Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Fog of Jewish Settlement

Jefferey Goldberg linked up to an "absolutely fascinating piece" by Bradley Burston in Haaretz today, entitled "Breaking Israel to fix it - rightists rethink holding the West Bank". The article asserts, paradoxically, that the settlement movement - an enterprise authorized, planned and executed with the endorsement from the highest levels of the Israeli government and civil society over some four decades - is revolutionary in nature, and that the revolution is on the wane.

Indeed, Burston catalogs the seeming convergence of Israeli and American Jewish public opinion, international pressure, security strategy and peace diplomacy in driving forward the end goal of withdrawal from Jewish communities in Shomron and Yehudah. Key to this process, argues the columnist, is the Prime Minister himself, "Netanyahu remains the linchpin to any move to alter the status of the West Bank."

How is it possible that an American Jew half Burston's age, whose last trip to Israel was in 2005, knows more about the Israeli settlement movement than an esteemed Israeli journalist, laboring at the flagship newspaper of record in Israel? To simply go through this article and negate the nonsense would entail more time than I care to expend, so I'll focus on one of the most frustrating, and oft-repeated assertions: The Yesha Council is "the effective government of the settlement movement".

I can see why uninformed people would think this to be the case. The "Yesha Council" is a phrase composed of two words, "Yesha" - an acronym standing for the territories Israel liberated in the '67 War - and "Council", projecting the concept of an authoritative, deliberative body. However, as a friend who actually advocates for Jewish communities in the Shomron at a high level put it to me:
I don't think that there are too many who actually understand what role the Yesha council plays. Basically the yesha council is a small band that has control of certain funding so they position themselves as representing the settlers. They are not a democratically per-say elected representation nor are they grass roots. They are just there, that's about it.
In other words, the Yesha Council represents the Yesha Council. Decisions made by the Yesha Council are binding on the individual members of the Yesha Council. Declarations made by the Yesha Council, many of them the mind-boggling epitome of counter-productive public relations, are often picked up by an Israeli media that doesn't know very much about the political structure and public representation of Jewish communities in Yesha.

There is no single coordinating body advocating for Jewish communities in Shomron and Yehudah. This has made the communities easy picking for a media eager to reinforce the negative image of settlements by finding the most angry, ignorant, scary, insane and probably drunk settler they can, and giving him just enough column space to hang himself. Thankfully, in recent years, particularly since Disengagement from Gaza and the growing realization that the Government of Israel cannot be expected to stand by all its citizens in the face of international pressure, a new generation of leaders in the Jewish communities have risen to develop a public relations effort from the ground up. Fledgling though their efforts have been, the results are bearing fruit.

I am no insider in the settlement movement - as there is no such thing, per se, but rather the independent desires and aspirations of hundreds of thousands of people - but I have been asked for my friendly opinion and ideas, from time to time, as opinion pieces are published, as projects are launched, as opportunities materialize. It should tell you something about the youth and inexperience of advocacy efforts to date, that a 27 year old across the Atlantic is being sent media interviews for post-op performance review and analysis. With that said, my meager understanding and experience puts Bradley Burston's assertions about the strength of the communities, and their future, to shame.

Indeed, the picture that emerges from my contact with representatives and residents of the communities is not at all compatible with that espoused by the liberal columnists at Haaretz. There are massive challenges, to be sure, in countering decades of vilification in Israeli and international media, in holding Israeli leaders accountable for their promises, in crafting domestic and international consensus around an alternative, pragmatic vision of coexistence with the Arab communities, but they are not insurmountable. What's more, tangible progress, even over the last 10 months of the settlement freeze, has been made, particularly in monopolizing information flows - the foundation of sensible public relations efforts - and expanding support outside the traditional ideological base, to include pockets of Israel's pragmatic center left.

Even as Bradley Burston waxes triumphantly about the final whimpers of the settlement "revolution", his colleague Yossi Sarid is running defense to protect the left's sensitive centrist core from infiltration, indeed, conversion, by the winds of reality and sensibility finally penetrating the elitist bubble from the communities. In my discussions with settlers on public relations, I advise only one thing - embellish nothing, just tell the simple reality of your existence. The vilification and dehumanization of Jewish communities in Yesha is so complete - Sarid's piece is entitled, incredulously, "The settlers are human"! - that simply pointing out that these are normal human beings is a shock to the ideological framework the media, particularly the Israeli media, has built around the issue. It turns out the settlers are not all evil, bucktoothed monsters, murdering Arab children for sport and hellbent on dragging Israel into international isolation and opprobrium. Indeed, unlike much of Israel's hyperventilating left, the settlers are effectively working to undo the damage to Israel's international image first wrought by adherents to leftist institutions and ideologies.

In contrast to Burston, the convergence of forces I perceive is quite different. The coming fizzle of the peace process, owing to the inability of Palestinian negotiators to craft a consensus among their own people, even within the West Bank itself, the American and even Palestinian acceptance that the status quo is sustainable for decades and better than the alternative of the Resistance Block (Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah, etc.) assuming power, the cementing of the Palestinian political divide between the West Bank and Gaza, a maturity over the peace process among Israelis who no longer expect miracles, people like Tzipi Hotovely who are developing the first real plans for fully integrating the Jewish communities into Israel and finding equitable and pragmatic solutions for the Palestinians, all these create an atmosphere in which the objectives of the settlement movement - a future of growth, prosperity and freedom for all the peoples of the Shomron and Yehudah - are increasingly within reach.

Which vision will bear out amid this fog, one of Israeli withdrawal and retrenchment, or confident, pragmatic growth and assertion of national sovereignty, remains to be seen. I would advise Burston, and the like-minded, to not count their chickens just yet. As for the rest of us, there is no better time to get involved in securing the future of Jewish communities, whose success and growth hold the key to peace for the Jews of Israel, the Palestinians and the Arabs of the region.

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