With the anticipated signing this week of a modified Wye River land-for-peace agreement, the plea of right-wing Israelis to Prime Minister Ehud Barak not to dismantle any of the 144 Jewish settlements in the territories is likely to take on greater urgency.
“The peace process would not be hurt if our communities stayed where they are,” said Benny Kashriel, the recently appointed chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Kashriel said the nearly 200,000 residents of the settlements must be strong “so that the government does not evacuate any settlements.” He pointed out that Israel recognizes Palestinian sovereignty over Jericho, Hebron and Ramallah and “can’t remove the people from there. Similarly, they must realize that we exist and that they can’t remove us.”
During a recent visit to New York, Kashriel recalled Yamit, an Israeli village in the Sinai that was forcibly dismantled and whose Jewish inhabitants were evicted by Israeli troops following the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979.
“They could evacuate Yamit because they were 3,000 to 4,000 people,” he said. “But we are 200,000. I think it would be a big mistake for the government to remove any [settlement] — and we will not let it do it.”
Kashriel vowed that all efforts would be taken to legally fight any such move. Asked if that meant resorting to arms, as some settlers have vowed in the past, Kashriel replied: “I said legally.
“Until now we have taken legal moves against the government and we have succeeded,” said Kashriel, who also is mayor of the West Bank city of Maaleh Adumim, just east of Jerusalem. “We can do that again, but we prefer to use all our efforts to talk with the government and to have an understanding with them — especially the prime minister who says he is the prime minister of all Israelis.”
He added that although he does not agree with the land-for-peace concept, he respects the decisions of his government.
“Palestinians are our neighbors and we know we must live together,” Kashriel said.
The chair of the Likud World Movement, Naomi Blumenthal, said part of her party’s ideology is that “if we don’t have these settlements, we won’t have peace. If we don’t have the Golan Heights, we won’t have peace.”
The Arabs, said Blumenthal, are looking to take land from Israel because “they want us to be a small, weak country — and maybe they don’t want us [to exist] at all.”
“After all, why do they educate their own children with books that contain so much incitement against Israel? They don’t include Israel on their maps. They talk about peace, why not show it? Instead, they talk about going back to Jaffa and Haifa because they were the places their grandparents lived. … This is the true picture, and it’s not rosy.”
Asked about Barak, the most decorated Israeli soldier and a former army chief of staff, Blumenthal said, “We had a bad experience with [Yitzchak] Rabin,” the former Israeli prime minister and Labor Party leader.
“When he started as prime minister in 1992, we said he was a former chief of staff and center-right,” she recalled. “But he changed his position within a year, and I’m afraid that with Barak it might be the same. But if not, we’d be happy to support him.
“I hope he’ll be very firm and that Israel will reach a final status [agreement] together with the third stage [of Israeli troop withdrawal from areas of the West Bank]. I want ratification of the final-status agreement before the third withdrawal.”
Ehud Sprinzak, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said he believed that although Israel would not agree to return to its 1967 borders, “certain settlements will be annexed and remain under Israeli sovereignty as a part of Israel, while other Jewish settlements would be under Palestinian authority. I don’t know how many.”
Sprinzak said the Israeli Jews could continue to live under Palestinian control just as “we in Israel have Arabs who are Israeli citizens.”
Yehuda Gerlits, the mayor of another West Bank community, Beitar Illit, about 10 miles southwest of Jerusalem, said through a translator that he believed the “peace process will continue without giving back most of the land being held today.
“There might be peace, but it won’t come out of a peace process that is conditioned on giving back territory. It will not be like the peace with Egypt,” he said. Settlements will stay where they are, and both sides will have to compromise and live with it.”
Gerlits said he believed that after Israeli troops made the next redeployment this month, negotiations will break down once Palestinian President Yasir Arafat “sees he is not getting everything he wants. Barak will then not be able to continue the peace process.” That in turn could lead to Palestinian uprisings and renewed terror attacks against Israeli Jews, he said.
“Nobody should believe that we are against peace,” said Gerlits. “We are for peace but it should be mutual — both sides give up things or nothing at all. And Arafat does not want to put in anything.”