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Settlement in Focus: Vol. 2, Issue 10 - "Who Leads the Settlers?"

All about the leaders and actions taken by the Yesha (Settlements) Council

Settlements in Focus

Who Leads the Settlers? (Vol.2, Issue 10)

A publication of Americans for Peace Now

Who "officially" leads the settlers and how are they selected?

On the local and regional level, Israeli settlements in the West Bank are organized in the same way as communities inside Israel: individual settlements elect representatives to run their local affairs and to represent them in the 24 local and regional settlement councils. These are the only official elections for settlement leadership. Most of these elected officials are focused on the daily lives of their communities and constituents. Others are well-known personalities, long-identified as leaders of the settlements enterprise and the "Greater Israel" ideology.

On the national level, it should be remembered that under Israel's political system, representatives to the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) are elected based on the share of the national vote earned by their party, rather than based on the number of votes coming from a particular geographic area (as is the case in places like the United States). As a result, the settlements as geographic entities are not represented in the Knesset. However, settler voting patterns favor particular parties which are responsive to or reflective of the settlers' ideology.

Where the settlements differ from communities in Israel is in the existence of an additional body, comprised of the elected heads of the 24 settlement councils in the West Bank, plus 5-10 additional visible or influential leaders of the settlement movement. These individuals sit together in the Council of Settlements of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, better known as the Yesha Council ("Yesha" is an acronym for Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, and the word "yesha" also means "salvation" in Hebrew; although all Israeli settlements in Gaza were dismantled in summer 2005, the Council has retained the acronym). The Yesha Council operates as a de facto government of the settlers, dealing with both internal affairs of the settlements and external affairs (i.e., relations both with the government of Israel and the international community).

Where are the leaders drawn from?

The Yesha Council was born as the successor body of Gush Emunim ("bloc of the faithful"), itself an outgrowth of the religious-nationalist movement that launched the settlement effort following Israel's capture of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. By virtue of the way the Yesha Council is organized and run, the religious-nationalist bloc maintains control of the Council, and members of that bloc remain the most visible leaders of the settlers today. As leaders, they are drawn mainly from four different groups:

- Regional Council heads: As elected community leaders, Regional Council heads have in many ways the strongest claim to leadership. Among the most influential of these are Pinchas Wallerstein (Binyamin Regional Council), Bentzi Lieberman (Shomron Regional Council), Shaul Goldstein (Gush Etzion Regional Council), Zviki Bar-Hai (Mt. Hebron Regional Council), and Avner Shimony (former head of the Gaza Shore Regional Council).

- Settlers in the Knesset: Settlers who are elected to the Knesset are, by definition, prominent figures in the settlement leadership. They include Uri Ariel (from Kfar Adumim, representing the joint National Union-National Religious party, a.k.a. NU-NRP), Nisan Slomyansky (from Elkana, representing NU-NRP), Arye Eldad (from Kfar Adumim, representing the NU-NRP), Avigdor Liberman (from Nokdim, representing the Yisrael Beitenu party), and Benny Elon (from Beit El, representing the NU-NRP).

- Popular leaders and activists: These are people who for decades have been associated with the leadership of the settlement movement. They include Israel Harel (one of the core group of activists since the earliest days of Elon Moreh and Ofra), Haggai Segal (another longtime activist, convicted, jailed, and pardoned in the 1980s as part of the West Bank Jewish Underground), and Uri Elitzur (former editor of the settler journal "Nekuda," former bureau chief for then-Prime Minister Netanyahu, and former head of the settlement arm of Gush Emunim - Amana, discussed below).

- Rabbis: Since the earliest days of the settlement movement, religious-nationalist rabbis have exerted strong influence and authority. This remains the case today. Important settler rabbis today include - but are by no means limited to - former MK Rabbi Haim Druckman (who does not live in a settlement but is one of the spiritual leaders of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, which is very closely affiliated with Israel's politically hard-line yeshivas), longtime Gush Emunim spiritual leader Rabbi Eliezer Waldman (Hebron and Kiryat Arba), Rabbi Shlomo Aviner (Beit El), Rabbi Elyakim Levanon (Elon Moreh), Rabbi Dov Lior (Kiryat Arba) and Rabbi Zalman Melamed (Beit El).

How are decisions taken and policy made within the Yesha Council?

In theory, the heads of all of the West Bank settlement council come together in the Yesha Council to decide on policy and make decisions. In reality, the Council is controlled by a handful of its strongest members, including the Regional Council heads of Shomron, Benjamin, Gush Etzion and Mt. Hebron. In addition, one of the "extra" members of the Council plays a critical role - Zeev "Zambish" Hever, who is the general director of Amana. Amana is the (unelected) settlement arm of the Gush Emunim movement, and has played a role in the construction of most settlements in the West Bank.

