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Settlements in Focus - Vol. 2, Issue 11: "Challenges to the Settler Leadership"

(7/21/06) Settlements in Focus Challenges to the Settler Leadership (Vol.2, Issue 11) A publication of Americans for Peace Now Who does the Yesha Council actually represent? As noted in the Settlements in Focus, Vol. 2, Issue 10, the Yesha Council (the Hebrew acronym for "the Council of Settlements of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza") is the successor body of the original Gush Emunim movement - the religious-nationalist settlers who saw settlement of ...


Settlements in Focus

Challenges to the Settler Leadership (Vol.2, Issue 11)

A publication of Americans for Peace Now

Who does the Yesha Council actually represent?

As noted in the Settlements in Focus, Vol. 2, Issue 10, the Yesha Council (the Hebrew acronym for "the Council of Settlements of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza") is the successor body of the original Gush Emunim movement - the religious-nationalist settlers who saw settlement of the West Bank and Gaza as realization of the dream of Greater Israel. These settlers, followers of people like Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (the son of Rabbi Abraham Kook, and the spiritual founder of Gush Emunim) and early settlement leaders like Rabbi Moshe Levinger, were the pioneers - moving mainly to the West Bank heartland in the earliest days of the settlement drive, where they remain today in settlements like Elon Moreh, Ofra, Shilo, and Eli. For details of these settlers, see Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 10).

As the sole quasi-elected body of the entire settler population, the Yesha Council presents itself as the legitimate leadership and voice of the settlers. However, while this depiction may have been generally accurate in the early days of the Council's existence, it can no longer been viewed as accurate today. This is due mainly to the demographic shifts within the settler populations - shifts that have not been mirrored in the political orientation or membership of the Yesha Council. While the Yesha Council continues to embody the traditional religious-nationalist perspective, the settler population has become increasingly diverse, with, among other things, a huge (and growing) ultra-Orthodox component (around 30% of the settlers today, as detailed in Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 12); a very large middle class/non-ideological component (also around 30% of today's settler population, including the mainly quality-of-life settlers in the large settlements around Jerusalem and near the Green Line, settlers in the Jordan Valley, and including the growing "Russian" population); and a small but increasingly vocal far-right extremist component that scorns the religious-nationalists' respect for the government of Israel and the rule of law. The diversity of the overall settler population is clearly demonstrated in their voting patterns, where the national religious parties won only around 30% of the vote.

Polling commissioned by Peace Now and conducted by MarketWatch (a prominent Israeli polling and public opinion company) in January 2005, July 2005, and January 2006 measured, among other things, settlers' views on who best represents them. In answer to the question, "who best represents your position regarding the future of the West Bank," in January 2005, only 27% answered "the Yesha Council" - revealing low support for the Council, well before the disengagement effort was underway. By July 2005, with disengagement on the horizon, that number had fallen to 24%, and by January 2006, the number had fallen even further, to 13%.

Do all religious-nationalist settlers support the Yesha Council?

No. The last decade has witnessed growing opposition to the Yesha Council and the wider circle of traditional leaders from within the religious- nationalist camp itself, including from some public figures once associated with the Yesha Council. Such opposition includes people like former MK Elyakim Haetzni (Kiryat Arba, who believed that the best way to support disengagement was mass disobedience leading to the arrest of thousands of people) and Daniela Weiss, who is from the founding generation of Gush Emunim (who called for soldiers to refuse orders to carry out the disengagement). They also include leaders of the far-right Likud faction Manhigut Yehudit, like Moti Karpel (Bat Ayin) and Moshe Feiglin (Karnei Shomron).

This opposition mainly reflects tactical disagreements over the best way to deal with the different political challenges to the settlement movement that have arisen since Oslo. At a more profound level, it reflects growing divisions between the pragmatic majority of religious-nationalist settlers who may disagree with the policies of the government of Israel, but still respect the legitimacy of the state of Israel, and a growing segment of particularly the younger generation which is politically extremist in its views, feels segregated from the rest of Israeli society, and increasingly rejects the legitimacy of the government of Israel and the rule of law.

How has the Yesha Council dealt with the issue of the security barrier?

For many settlers who are critical of the Yesha Council, the failure of the Council to come up with a strategy to successfully confront and stop the construction of the barrier is emblematic of the increasing impotence of the Council when it comes to the sort of existential threats facing the settlements today.

From the outset the Yesha Council was very worried about the barrier, recognizing what it meant both practically (in terms of harm to settlements left outside the route) and politically (in terms of undermining the unity of the settlers, and complicating their effort to gain support for their cause from the larger Israeli public). While their preference was to oppose any barrier, they quickly realized that it would be politically suicidal for the settlers to seek to block an initiative that enjoyed such broad support among Israelis.

