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Columbus Dispatch: "Equally destructive"

Extremist Israeli settlers damage peace prospects just as Palestinian terrorists do

Extremist Israeli settlers damage peace prospects just as Palestinian terrorists do

Saturday,  October 4, 2008

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert formally resigned last week, undone by accusations of corruption and incompetence. While his tenure in office did little to advance peace between Israel and Palestinians, in his waning days as leader, Olmert this week made a contribution that most Israeli politicians find impossible: He spoke the truth about the destructive influence of Israeli extremists.

The problem posed by Hamas and other violent groups on the Palestinian side is well-known. A subculture dedicated to the extermination of Israel has fed bloodshed and bitterness for generations and allowed little hope for peaceful coexistence to take root.

What Olmert acknowledged, in a recent speech to his cabinet, is that the actions of Jewish extremists and Israeli ultranationalists are just as destructive in perpetuating the cycle of hatred that has poisoned life in the region for so long.

Olmert decried an "evil wind of extremism" from the right that makes peacemaking efforts by the government nearly impossible.

Though he didn't name names, Olmert's comments were understood to refer to ultranationalist settlers whose insistence on occupying land meant for the Palestinians undermines every aspect of building peace.

Even though most Israelis desperately wish to live in harmony with their neighbors and see the radical settlers as an obstacle to that wish, the political sway of the settlers and their supporters in the religious establishment is such that politicians are loath to criticize them.

The existence of illegal settlements and the Israeli government's tolerance of them enrage Palestinians and make them doubt any Israeli peace promises.

The Israeli government feels obliged to protect the settlements, regardless of their legality -- a task that sometimes leads to violence when tiny, armed Jewish outposts are surrounded by hostile Palestinians.

Many settlers, especially those in the large communities nearest to Israel, are people who responded to financial incentives to buy homes in government-backed projects. Others, though, are deeply ideological hard-liners who insist that Israel is entitled -- indeed, directed by God -- to control all of the historical land of Judea and Samaria. These Israelis are not interested in peace with the Palestinians.

Radical settlers have attacked Palestinian neighbors and destroyed their property; some advocate violence against the Israeli government, declaring it an enemy because of its promises to stop further settlements.

Olmert's condemnation came in response to an attack on Zeev Sternhell, a 73-year-old academic and Holocaust survivor who has vocally opposed West Bank settlements. The Sept. 25 incident, in which Sternhell suffered leg injuries from a pipe bomb left outside the door of his home, has been blamed on an extremist settler group. Leaflets left around his neighborhood offer a reward of about $200,000 to anyone who kills a member of the Peace Now group to which Sternhell belongs.

Olmert is right that Israelis never will know peace as long as such extremism thrives in their midst. If only that point could be made by an Israeli leader who isn't at the end of a political career.