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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - July 25, 2005

Q. How would you characterize the anti-disengagement forces? Q. Based on results from a recent ADL survey, why do Europeans see Israel so differently from Americans?

Q. Based on what we've seen and heard from the religious-ideological settler movement thus far in its attempts to thwart disengagement, how would you characterize it?

A. Messianic-fundamentalist, with fascist and anarchist fringes and radical youth indoctrination; highly motivated; with some possibility that it will metamorphose in the aftermath of its apparent failure to stop the Gaza pullout.

None of this is a surprise to those who have known and followed the settler movement over the past three decades. Now that the settlers' entire belief system, and its consequences, are exposed for all to see, the failure of moderate politicians from the left and the right to stop it earlier is all the more blatant.

Indeed, if not to stop it, then at least to stop coddling and cultivating it. For decades the religious Zionist movement has enjoyed higher per capita budgets for education and housing, and its sons in the "yeshivot hesder" have had to serve only 14 instead of 36 months in the army, with its daughters given a blanket release from service. Huge government allotments were regularly provided for its settlements and outposts, frequently illegally even under Israeli law. No wonder the religious settler movement is in shock: for years its privileges, coupled with its anti-pluralist fundamentalist self-assurance, enabled it to ignore the arguments of secular, centrist and leftist Israelis that it was sowing the seeds of a demographic and political disaster.

The movement emerges as messianic-fundamentalist in nature, because it sees the State of Israel as virtually synonymous with the Land of Israel, and the combination as a means of redemption in the fullest religious sense of the word; it views anything that negates movement toward this goal as anathema. It is messianic-fundamentalist because, when it has to choose between the democratic and the Jewish in the formula "a democratic, Jewish state", it chooses the Jewish while rationalizing the democratic. It inverts, with total conviction, any democratic values and symbols that might reinforce its cause, for example by comparing the cause to that of Martin Luther King, even as it consistently ignores or abuses the fundamental rights of Palestinians and the will of a majority of Israelis. When the state turns against it, as its institutions how have, it argues that it did so undemocratically, that the leadership (Sharon) is exclusively to blame--anything but accept that its grip on the land has brought disaster, not redemption; that the state can behave differently from the messianic destiny assigned to it by the movement.

It is also messianic-fundamentalist because, having failed to place enough of its youth in high ranks of the IDF to neutralize the army (and because many of those who did climb the ranks have adopted sovereign Israeli values instead of those of the settlers), many of its members don't hesitate to call upon all soldiers to disobey orders. In other words, they incite to mutiny.
The fascist and anarchist fringes, perhaps a few thousand youth with their rabbis and non-rabbinic gurus, reject the "state" part of that formula as well, i.e., reject any authority of the state and its monopoly over the means of force, and advocate only the concept of the Land of Israel, or a rump "state of Judea", or their own militia-type force. Until now they mainly employed force against Arabs in the territories. Now, increasingly, they are prepared to direct force against fellow Jews, with large parts of the messianic-fundamentalist mainstream standing aside and refusing to intervene. Still, even though the entire religious settlement enterprise has become a kind of state-within-a-state, the majority of religious settlers are likely ultimately to acquiesce in the authority of the State of Israel; the fringes will not.

The youth indoctrination--it is tempting to use the term brainwashing--is painfully evident in the legions of teenage girls and boys deployed by their settler parents to try to persuade soldiers to refuse orders, chanting their slogans, reinforced emotionally by group singing and dancing, rolling their eyes at the non-believers. Indeed, the settlers' success in persuading a majority of Israel's 15-18 year olds (but not adults) to support their cause (Yediot Aharonot poll, July 22) and to support soldiers' refusal to obey orders, appears to reflect the emotional intelligence level of their entire campaign.

Where will a successful disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank leave the religious settler movement and national Zionism in general? Many of its own leaders argue that, since the Zionist alliance with secular Jews failed them, they will turn to the right, i.e., to a closer relationship with the ultra-orthodox, anti-Zionist or a-Zionist movements from which the wearers of knitted kipot (the ultra-orthodox wear black kipot) broke away some 100 years ago. Others foresee fallout to the left, i.e., to secularism. In truth, both of these trends have been growing for years, as some national Zionist youth, once exposed to the fleshpots of Tel Aviv and the haredi yeshivot of B'nei Brak and Jerusalem, have drifted off.

On the other hand, some of the movement's political leaders will almost certainly try to rally and ready it for additional trials and confrontations, meaning an attempt by an Israeli government to dismantle the mountain heartland settlements in Shiloh, Bet El, Elon Moreh, and Hebron. The mountain heartland is undeniably the cradle of biblical Hebrew civilization (Gaza most certainly is not); it also happens to be the main obstacle to the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state that could bring a measure of peace and stability to the region and enable Israel to exist as a Jewish and genuinely democratic state, albeit in only a portion of the Land of Israel.

