Government-settler tensions play into Israeli elections

jerusalem | Had Ariel Sharon been able to continue as Israeli prime minister, his main strategic goal would have been establishing a new long-term border between Israel and the West Bank.

That remains the primary aim of his Kadima Party, but last week’s violent clashes between settlers and police at the tiny West Bank outpost of Amona show just how difficult achieving it might be.

The intensity of the confrontation highlighted a profound rift between young settler radicals and Israel. The confrontation also brought to the surface differences inside the settler movement itself: The young radicals advocate uncompromising physical resistance to any withdrawal plans; the moderates argue that the most rational thing the settlers can do is work with the government in drawing up new lines that take their interests into account.

The issue surfaced again when Israel’s acting prime minister said a probe into the clashes is unnecessary. Ehud Olmert said at a Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Feb. 5 that accusations of excessive police force during the Feb. 1 evacuation of Amona should not be investigated because he doesn’t want to politicize the event.

The already-explosive situation is further complicated by the fact that Israel is in the throes of a general election.

In the fighting over the demolition of nine illegal permanent homes built at Amona, more than 200 people were injured. The radical settlers wanted to make a point: Further evacuation of the West Bank will encounter much tougher opposition than the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank did. The police wanted to establish a precedent, too, to show that nothing will deter them from carrying out government policy. Both sides are convinced they got their messages across.

For the young settler radicals, the evacuation of the Gaza and northern West Bank settlements was a traumatic experience. For many it caused a major shift in their attitudes to Israel. From ardent Zionists, they became bitter critics, arguing that settlement is a central Zionist tenet, a step toward the coming of the Messiah, and, therefore, Israel is undermining hope for redemption.

For the moderates, the lesson learned from Gaza is very different. For them, the state remains supreme, and the challenge is to prevent a schism between the rest of the people and the settlers.

Leading the moderate camp is Otniel Schneller, a former head of the Yesha council of settlers.

The settlers, he argues, are servants of the majority, as reflected by the government. It can expand or curb settlement as it sees fit; the settlers should go along with whatever decisions it takes. His goal is to avert future confrontation by getting the government to adopt a plan for borders that settlers will be able to support.

The current settler council is vacillating. Its leaders maintain close ties with radicals, while exploring compromise proposals of their own with the government. A day after doing virtually nothing to curb settler violence on Amona, council leaders Benzi Lieberman and Zeev Hever met with Foreign and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to discuss their proposed map of settlement.

The feelers came as all the main political parties are trying to use government-settler tensions in the wake of the Amona clash to score political points.

The public seems confused. On the one hand, 50 percent think Olmert wanted a bloody fight, while 57 percent blame the settlers for the level of violence, according to weekend polls after the violence.

The fact that such major developments as the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections and the violent police-settler showdown have failed to dent the polls has led several Israeli pundits to conclude that the election has, to all intents and purposes, already been decided.