International Herald Tribune – 12 November 2002
Israel’s 19-month unholy alliance between Likud and Labor finally unraveled Oct. 30, ostensibly over funding for the settlements. The Labor leader, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, had spent the previous few weeks distancing himself very publicly from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the issue.
First Ben-Eliezer, the unity government’s defense minister, waged a campaign to dismantle what are known in Israel as “illegal outposts,” huddles of caravans illegal under Israeli law established close to West Bank “parent” settlements that fall foul of international law. Then when Sharon pledged to continue the heavy subsidies in the budget for his settler allies, Ben-Eliezer quit his post, taking Labor with him.
Ben-Eliezer is undoubtedly determined to put clear blue water between himself and Sharon ahead of his party’s primaries later this month. But how committed is Labor to a policy of withdrawing settlers from the territories, as Ben-Eliezer’s stance implies?
Superficially, Labor’s credentials look good. The collapse of the unity government follows weeks of clashes between disaffected settler youths and soldiers ordered by Ben-Eliezer to destroy the outposts.
Traditionally the youngsters have been known as “hilltop youths,” as though they were some organic outgrowth from the ancient rocks of the Holy Land. But television footage of the clashes presented another image, one Ben-Eliezer and the left were not prepared for: teenagers hurling abuse and stones at soldiers.
Shocked leftist observers variously described the youths as “Jewish fascists” (Yossi Sarid, leader of the opposition Meretz Party) and “skinhead Jews” (Uzi Benziman, a newspaper columnist), and agonized over how such a mob emerged in their midst.
This belated soul-searching is more than a little hollow. The hilltop youths did not spring up overnight. They are a generation hothoused in an atmosphere of religious zealotry, the offspring of parents whose every demand, however extreme, was pandered to by a succession of governments, both of the left and right.
But it is not merely a question of historical errors. The indulgence of the settlers and their thuggish brood has continued even as Ben-Eliezer and his party denounced their unexpected violence. Three recent news items expose the extent of the left’s deception.
First, the lobby group Peace Now revealed the sham of the former defense minister’s supposed crackdown on the settlers. After months of dismantling “illegal outposts,” only eight of 106 sites had been removed – and most of these were “decoys,” outposts that were never properly inhabited.
And while Ben-Eliezer has been obsessing about illegal outposts, no one has been seriously talking about dismantling the “licensed” settlements, which now house about 400,000 Israelis.
Second came the figures that gave Ben-Eliezer his pretext for dissolving the coalition: hundreds of millions of dollars for the settlers hidden in the budget. In fact this budget was no different from all its predecessors. Adva, a Tel Aviv research group that deals with equality issues, showed this year that throughout the 1990s, even during Labor governments, spending on nonsecurity matters for settlers was at least 50 per cent higher than for other Israelis.
If this were not enough, the clearest message to the settlers came from the army, under Ben-Eliezer’s control. The soldiers were ordered to show restraint at all times against the hilltop youths. The kid glove treatment meant that within hours of sites being cleared, many settlers had reoccupied the land.
The hilltop youths know the state can handle protests by its citizens differently. When Israel’s Arabs demonstrated two years ago against the trail of blood left in the wake of Sharon’s visit to Haram al Sharif (the Temple Mount), 13 were killed.
Whatever Ben-Eliezer says now, there can be no doubt that the left and right are still united on one thing: The rule of law will not be enforced anytime soon against settlers in the occupied territories.