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Settler leader speaks of holding Netanyahu to his word on construction

The Israeli-Palestinian peace summit this week in Washington has again put a spotlight on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank.

Palestinian leaders say the U.S.-sponsored negotiations will collapse if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not extend his moratorium on most new housing starts, a 10-month program slated to expire Sept. 26.

Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff and the recently named director-general of the settler advocacy group the Yesha Council, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about what he thinks his old boss will do and the challenges facing the settler movement.

Settlement construction is at the top of the agenda for the Sept. 2 peace summit. What’s Netanyahu going to do?

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It’s hard to tell. Netanyahu is under tremendous pressure. The Obama administration is twisting his arm and bullying him into doing something [restricting settlement construction] he doesn’t believe in and in fact believes is against Israel’s interests.

What’s wrong with a temporary construction freeze in exchange for a possible peace deal?

Why should we have to pay a price to talk? It’s in their interest more than ours. We’re doing just fine. If they want to talk, talk. But we keep on giving, and things are just getting worse.

There is not going to be a peace agreement anyway, not in the sense that Westerners think. We don’t believe Palestinian leaders want peace. So it’s time to rethink this whole paradigm of a Palestinian state. If they had a state, Iran and radical Islam will funnel billions into Judea and Samaria [another term for the West Bank], Hamas will take over and soon, just like in Gaza, the missiles and shooting toward Israel will come.

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Also, we’re sending a mixed message. Netanyahu agreed to a Palestinian state, but he doesn’t believe in a Palestinian state. If we were going to agree to a Palestinian state, then it makes sense to have a moratorium. But that’s all nonsense.

What can you do if Netanyahu continues the construction moratorium?

Netanyahu was elected on a platform against Palestinian statehood and pro-settlements. I know because I helped him. We need to help Netanyahu back and help him keep to his beliefs and promises. That’s part of the campaign we’ve done called “A word is a word,” holding politicians accountable. But that campaign is only the tip of the iceberg of what we’re willing to do. If he extends the freeze, that’s crossing a red line. I won’t get into operational plans, but essentially we will continue building. That’s the gist of it.

If the government doesn’t continue natural-growth construction, there will be no government. It will fall. It won’t be viable....

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Isn’t that somewhat of an empty threat? If you bring down Netanyahu’s right-wing government, you might end up with a more moderate Kadima-led coalition. Critics say settlers and right-wing groups might complain loudly about a settlement freeze, but wouldn’t dare bring down the government.

That’s wrong. Kadima, under Ehud Olmert, built more than Netanyahu, who is freezing. And we know that Kadima would continue building at a reasonable pace. So we’d be happier with a government that continues building than a supposed right-wing government that, in fact, has frozen construction more than anyone in history.

How has the settler community changed since the Oslo peace accords in 1993?

We’ve tripled ourselves, to 325,000. With East Jerusalem, that pumps it up to 550,000. My vision is 1 million Jews living in Judea and Samaria, putting an end to the notion that we can have a Palestinian state in the heart of Israel.

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A third of them are secular, despite the image of that settler guy with an Uzi and beard. The secular ratio has increased because it’s been easier to expand and grow in the big [mostly secular] blocks than in the small settlements.

Fifteen years ago there were few haredim [ultra-Orthodox]. Now roughly one-third are haredim. That’s a big demographic change. They’re not there because of ideology, but for cheap housing and convenience.

And there are about 80,000 national religious settlers [motivated by ideological goals]. It’s hard to look at settlers as one group. They’re not. It’s very diverse. And we have to represent all of them. It’s a challenge, by the way....

What do they disagree about mostly?

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Mostly on style and the degree of militancy.

Have these demographic changes made the settler movement stronger or weaker? On the one hand, you have greater numbers. But as a group you are more divided. Some have argued that the failure to stop the 2005 Gaza disengagement, in which 9,000 settlers were dislocated, and the current construction moratorium are signs that settlers have lost their clout.

There is a duality. And we need to be better politically organized. But the Gaza disengagement was a watershed. It’s not enough anymore to just build houses. We need to focus on what people are thinking and make sure we have a majority on our side. If not, that’s when you can see bulldozers.

There are different degrees to which you can go to in terms of the fight. The degree of willingness to fight to stay has increased since Gaza. Anyone considering the notion of expelling 80,000 or 150,000 Jews (from the West Bank) today should know that it’s simply impossible.

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Have you ever tried to organize a settler political party?

Not successfully. Because of the diversity, common ground is limited. But even without a party, we work effectively to influence the government. By and large, settlers vote Likud and to the right. There aren’t many left-wing settlers.

We view Judea and Samaria as the bulwark of Israel, and Israel as the bulwark for the West against Islamic terrorism. We are the security shield of Israel. That’s fundamentally how people in Judea and Samaria see it. People see it as a mission to maintain and protect this area for the Jewish people.

But if two-thirds of settlers are now secular or ultra-Orthodox, do they care as much about that ideology as they do about cheap, well-located housing?

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Quality of life and cheaper prices are aspects. But over the last 40 years, people living in Judea and Samaria have become connected to the land. There’s an emotional connection.

If not a Palestinian state, then what would you propose?

The alternative is peaceful coexistence on the ground and simply strengthening the current, very positive trends with the economy and security. Removing the roadblocks. Giving Palestinians political rights to vote for themselves. If they want to reach an agreement with Jordan to give them citizenship, so be it. If we need to make adjustments to make life better, we can.

Many Palestinians say the status quo is unfair and not acceptable.

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There wouldn’t be apartheid. They’d rule themselves and we’d rule ourselves. We’d drive on the same roads. Arabs have fairly good lives. The overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people want peaceful coexistence. It’s just their leaders who are not OK with it.

It’s not perfect. They want a full-blown state. But it’s a zero-sum game. If they have a state, we’ll cease to exist. That’s the best we can do.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com


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