Celebrities offer Israeli settlers cash to move out

That's the thinking behind a new campaign powered by such high-profile Americans as actor Ed Asner, Berkeley novelist Michael Chabon and cartoonist Art Spiegelman.

They and other celebrity Jews, academics and religious leaders have signed on to a petition by the group Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, titled "A Call to Bring the Settlers Home to Israel."

The Chicago-based group, also known by its Hebrew name Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, sponsored national newspaper ads last week that call for offering around $3 billion in cash incentives to 16,000 settler families — or nearly $190,000 per family — to move back inside the Green Line, as Israel's pre-1967 border is known.

The money would come from U.S. foreign aid and from the European Union, according to the plan's backers.

The drive is fueled by a recent Israeli poll indicating that 80 percent of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip came to the area not because of religious or political ideology but because of government subsidies in the form of cheap mortgages, tax breaks and free schooling.

Engineered by a former dovish Knesset member, Marcia Freedman of Berkeley, the petition aims to resolve the issue of Jewish settlements, which Freedman called "a major obstacle to peace."

"We can take away one of the core issues" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "by demonstrating that the settlers would like to get out of there, and that there is no sense among Israelis generally or among the settlers themselves that the settlements are required for security," Freedman said.

The plan dovetails with the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace, which also calls for Israel to stop settlement activity.

Offering cash incentives "is something that Americans for Peace Now has been pointing out for some time," said Lewis Roth, the group's assistant executive director. "But we've directly tied it to new funding that was being considered for Israel and was provided for Israel."

Such cash-infused conflict resolution is not new.

Scott Lasensky, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, recently wrote a paper titled "Inducing Peace: Nixon, Kissinger and the Creation of Middle East Peace."

President Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, instituted a significant change in U.S. policy toward Israel, Lasensky said — the notion that "you can't make demands of Israel. You provide positive incentives that will have certain cascading effects inside Israel."

In 1991, the first President Bush tied $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel to the issue of settlements — a move then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir fought.

The twist, however, is that financial inducements "work best in a political framework, when there's something to latch on to," Lasensky added.

Enter the road map, which was drafted by the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia and formally presented to Israel and the Palestinian Authority a few weeks ago. It could make the petition drive relevant, some say.

Tamara Wittes, Middle East specialist for the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank, said the Bush administration has made an end to settlement-building a central fixture of the road map.

That opens the door for American Jews opposed to settlements to hone in on the issue, she said. The settlements are "one of the stronger levers they have."

Peace activists said the petition also is built on the notion that with the country's economy in shambles, Israelis might be eager for financial help.

In January, Peace Now released a study showing that Israel spent $440 million in fiscal 2001 on settlements, not including defense costs.

Not only would Israelis generally prefer that the money be used for pressing economic needs, but most settlers would grab a buyout right now, Freedman said.

Her group bases the notion on a July 2002 poll by Israeli pollster Micha Hopp that said half of the settlers would accept compensation to leave, while 80 percent would not fight an eviction order.

In large part, the readiness of some settlers to abandon their homes stems from the Palestinian intifada. Many have found their dream — not to mention their real estate values — shattered by the violence, Freedman said.

As for those settlers still driven by religion or ideology, "that's going to have to be part of a negotiated settlement," Freedman said.

The resettlement plan seems to be gaining some traction in the United States. Freedman said the group's petition, which is online, is drawing about 200 signatures daily.

If the petition garners 10,000 signatures, the group will begin lobbying Congress, beginning with Jewish legislators, Freedman said.

Some American Jewish leaders opposed to the road map criticized the thinking behind petition drive.

"That any Jew would support a campaign to make any area 'Judenrein,' " or free of Jews, "is revolting and racist," said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.