THE AGE: “Battle for the soul of Israel” by Ruth Pollard 19Jan13 January 19, 2013

by Ruth Pollard    -    The Age    -    19 January 2013

IT IS just hours before Shabbat – the holy Jewish day of rest that begins a few minutes before sunset each Friday – and Ruchie Avital and her husband, Yishay, are preparing the family dinner as they explain their decision 26 years ago to move to the settlement of Ofra, deep in the occupied West Bank.

”We believe that this is all part of the land of Israel – it belongs to Jews and it belongs to the Jewish nation,” Ruchie Avital says. ”This is our heartland and our homeland.”

As analysts watch the polls and measure Israel’s shift to the right in the lead-up to the January 22 election, it is families like the Avitals who exemplify much of the country’s mood.

Formerly members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, they now support the far-right ultra-nationalist and religious Zionist Jewish Home, or HaBayit HaYehudi party, headed by Naftali Bennett.

Described as a ”breath of fresh air” in Israeli politics, Bennett does not support the two-state solution and instead wants an immediate, partial annexation of territories captured in 1967 – in particular Area C, which covers 60 per cent of the West Bank.

With his pro-settler party expected to win as many as 14 seats in Tuesday’s election to form the third-largest bloc in the parliament, and with Bennett himself expressing an interest in joining Netanyahu’s coalition, political analysts predict he will step straight into a senior ministerial role in the 19th Knesset.

Bennett’s open opposition to a Palestinian state sitting side by side with Israel has attracted support across the country, none more so than in the Avitals’ Ofra home.

The settlement of Ofra was founded in 1974, when the now President Shimon Peres was minister of defence and Yitzhak Rabin, later assassinated by a radical, right-wing Orthodox Jew opposed to the Oslo peace accords, was prime minister.

It sits in the northern West Bank between Jerusalem (28 kilometres to the south) and Nablus (34 kilometres to the north).

Ofra’s neat rows of houses, capped with the first heavy fall of winter snow and surrounded by pine trees, resemble chalets in a mountain village, and when Fairfax Media visits, children are throwing snowballs at each other in the fading afternoon light.

Ofra settlers Yishay and Ruchie Avital. Photo: Ruth Pollard

The Avitals – who have just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary – met, married and had three of their five children on the religious Kibbutz Yavne near the port city of Ashdod, where Yishay was born. In 1986 they left kibbutz life for Ofra. Like all settlements built in the Occupied Territories, Ofra is considered illegal under international law, although the Israeli government disputes this. Much of Ofra lies on land that is officially registered under the names of Palestinians from the villages of Ein Yabrud and Silwad, human rights group B’Tselem says.

In a report released this week, the settlement watch group Peace Now says the Netanyahu government presided over record levels of settlement expansion during its four years in office, and had ”used settlements to undermine the two-state solution”.

Peace talks with the Palestinians have been stalled – some say fatally so – since 2010 when Netanyahu refused to extend the moratorium on settlement construction imposed following pressure from the Obama administration.

All the while, the political power of the settler movement has strengthened both within Jewish Home and Likud-Beiteinu. Two months ago, pro-settler contenders pushed out long-standing moderate Likud members such as Dan Meridor, while candidates such as Moshe Feiglin, a far-right settler who has moved up to No. 23 on the Likud list, is therefore likely to win a seat.

Ruchie Avital supports Bennett’s proposal to annex parts of the West Bank and, like him, she does not believe in a two-state solution. ”Most Israelis realise today that we are not going to have peace in our time,” she says. ”The more Israel concedes, the more it is interpreted by the Arabs as weakness. If Israel was to move out of this area, it would become a hotbed of terrorism, another ‘Hamasistan’, just like Gaza.”

But even though the Avitals plan to vote for a party that falls on the ”far right” of the political spectrum, they do not see themselves as extremists. Quite the contrary.

They identify as ”traditional-to-Orthodox Jews” and as they sit in their colourful dining room, decorated with ceramic plates from around the world, an iPad scrolling through family photographs on the bench behind them, they resemble a thoroughly modern, professional couple.

Ruchie, 60, is a translator and interpreter (she has translated for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and simultaneously interpreted Netanyahu’s famous 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, in which he expressed support for a two-state solution), and Yishay, 61, is a tour guide.

Impeccably dressed, Ruchie notes that unlike many Orthodox women, she wears trousers and does not cover her hair. ”We are part of a suburban community of middle-class people who go to work every morning, educate their children and pay their taxes,” she says simply.

Yishay adds: ”We are not zealots, we are on the side of the Jews.”

DESPITE what has been damned as a remarkably shallow campaign, many commentators warn the outcome of Tuesday’s election will mark a turning point for Israel, a virtual struggle for the soul of the country.

”These could very well be the most important elections in Israel since 1967,” says Naomi Chazan, a professor and dean of the school of government and society at the Academic College in Tel Aviv, and a former deputy speaker of the Knesset.

”The outcome will potentially determine the physical borders of the state of Israel and, as a result, its character – that is, whether it is going to be democratic and Jewish, or not.

”There is no more time for the two-state solution, so the implications of this election are much more profound than I think the electorate or even the candidates seem to appreciate.”

In opinion polls released on Thursday, the right-wing bloc looks set to receive between 71 and 72 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, with the centre and left blocs predicted to win 48 or 49 seats. It would give the right bloc – predicted to comprise significantly more hard-line members – 10 more seats in the Knesset. There is little doubt Netanyahu will remain Prime Minister of Israel.