This core group of leaders, who are all committed to the traditional religious-nationalist ideology of Greater Israel, is the engine driving most of the political positions and tactics adopted by the Yesha Council. In addition, important decisions taken by the Yesha Council are coordinated with the settlers' political allies in the Knesset as well as the religious leadership of the settlers.

How is the Yesha Council funded?

Since the outset of the settlement enterprise, one of the great ironies has been that while the settlers have often pursued policies that were at odds with the policies of the government of Israel (or were even illegal), much of the financing for their activities has come, directly and indirectly, from the government itself. This remains true today, with the Yesha Council drawing a substantial portion of the funding for its various activities - including organizing opposition to the policies of the government of Israel - from the budgets of regional settlement councils. These are funds provided by the government of Israel to meet the municipal needs of the settlements, which are then transferred to the Yesha Council by the regional councils.

These transfers raise serious questions about the appropriate uses of Israeli taxpayer funds. For example, the Yesha Council organized and financed a campaign opposing then-Prime Minister Sharon's disengagement plan. This led to a successful Peace Now petition against the state of Israel, in which it was argued that it is illegal for the settlements to use Israeli taxpayer funds for such a campaign. In an April 21, 2005 article covering the government investigation that followed, the Israeli daily paper Ha'aretz noted,

"From the transcripts of the hearings, which have come into the hands of Haaretz it appears that from the perspective of the [settlement] council heads, in day-to-day life in the territories it is difficult to distinguish between 'state' or 'security' activity and 'municipal' [political] is hard to ascertain the degree of legitimacy of the monies that are transferred to the Yesha Council for purposes of lobbying the government or public campaigns."

As a result of the Peace Now petition, the High Court ruled in May 2006 that the government of Israel can cut the budgets of municipalities who are using municipal funds to pay for protests against government policy, up to the amount the municipalities are spending on the protests. For details, click here.

What does the Yesha Council actually do?

As stated earlier, the Yesha Council acts as a de facto government of the settlements, extracting a "tax" from the regional councils with which it funds activities for the benefit of the settlements. As a quasi-government, the Yesha Council assumes the functions of various ministries, including (but not limited to):

- Planning and Construction: the Council works with regional councils to initiate, gain approval for, and obtain government financing for the construction of housing and infrastructure;

- Defense: The Council finances security programs for settlements and on the roads, including: the provision of security guards, coordination with the IDF to provide security, and establishing "civil defense plans" for settlements; financing bullet-proofing for security vehicles, emergency vehicles, and buses; and overseeing the installation of security equipment in and around settlements. The Council works to obtain government financing for such projects, and liaises with IDF officials working inside the West Bank.

- Foreign Affairs: The Council undertakes outreach, including fundraising and public relations, in the international community.

- National Security: In addition, the Yesha Council functions as a sort of settlers' National Security Council, deliberating on the important policy questions facing the settlements and developing policy responses.

How powerful is the Yesha Council today?

As stated by one regional council head (during the Interior Ministry investigation prompted by the Peace Now petition against the funding of the Yesha Council):

"As head of a regional council with 5,400 inhabitants, when I come to the prime minister I am related to accordingly as the head of an isolated entity," said Zviki Bar-Hai, the head of Hebron Hills Regional Council, "but when we come as the centralized body of the Yesha Council, which represents a quarter of a million people, then it's different and it carries a lot more weight. If each one of us were to go alone, they would 'divide and conquer.'"

In the context of the same investigation, Bentzi Lieberman, head of the Shomron Regional Council, went even further, stating:

"As far as I'm concerned, the Yesha Council provides the municipal solution to the councils in a centralized way. For example, special budgets to deal with all kinds of matters like bypass roads, bullet-proofing and more with regards to the government - things that I couldn't get at all as a single regional authority. There is no area that is not dealt with by the Yesha Council. Without the work of the municipal department at the Yesha Council there is no health, no transportation, no roads."

Writing about the settlers in October 2005, Ha'aretz columnist Nehemia Strasler observed:

".the State of Israel is considerate and surrendering, makes concessions, and in general bows down to the state of Judea. That's how the State of Israel has behaved since 1975, when the Sebastia settlement went up. Since then, and to this very day, Gush Emunim and lately the Yesha Council have set the priorities for the State of Israel. Since then and to this very day, a religious-nationalistic minority has taken over the free majority and been the exclusive setter of the agenda: settlements and more settlements. As the holders of the balance of political power, there was no way to maintain an administration without them. They decided, in effect, who would be premier and how long he would last in office. Since the Sebastia settlement, all Israeli governments have squirmed, stuttered, and lied when it comes to the settlements, but in effect, they have executed the plans of the state of Judea: to spread as many settlements as possible throughout the West Bank to make compromise and evacuation impossible..."

There is no doubt that the Yesha Council was for many years the strongest lobby in Israel. If power is measured by access to authority, ability to interact directly with decision-makers, and success at making sure that your views are taken into consideration during any discussions that impact your interests, then it is fair to say that the Yesha Council remains very powerful even today, notwithstanding the trend toward disengagement and separation.

