is unlikely to have much impact, the public threat  made by Israel Harel, a right-wing Israeli commentator who was the founder of the Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea,Samaria and Gaza, is far more serious. Harel, writing in Ha'aretz on July 23rd 2009, threatened the Netanyahu government with the possibility of civil war if it moved against the 23 settlement outposts the Israeli government had agreed to dismantle as part of the 2003 Road Map agreement. Noting that the residents of the large West Bank settlements and their supporters, had "already lost confidence in Netanyahu's ability to thwart Washington's pressure vis-a-vis the settlements' future",  he asserted that "any government,certainly a Likud government, that tries to use 'illegitimate force' against them will not survive" Finally, he asserted, almost apocalyptically, that if Netanyahu acted against the settlers, he might "also bring about the collapse of the (Israeli) army and police", many of whom, he stated , came from West Bank settlements and would refuse orders to evacuate the settlements.

       Harel's warning of a possible civil war shows that the settlement issue is the biggest internal threat to Israel since its founding in 1948. Heavily subsidized by past Israeli governments, the settler movement has almost become a "state within a state" in Israel. Settlers, besides openly harassing nearby Palestinian communities, have frequently clashed with Israeli police and soldiers who have tried, in the past, to uproot settlement outposts in the West Bank, usually without lasting success. The settlement outpost dynamic works in the following way. A settlement which wishes to expand chooses a hilltop often as much as a mile away from the original settlement, even if the hilltop is located on privately owned Palestinian land. Next "caravans"(actually mobile homes) are placed on the hilltop and the original settlement grows to encompass the hilltop outpost. This is the dynamic which Obama is trying to stop, and which the Netanyahu government---at least as far as the outposts are concerned--has agreed to end.

      The most  dangerous assertion in Harel's article is that the Netanyahu government would be using "illegitimate force" if it tried to eliminate the outposts or the settlements themselves. The question here is who determines what is "legitimate force"? If the settlers can do so, then the monopoly of force, which is the hallmark of a sovereign government, no longer exists and the settlers will have indeed created a "State within a State"in Israel..There is an open question as to how long the Netanyahu government can tolerate this situation. If it fails to move against the outposts, not only will it alienate the US government, it will also alienate the vast majority of American Jews who will not identify with a right-wing,Religious Zionist, settler -dominated Israeli government. American Jews  are an asset which Netanyahu--- and Israel--can ill afford to lose. And if a move by the Netanyahu government does lead to a civil war with the settlers--still a somewhat doubtful prospect given the fact that the Gaza withdrawal in 2005 did not lead to a civil war but instead to a debate in the Religious Zionist community over which is holier, the "Land of Israel" or the "State of Israel" --- it is better that such a civil war occur now, before the settlements ,and settlement outposts are further entrenched.


Dr. Robert O. Freedman, an Americans for Peace Now Board member, is Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. Among his publications are: ISRAEL IN THE BEGIN ERA, ISRAEL UNDER RABIN,  ISRAEL'S FIRST FIFTY YEARS, and CONTEMPORARY ISRAEL.