As a result, the Council tried to find a middle ground - seeking to negotiate the route of the barrier to cause the least "damage" to settlements, while insisting publicly that any barrier must only be for security needs and must not have any political significance (in terms of indicating Israeli willingness to relinquish settlements left on the "wrong" side). Along the way, the Yesha Council suggested to Israeli planners alternative routes - routes that were rejected (and which, not surprisingly, protected the maximum number of settlements at the expense of any meaningful Palestinian contiguity). In the end, the approved route of the barrier represents, more or less, an effort to accommodate settlements that are close to the Green Line, while improving the security position of Israel along the new "border" with the Palestinians. Ironically, the settlements left on the east side (i.e., the "wrong side") of the barrier include nearly all of the West Bank heartland settlements - meaning that the real losers in this battle were the settlements that are home to the traditional supporters of the Yesha Council.

How has the Yesha Council dealt with the threat of dismantling of settlements and outposts?

Tensions between the Yesha Council and its critics came to a head during the year-long struggle against the then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to dismantle all settlements in the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank. The Yesha Council's inability to stop the plan -something they had promised settlers they would manage to do - contributed to the growing perception among young settlers that the Council is irrelevant. When the plan was eventually carried out in the summer of 2005, some activists went so far as to accuse the Council of betraying the Gaza settlers and collaborating in the evacuations. An August 30, 2005 report in the settlers' media outlet, Arutz Sheva (channel 7), entitled "Anti-Expulsion Leaders Calling for Yesha Council's Resignation," quoted high-profile settler activists blaming the Yesha Council for the current situation. Kedumim mayor Daniela Weiss is quoted, saying "Of all the factors in the country that were in play, those who brought about the present failure were the Yesha leadership."

Serious tensions resurfaced and strengthened in early 2006, when the Yesha Council was seen as negotiating with the government over the fate of the illegal outpost of Amona, where 9 buildings were eventually demolished amidst a chaotic and violent protest (for details see: Settlements in Focus, Vol. 2, Issue 1). The fact that the Yesha Council again failed to effectively confront and block what was seen as an existential threat to the settlers led to strong recriminations against the Yesha Council from extremist settlers. With most of the protests on the ground organized by extremist leaders (as opposed to the Council), Amona also contributed to the growing perception of the Council's irrelevance.

What is the relationship between the Yesha Council and the Olmert Government?

The current situation demonstrates both the continued power of the Yesha Council and its growing vulnerability and weakness.

With respect to access in the Olmert government, the Yesha Council remains a major player. Relatively early in his campaign to be the next Prime Minister of Israel, then-Acting Prime Minister Olmert convinced Otniel Schneller, a former head of the Yesha Council, to join Kadima. With Schneller considered a close advisor to Olmert on issues related to settlements, the Yesha Council retains a direct line of access to the decision making process, and can be assured that it will be consulted over decisions that will impact its constituents. An example of this occurred in June 2006, when the Olmert government, as part of its process to decide how best to deal with illegal settlement outposts, invited the Yesha Council to meet with the committee examining the issue (along with Peace Now, which has closely tracked and documented the phenomenon).

At the same time, Schneller's decision to join Kadima underscored a growing rift among settlers. Most of the Yesha Council's leadership support (reluctantly, in all probability) a pragmatic approach in which the settlers work with the government of Israel - playing on popular sympathy for the settlers and guilt over any suffering they may be caused - and seek to extract the best possible deal in terms of who gets to stay and compensation. On the other hand, a small but growing part of the settler population views this pragmatism as appeasement and treason. The fact that a former head of the Yesha Council would join a party whose leader supported disengagement - and who is publicly committed to further disengagement - only expands the rift.

Today, with tensions rising again in the context of the Olmert government's commitment to evacuate illegal outposts, Yesha Council leaders like Pinhas Wallerstein have had to repeatedly defend themselves against charges of collaborating with the government in plans to "give up" some outposts in order to keep others.

What other challenges are facing settler leadership?

The current political mood in Israel - which favors separation between Israelis and Palestinians and is clearly willing to see further evacuations of settlements - has polarized the settler population, resulting in growing divisions. All of these divisions complicate and undermine the Yesha Council's efforts to promote any sort of unified, effective leadership of the settler community. Broadly speaking, these divisions can be broken down along the following, often interconnected, lines:

o Interests: Where a settlement stands with respect to the route of the security barrier has a strong impact on the interests of the inhabitants of that settlement. Settlers living in areas that will remain on the Israeli side have much less at stake - with respect to further disengagements, possible evacuation of outposts, etc. - than settlers whose homes are located outside the barrier. Yesha Council policies cannot easily bridge between settlers who believe that the best way forward is to seek compromise and accommodation with the government of Israel and settlers who believe they are fighting for their very existence.