How is it that the Yesha Council has so much power?

Yesha Council members have always had extremely close ties with politicians and officials across the political echelons and within the Israeli military - ties that continue through the present day. Commenting in the context of the investigation into the Yesha Council's funding of anti-government activities, Samaria Regional Council Bentzi Lieberman bragged that the settlers have even better access than elected officials from areas inside Israel, telling investigators that "often our colleagues from other municipal councils within the Green Line (pre-Six Day War borders) ask us to set up a meeting with one minister or another for them."

These strong relations have meant that the settlers have enjoyed close cooperation with the government and military, at times leading to the impression that, insofar as day-to-day activities within the West Bank are concerned, both the government and IDF have been largely co-opted to serve the interests of the settlers. This co-option extends from the arena of construction and settlement expansion - where the Sasson Report formally confirmed that for years elements of the Israeli government have turned a blind eye to settler transgressions and, worse yet, actively colluded in them; to the daily activities of the IDF, whose mission to defend the security of Israeli citizens has been abused by the settlers, forcing the IDF to divert vital resources and endanger soldiers in order to protect extremists who may undertake deliberately provocative and illegal activities.

In the same context, Beitar Illit Regional Council head Yitzhak Pindrus commented that the Yesha Council was important to counteract the efforts of Peace Now. Asked to explain the comment, he stated,

"The Defense Ministry and the Housing Ministry signed on the construction of 3,000 housing units. Peace Now published the number of apartments and as a result of that they stopped the building, and I needed the services of the Yesha Council with all the explanations and public relations [in order to get the project started again]."

In a recent study conducted by researcher Anat Roth of the Israel Democracy Institute, entitled "The Secret of its Strength: The Yesha Council and its Campaign Against the Security Fence and the Disengagement Plan," Roth enumerated some of the main factors that have helped the Yesha Council solidify its political strength. These include several observations about the Yesha Council:

- As holders of official offices recognized by the government (i.e., heads of the local or regional councils) and responsible for relations with the government, Yesha Council members have direct access to the levers of power and decision-making at virtually every level in the Israeli government.

- Yesha Council members control large sums of money (mainly diverted from funds provided by the government to local and regional settlement councils).

- The Yesha Council has an ability to mobilize and organize mass numbers of activists that is unparalleled in any other sector or by any other group in Israel.

- The settlers in general enjoy the sympathy of a large part of the Jewish Israeli public, reflecting the settlers' success at defining themselves as representing "genuine Zionism," both in the sense of settling the land and confronting the Palestinians.

- The government of Israel has (until the summer 2005 disengagement) consistently failed to seriously rein in the settlers, lacking the unity, strength, and political will necessary to take any sort of meaningful action against them [even in the face of the most provocative actions; for example, during the early days of the Madrid process, when the settlers greeted each visit of then-U.S. Secretary of State Baker to Israel with the establishment of a new settlement, much to the chagrin of the government of Israel].

In addition, it is also clear that the Yesha Council enjoyed, for many of the reasons enumerated by Roth, a clear asymmetry of strength relative to its opponents. While enjoying the veneer of respectability that comes from official positions and access to official power and privilege, settlers and their supporters have portrayed those who oppose them as, among other things, naïve, foolish, suicidal, anti-Zionist, and pro-Palestinian. They have also made it clear that a high cost will be extracted from any political leader who attempts to hurt them (which is perhaps why the first Israeli leader to successfully confront the settlers came not from the Left, but from the pro-settler Right). The single-minded focus, ruthlessness, and relative wealth of the movement, coupled with the built-in political privileges and public sympathy they enjoy, have put competing ideologies at a distinct disadvantage in virtually every arena in which they have tried to confront the settlers. It is only recently that Peace Now has recorded successes against them in the Israeli High Court of Justice.

Are there any other groups vying for leadership of the settlers?

Yes. A combination of internal and external factors has given rise to serious challenges to the leadership of the Yesha Council.

Internally, these include the overall change in the demographics of the settlers, where religious-nationalist settlers - while continuing to dominate the Yesha Council - now comprise no more than a third of the settler population. In addition, there has been a generational change among the settlers, with the Yesha Council dominated by members of the founding generation of settlers, who have a very different perspective from the subsequent generations of settlers born and raised in the occupied territories.

Externally, a sea change has occurred over the past year regarding the situation of the settlers, encompassing the spectacular failure of the settler leadership to block the Gaza disengagement and their subsequent failure to stop the destruction of part of the outpost of Amona. The inability of the traditional leadership to successfully defeat these existential challenges to the settlers' way of life and very existence has led to an increasing sense among settler activists that the Yesha Council is irrelevant.

We will explore the questions of leadership challenges to the Yesha Council in the next edition of Settlements in Focus.

Produced by Dror Etkes, Settlements Watch Director, Peace Now (Israel) & Lara Friedman, Government Relations Director, Americans for Peace Now