One of the most striking aspects of the campaign, says academic Gadi Wolfsfeld, is its failure to mention the word ”peace”.

”If you look at election ads from the ’90s, the word peace – Shalom in Hebrew – was mentioned by every party from right to left, and it is really fascinating that nobody is talking about peace in this election.

”It has become basically a taboo word … it has disappeared from the lexicon of Israeli politics,” says Wolfsfeld, a professor in political communications from the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya.

Indeed, it is the failure of the peace process – coupled with the wave of violence of the second Palestinian intifada from 2000-05 and continued rocket attacks from Gaza – that has pushed many Israelis away from the centre.

Worse, there is a creeping fear that as Israel moves further to the right, the open attacks on its democratic foundations will escalate.

”Without wishing to be too alarmist, should the ultra-nationalists succeed, especially on judicial reform and appointment issues, Israel may enter uncharted territory in its long journey of divorce from democratic principles,” Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, wrote in Foreign Policy this week.

”For now, however, this election will likely mark an acceleration of Israel’s long-predicted … journey towards a hegemonic nationalism resembling apartheid-era South Africa.”

Settler leader David Ha’ivri. Photo: Ruth Pollard

THE offices of settler leader David Ha’ivri, a spokesman for the Shomron Regional Council, are buzzing with activity in the week before the election. Phones ring non-stop, and he has just welcomed a representative from the United States consulate to a meeting when Fairfax Media arrives.

Located in the settlement of Barkan, about 30 kilometres east of Tel Aviv, the council looks after the needs of 30,000 Israelis in 33 settlements.

Ha’ivri, a quietly spoken 46-year-old whose family immigrated to Israel from the United States when he was 11, has in the past had a reputation for being a radical activist with a combative relationship with successive Israeli governments.

A father of eight, he advocates for the Shomron council area, which has the highest population growth in Israel – the result of a combination of a high birth rate and high rates of internal migration. He is hopeful this election will bring some bold decision makers into the Knesset. ”I would like to see someone who has the courage to annex Judea and Samaria but Netanyahu is not there yet. I am optimistic. I think as supportive as this outgoing government was [of the settlements], the next government is going to be even more supportive.”

The polls indicate that the parties most sympathetic towards the settlements – the right-wing parties – are strengthening, while the opinion leaders within those parties are set to become even more influential within the next government, Ha’ivri says.

”Obviously that represents the tone of the population of the state of Israel – that is not particular to the people who live in Judea and Samaria.”

There is no doubt that it is here, on the settlements, that the right is gaining ground in Israel. But support is also growing elsewhere.

When Naftali Bennett stood in the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem on Wednesday night to address a packed audience in an election debate and stated, ”I vehemently oppose establishing a Palestinian state in the land of Israel,” he received the loudest applause of the night.

When he talks about the ”Jewish Spring” sweeping Israel, about a revival of pride in the Jewish religion, heritage and culture, people listen.

THERE will be two major losses from yet another move to the right in Israeli politics, warns Dr Ghassan Khatib, vice-president of Birzeit University, a former minister in the Palestinian National Authority and director of the Government Media Centre.

”The first casualty is the two-state solution and the second … is the moderate Palestinian leadership,” he says. ”The Palestinian leadership has been gambling politically on the two-state solution and the closure of that window of opportunity will be the end for this leadership, which has nothing to offer to its people except the willingness to negotiate two states and to build a state.”

If the international community continues to abandon this conflict as it has for the past two years, there is little hope of a Palestinian state ever being realised, he says.

Australia, the United States and the European Union have condemned Israel’s continued settlement expansion, but there have been no concrete steps taken by any country to curtail it. Many commentators believed that President Barack Obama was biding his time before November’s elections and would take a stronger position if re-elected.

That prediction appeared to play out this week with the opinion piece written by Jeffrey Goldberg on Bloomberg, indicating the President believed that ”Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are”.

According to Goldberg, Obama said in private that Netanyahu was leading Israel down a path towards near-total isolation by advancing its new settlement plans.

Palestinian farmer Fatallah Mahmoud at Qusra. Photo: Ruth Pollard

THE residents of the Palestinian village of Qusra know first-hand the consequences of increased settlement expansion. While families were enjoying the snow in the settlement of Ofra, just over 20 kilometres away in Qusra villagers were counting the cost of another attack from radical settlers from the nearby illegal outpost of Esh Kodesh.

Their olive trees are regularly destroyed and burnt and last week was no exception. Around 190 mature trees – many of them 15 years old – were snapped off at the trunk, while a 21-year-old man was shot in the leg during the attack, says local farmer Fatallah Mahmoud, 51.

”They come mostly in the night – the settlers cut down the trees, they burn them, sometimes they attack our houses. Last year they shot me in the leg and destroyed 150 of my trees,” he says, gesturing to the broken branches that litter the fields.

The village’s mosque was vandalised in 2011 – its windows smashed, a burning tyre rolled inside and ”Muhammad is a pig” scrawled in Hebrew on the wall in what is known as a ”price tag” attack, in which radical settler activists respond to moves by Israeli security forces to demolish unauthorised Jewish settlements with attacks on Palestinians.

Mahmoud knows what the settlers want. He knows that with each new settlement expansion, the less land remains for a future Palestinian state. And listening to the political aims of the rising right-wing star Naftali Bennett and the settler movement, it appears he may be right.

”We know they want to close our village and take all our land. They want us to leave,” he says.


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