The wiser among the religious settlers--they are undoubtedly smart politicians who for decades have successfully exercised influence far beyond their numbers--understood months ago that the fight over Gaza was lost. Their real goal is to make disengagement from the Strip so unpleasant that no leader will try to repeat it in the West Bank heartland. Sadly, they can still count on large parts of the Israeli secular establishment, including courts and security services, to continue to hesitate, out of a misplaced sense of "Jewish" respect, to arrest and jail--on charges of incitement to violence and mutiny--the anti-democratic and even fascist rabbis the politicians listen to.

So the coming showdown in Gaza may not be the real one--or the final one.

Q. A recent ADL survey highlights the gap between high American support and low European support for Israel. Why do Europeans see Israel so differently from Americans?

A. In surveys conducted between March and July, 2005, the ADL found that Americans sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians by 42 percent to 14 percent, whereas Europeans sympathize more with the Palestinians than with Israel by 25 percent to 13 percent. Similarly, 40 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Ariel Sharon, but only 19 percent of Europeans. And 52 percent of Americans believe Israel is currently working harder for peace than the Palestinians (16 percent), whereas Europeans believe that Israel and the Palestinians are about equally serious about peace (56 and 58 percent, respectively).

Nowhere was the different European attitude toward Israel more painfully obvious than in the aftermath of the recent London suicide bombings. British PM Tony Blair, certainly a friend of Israel by European standards, hastened to mention the Arab-Israel conflict as a background reason for the bombings, only to discover a day or two later that the perpetrators were home-grown Muslims. And London Mayor Ken Livingstone--definitely not a friend of Israel but seemingly a valid representative of the European extreme left--recently compared Hamas to the Likud and justified suicide bombings in Tel Aviv. Last year he hosted the anti-Semitic Egyptian Islamist leader from Qatar, Sheikh Qaradawi, in London.

Why are Europeans less friendly to Israel? The list of probable explanations is long and comprehensive:

· There are large Muslim populations in several European countries that have not assimilated and are fertile ground for purveyors of Muslim extremism. Muslims constitute 3.4 percent of all EU citizens. In France they are 8.3 percent, in Germany 4.9 percent, and in Holland 5.5 percent. In England they are only 3.1 percent, but in some cities in the Midlands they are between 15-20 percent and in London they constitute 8.5 percent. Because European politicians need their votes, these large Muslim populations have a definite anti-Israel effect on European politics that, from a socio-political standpoint, is muted in America.
· There are fewer Jews in Europe than in America. As a rule, European Jews do not follow the American Jewish tradition of advocacy. They are less united, less outspoken, and less influential.
· Europe is more dependent than the US on Arab and Iranian oil. It is a neighbor of the Arab world (North Africa) and Muslim world (Turkey), from which a large proportion of its Muslim immigrant population derives. These factors, together with Europe's "conscience" over its colonialist heritage in the third world, including (primarily Britain and France) in the Arab world, generate pro-Arab sentiment.
· The European Union is not united enough at the political level to have any real joint foreign and security policy, particularly on Arab-Israel issues. Germany, with its "Holocaust conscience" goes one way, France another. There is no over-riding policy directive to mute the highly critical attitude toward Israel of, say, the Finnish or Swedish foreign minister, who could for six months be nominally in charge of European Middle East policy.
· By the same token, the EU has traditionally emphasized economic over security issues in dealing with Israel and the Israel-Arab conflict. This works to Israel's detriment, insofar as its security concerns tend to be underestimated by Europeans. (On the other hand, it does benefit Israel economically.)
· Apropos the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is still far stronger in Europe than in the US. In some countries, at a certain subtle level, it is pervasive. This offers yet another explanation why European Jews maintain a lower profile (not only regarding Israel).
· There are far fewer Evangelical Christians, who tend to support Israel, in Europe than in the US.
· Americans tend to see Israel within the context of the American narrative of manifest destiny, biblical mission, and Judeo-Christian values, along with a sense of obligation due to the Holocaust. Europeans have no shared narrative regarding Israel other than the Holocaust, in which many participated as persecutors and murderers of Jews.

Will the growing threat of Islamic radical terrorism on European soil generate less tolerate attitudes toward Arabs and more sympathy for Israel? At the level of intelligence cooperation, the Europeans have always worked closely with Israel, recognizing that Arab terrorism is a shared enemy. But a broad change in public attitudes would require that the European leadership become outspokenly more positive toward Israel, and be prepared to confront pressures from its own Muslim population as well as from the Arab states and Iran. That looks doubtful.

Obviously, more Arab-Israel peace and cooperation would also improve European attitudes. But Europe's problems with radical Islam and Muslim anti-Israel views will not go away when Israel and its neighbors make peace. This poses the hypothetical question, what will Europeans think then? Some, particularly in the political mainstream, will presumably argue that they have to revise all their old prejudices against Israel. Others, on the far right and far left, will almost certainly claim that the problem is Israel's very existence.

Israelis like Europe. More probably feel European and far more hold European passports than hold American citizenship. Israelis don't need visas to visit Europe; they do to America. Israel would probably jump at the opportunity (not about to be proffered) to join the European Union. But at the end of the day, Israelis know that America offers it far more security and shared values than Europe. They are very much aware of the difference between European and American attitudes discussed here.