One of the heartwarming byproducts of the current protest movement is the reemergence of the values of solidarity. As Amos Oz expressed it in this paper on August 2, the protest has contributed to “a delightful revival of mutual fraternity and commitment.” At the same time, however, Oz also identified the settlements as the first place from which the resources required for establishing social justice in Israel should be taken.
This embodies the dilemma faced by the protesters: On the one hand, they make every effort to remain apolitical, which means agnostic when it comes to opinions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the occupation and the settlements. They understand that in order to maintain the spirit of solidarity, and thus enable as many groups and sectors as possible to identify with the largely economic-based protest, they need to avoid the contentious subject that has been polarizing Israeli society for the past 40-plus years.
On the other hand, they also well understand that the economic issues are closely connected to the occupation and the distorted national priorities it has dictated. They understand that the disparity between government-initiated building in the West Bank and within the Green Line is dramatic; that in every aspect of daily life, the settlements receive more resources and government subsidies than communities within the Green Line; that the burden of the occupation on the defense budget drains the country, and limits its ability to divert resources to combating the severe social and economic problems that are faced by the majority of Israeli society that lives within the Green Line.
Up to now, the protest leaders have chosen to sweep the issue under the rug, in the spirit of solidarity among the various sectors, but as the discourse evolves, this subject will surface, because it will be impossible to avoid a tough discussion about the nation’s set of priorities and values. We are already seeing indications that some on the right suspect the protesters’ motives, in the words of such hard-liners as Foreign Minister Lieberman, speakers at the Likud party meeting, and also right-wing writers who view the protest as a sophisticated leftist attempt to undermine the current government. At the very least, these critics are concerned that shifting priorities will come at the expense of the settlements.
If they are to deal with this dilemma, the protesters will need to make a distinction between the settlers and the settlements. Many Israelis have moved to the territories, and thus become settlers, precisely because of economic difficulties and, specifically, in a quest for cheap housing, and they should not be blamed for finding a solution suitable for their needs. Most of those settlers reside within what are expected by many to be the settlement blocs that will be retained by Israel in any agreement with the Palestinians.
But the hard-line and ideological settlers who reside beyond the security barrier should not be blamed either. They settled where they did with the support and blessing of practically every Israeli government since the 1970s. In other words, all settlers are an integral part of Israeli society, and the protesters are right to embrace them.
However, even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his speech before the U.S. Congress in May, said that under a peace agreement, “some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.” This of course means that some settlers will relocate within the permanent borders of Israel. Therefore, the issue of the housing shortage within Israel could well be compounded by the need to resettle approximately 100,000 settlers. All planning for more housing that will come out of the protest should take into account this scenario for resettlement of the settlers.
It is obvious that most settlers will not welcome opening the discussion over the economic toll that Israeli society has paid for the continued occupation, as it inevitably opens the issue of the future of the territories, and they probably don’t have any powerful economic argument why this should continue. But no serious discussion about Israel’s future can exclude a conversation over the future of the territories, and the necessity of Israel converging within borders where it can safely exist while making room for a viable Palestinian state.
The protesters should continue to embrace the settlers, keeping in mind that the settlers have much to lose should priorities change, and that in addition to contending with the diversion of resources away from the settlements, many settlers will also need to find a place to live.
But as the discussion shifts to practical steps, the protesters should also be open and up front about the need to evacuate the settlements. If they can address the issue of the settlements without blaming the settlers, the protest will make an immense contribution to Israel’s ability to truly be the home of the Jewish people, as well as to its ability to put into practice the values of freedom and solidarity.