Sovereignty Or Annexation?
Settlers Make Their Way With Political Consensus
David Horovitz :
On the road leading to Shiloh stands a large sculpture, Dovecote, erected at the time that the settlement was founded in 1978. The work of Igael Tumarkin, it was implanted by Peace Now activists to symbolise their contention that the settlement enterprise in general, and Shiloh in particular, were obstacles to any hope of Israeli-Palestinian peace. An inhospitable concrete and metal structure, the sculpture looks like anything but a home for the doves that symbolise reconciliation and harmony.
As we drove past Dovecote last week in the company of Yigal Dilmoni, the CEO of the Yesha (Settlements) Council, he pointed it out with an indulgent chuckle. Rather than the towering reprimand it was intended to constitute, it is regarded by the Jews of modern Shiloh, he indicated, as a symbol of their endurance and maybe even their triumph. Dovecote is still here. But so, too, is Shiloh. Established by a handful of families and a few hundred yeshiva students 41 years ago, the settlement today has a population of about 4,000.
In the intervening decades, a succession of archaeological digs have unearthed storage jars, pottery and evidence of sacrifices here, among other findings attributed to pre-Temple-era Israelites, and work continues in and around an area that some archaeologists believe may have been the location of the Tabernacle, where the Ark of the Covenant sat for 369 years when the ancient Israelites first entered the Holy Land.
The Shiloh archaeological park now draws some 120,000 visitors a year from around the world, one of our hosts told us proudly when a small group of Times of Israel editorial staffers visited on Wednesday.
She herself grew up here, the daughter of one of those initial pioneering families, she said, as she pointed out the key finds and showed us two multi-media presentations underlining the site's centrality to Jewish history.
With the Jewish people belatedly restored to their ancient homeland in today's Israel, the desire to revive a vibrant Jewish presence at a place like Shiloh, with its pivotal Biblical resonance, is easily appreciated. Except, of course, that Shiloh lies in the West Bank, in the Biblical Judea and Samaria, outside modern Israel, and home to anywhere from two to three million Palestinians, depending on who's counting.
For the four decades that Shiloh gradually expanded, therefore, it did so - like the rest of the West Bank settlement enterprise - in an ongoing twilight zone of dubious legitimacy, encouraged less and more openly by different Israeli governments, fighting to make its way closer to the mainstream Israeli political consensus.
Not annexation. Sovereignty
Over the last few years, though, that quest for Israeli legitimacy seems to have made unprecedented progress. Traumatised by the strategic onslaught of West Bank-hatched suicide bombings known as the Second Intifada, by Hamas's takeover of Israeli-evacuated Gaza, and Hezbollah's dominance of the former Israeli security zone in southern Lebanon, mainstream Israel has become increasingly disinclined to relinquish adjacent territory in the unreliable cause of peace.
And in the final weeks before the last elections, in April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began speaking about plans to gradually annex all of the West Bank settlements - home to some 450,000 Jewish Israelis - evidently regarding such a declared policy as a vote-winner.
Netanyahu has maintained the stance in the run-up to September's election redo - declaring on a visit to Efrat last Wednesday that not a single settlement home or settler will be uprooted on his watch, and that the settlers will remain "forever."
While this position is anathema to much of the international community and to many of those in Israel who see some kind of separation from the Palestinians as essential if Israel is to maintain both its Jewish and its democratic nature, Netanyahu may have an ally in the Trump administration, whose diplomatic team has said it is not predicating its much-anticipated peace deal on a two-state solution.
As Dilmoni made clear in his conversation with us, however, Netanyahu's talk of the gradual annexation of all the West Bank's Jewish settlements - blocs, isolated settlements, illegal outposts and all - which might until relatively recently have been regarded as a sensational victory - is now deemed insufficient. The vision being advocated by his Yesha Council, he said firmly, "is sovereignty." He repeated for emphasis: "Not annexation, sovereignty."
The way Dilmoni told it, as we sat around the table at the Shiloh visitors center and gift shop, settler leaders made a strategic decision about five years ago: Rather than continuing to regard themselves in the way they felt successive governments regarded them, as a potentially temporary presence that might be uprooted at any moment, they decided to take their destiny into their hands. Instead of merely talking about their enterprise as permanent, they began working to ensure permanence.
Along with the diplomatic challenge to their legitimacy, he said, the settlers had faced "a perception challenge. Even though we were marking 50 years of settlement," he explained, "in the subconscious, this area was considered by government ministries to be temporaryâ€¦ There was no strategic planning. No Ministry had plans for this area."
The settlers' potentially transient presence was reflected, for instance, by the "black hole" where Judea and Samaria should have been on the government's master plan for transportation, said Dilmoni.
At one point, he recalled, the Yesha Council was allocated NIS 300 million for road improvements, "but we couldn't spend it," because there was no official plan. "We could add an extra lane to an existing road; install a traffic light, but that was about itâ€¦ Band-Aids."
(David Horovitz, founding editor of The Times of Israel, author of "Still Life with Bombers" and "A Little Too Close to God" and Co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin". He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report -- from 1998 to 2004).