o Propensity for Violence: Historically only a tiny portion of the settler population has demonstrated a propensity to use violence, and even then it was usually used only against the Palestinians. In this new era of challenges to the settlers, both the (relatively) peaceful evacuation from Gaza, and the very violent evacuation of Amona underscored the increasing willingness of some settlers to use violence, even against other Jews, in order to prevent further dismantling of settlements. Yesha Council leaders recognize that the use of violence against Israeli soldiers is almost guaranteed to turn Israelis against the settlers, but they are not in a position to control this segment of the settler population.

o Attitude toward the State of Israel: As noted earlier, there is a growing segment of the settler population that rejects the legitimacy of the State of Israel and its policies in the West Bank. This view conflicts with the ideological underpinnings of the Yesha Council (since a basic tenet of Gush Emunim is the sanctity of the state of Israel and the integral part the West Bank represents of that state), as well as with the practical functions and relations of the Council, which are deeply linked with the political and military echelons of the state.

o Generation Gap: The Yesha Council leadership consists mainly of people in their late 50s and early 60s, members of the generation that founded the settlements. As a whole, this generation differs from subsequent generations of settlers in one very fundamental way - they lived some part of their lives in a reality other than the settlements, with most of them spending the key formative years of their lives living in Israel (or the United States, or Europe). Like any entrenched leadership, they appear loath to relinquish power to the next generation, believing that they have earned their authority and that they know what is best. In doing so, they alienate much of the younger generations - the growing part of the population (and especially of the religious-nationalist population) that was born and raised in the Wild West atmosphere of the settlements and knows no other reality. While for the older generation the struggle to maintain the settlements is a struggle over ideology, or a struggle to maintain the achievements of their lifetime, for their children, this is a struggle over the only home and lifestyle they have ever known. It thus is unsurprising that there appears to be a generation gap between the older, traditional leaders and their children, both in terms of how they view what is at stake, and the tactics they believe are acceptable in fighting for their positions.

o Mixed Messages: For years the State of Israel has condemned settler trespasses officially, while unofficially sanctioning their illegal and extra-legal activities with a wink and nod. This tradition gave rise to an attitude of entitlement and self-righteousness among settler leaders - and today the government of Israel is reaping what has been sown, in the form of illegal outposts and increasingly extreme opposition. Similarly, the Yesha Council leaders have engaged in their own winking and nodding, officially rejecting and condemning extremist behavior by some elements of the population, while in reality tolerating and possibly supporting actions that flouted the authority of the government of Israel. Today, the Yesha Council, too, is reaping what it has sown, in the form of an increasingly uncontrollable element of the population that recognizes neither the authority of the government of Israel, nor the authority of the Yesha Council itself.

For an example of the vehement opposition facing the Yesha Council, see:

With the Yesha Council on the decline, is a new leadership emerging?

A few types of new leaders are emerging and gaining strength in the settlements.

First, as discussed earlier, there is the group of disaffected high-profile individuals formerly associated with the Yesha Council. This group is more extremist than the Yesha Council and more willing to condone violence and aggression. Foremost among these individuals is Moshe Feiglin, who sought to engineer a coup to take over the Likud party (believing his more extreme ideology would have strong appeal to party members; he apparently miscalculated and suffered a defeat in party elections. For insights into his views about the Yesha Council, click here. Many traditional supporters of the Yesha Council who have grown disillusioned with its leadership strongly support Feiglin and his movement. In addition, others like Kedumim mayor Daniella Weiss and former MK Elyalim Haetzni from Kiryat Arba joined together after the August 2005 disengagement to create a new and still relatively unknown organization called "the Land of Israel Faithful," which reportedly "aspires to replacing the existing leadership representing many Jews living in Yesha communities, claiming that those who led the struggle against disengagement failed." The group's activities so far have including establishing new outposts, helping open a new bypass road (against the wishes of the IDF), and blocking West Bank roads to Palestinian traffic. Nadia Matar, the founder of the far right-wing activist organization Women in Green, is another known personality in this scene.

Second, individual charismatic leaders are playing an increasingly important role, particularly in terms of grassroots activism. This is especially the case with respect to the outposts and what has become known as the "hilltop" movement. These leaders mobilize diverse, highly radicalized elements of the settlers - mainly youth. They were extremely active in protesting the 2005 disengagement and the 2006 protests over Amona. There does not appear to be any particular ideology unifying these activists, other than their belief in their right to the West Bank and their rejection of the authority of both the Yesha Council and the State of Israel (including the IDF).

Third, extremist religious leaders are taking an important role in leading disaffected settlers. Their leadership both inspires and directly mobilizes people to action, and provides sanction for actions that might otherwise be considered to be unacceptable. For example, West Bank rabbis played a key role in efforts to block disengagement, including mobilizing their communities and students to protest and providing religious justification for, among other things, soldiers refusing to serve, resisting the IDF, desecrating the Sabbath, and refusing to give up any territory. These rabbis hold particular sway over a segment of the settler youth whose members define themselves mainly by their rejection of the "secular, sinful, and corrupted Israeli society."

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