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Building on extremism
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 12 - 2009

While there is an ideological shift in Israeli society towards the right, it is not the only reason why Jewish settlements are quickly being inhabited. Saleh El-Naami investigates
One month ago, Shamon Kara, who lives in the Hatikva Quarter in south Tel Aviv, sold his apartment quickly and left. His relatives told neighbours that he has relocated to the settlement of Beit Ebel, one of the Jewish settlements in northeast Ramallah in the middle of the West Bank. Kara, who had previously held moderate political views and always voted for Labour candidates, went to join more than 300,000 settlers living in Jewish settlements that were built on Palestinian land annexed by occupation forces.
In an interview with Israeli Radio, Kara revealed his reasons for moving to this settlement, explaining that they were fundamentally economic. The large financial incentives that the government gives Jews who choose to live in the West Bank were key to his decision, especially that he has been facing serious economic deprivation. He recently lost his job after the textiles factory where he worked in Tel Aviv shut down. Kara did not hide the fact that from now on he will support political parties on the right that call for Israeli control of the West Bank, to ensure that the immense economic benefits he currently enjoys are not taken away.
There are thousands of Israelis who have recently left Israeli towns to live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Most of them do not relocate out of ideological reasons, but for economic reasons, and they find themselves obligated to support the right wing that advocates keeping Palestinian land in Israel's grip. This trend is one of the elements that have caused Israeli public opinion to drift towards political extremism, by endorsing right-wing parties and the extreme right. In a recent public opinion poll, it was revealed that if elections were held today the right and extreme right would win more than 75 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. This would guarantee that the right would rule Israel single- handedly.
The surge to live in settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem were behind the massive demonstrations by settlers against the announcement of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to temporarily freeze construction in settlements for 10 months. The protests took place despite the understanding of the settlers that Netanyahu's proposal is merely a political manoeuvre.
Sever Plotzker, a senior economic commentator at the popular Yediot Aharonot newspaper, argues that the expansion of settlement building in the West Bank and Jerusalem in particular has become for the Israeli government the solution to the problems of the poor classes in Israeli society. Plotzker explains the price of a square metre of property in Tel Aviv and its suburbs costs $1,000, while a square metre in a settlement in the West Bank comes at a meagre $10. At the same time, the state also offers very easy housing loans for anyone who chooses to live in the settlements, and builds superior infrastructures for them.
Plotzker noted that the Israeli government constructed a settlement compound comprising of luxurious villas at a price of more than $350,000 each. Anyone who wants to buy a villa can simply purchase it through a payment plan that costs $300 per month. The average annual income in Israel is $18,000.
The leftist Israeli writer Amira Haas asserts that today Israelis become alarmed at any prospects of a peaceful settlement because this will affect their standard of living. According to Haas, the reasons behind the migration to settlements are that "settlements are prospering at a time when most Israelis are suffering from a drop in luxury living. Settlements provide settlers with facilities that are inaccessible to them if they lived within the borders of Israel, [including] cheap land, spacious villas, financial assistance, breathtaking scenery, infrastructure, major streets and academic institutions. Hence, living in a settlement is viewed as a social and economic privilege. This reality is a safer bet than the possibility of peace and settlement."
She cited that "a peaceful settlement would require the division of water resources equally among Jews and Palestinians, and the Israelis are not willing to decrease their water quotas because of the drought. Accordingly, it is clear that if a political settlement of the conflict is reached, it would be difficult for Israelis to accept the division of water equally with the Palestinians." Hass continued that, "anyone who has lived a life that guarantees him better rights based on ethnic discrimination believes that ending discrimination threatens their privileges."
Haas also noted that the Israeli ruling elite still believes that a peaceful settlement of the conflict will jeopardise a prosperous Israeli economy. She explained that military industry, which is one of Israel's main sources of exports, plays a vital role in solidifying the refusal of government and society to reach a political settlement. "This industry believes it would be harmed if peace is achieved," asserted Haas. "Israel's military industry has used Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as guinea pigs to test ammunition and combat methods."
Haas further added that tens of thousands of Israelis who work in the military industry remain employed because of the continued occupation. Occupation has also bolstered the status of military service, which has become a source of wealth since every year tens of thousands of Israelis complete their draft and leave with professional skills. From there they go on to serve in the intelligence community or as mercenary military advisers overseas, or arms dealers.
"Peace would end the careers of many Israelis who have sway over the Israeli government," stated Haas. She concluded that Israelis are drifting towards extremism because Israeli innovation in the field of security is a result of continuous interaction between Israelis and the Palestinians. This interaction results in low-intensity warfare, which is ideal for Israelis since it enables them to test their military inventions on Palestinians.
Israel's former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami believes that certain social and demographic shifts have been most influential in shifting Israeli society towards extremism. Of these, the most significant is the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews to Israel at the beginning of the 1990s. Ben Ami stated that while Russian immigrants, who constitute one fifth of Israel's population, tend to keep to themselves and stay away from other ethnic groups in Israeli society, they have adopted very extreme positions in the conflict despite the fact that the majority of them is not religious.
Sammy Smooha, professor of social sciences at Haifa University, agrees that Russian immigrants, in an attempt to further set themselves apart from other ethnic groups, held on tighter to their distinctive characteristics. "This came in the form of adopting extremist positions vis-à-vis the conflict and serving in elite military units," Smooha explained.
According to the Israeli thinker and writer Uzi Benziman, Israeli society has come to believe in an "eternal conflict". This notion is based in the belief that "it is impossible to reach a settlement with the Palestinians because their hatred of Israel is infinite." Thus, if Israel withdraws from the West Bank, the Palestinians will attack it from Qalqilia and Nablus. If it assists in the creation of a Palestinian state, the Palestinians of 1948 (so-called Arab Israelis) will rebel and call for an end of the Jewish nature of the state, noted Benziman.
At the same time, continued missile attacks after the "disengagement" plan in Gaza have bolstered basic fears that "the Arabs" do not completely accept the existence of the state, and would jump at the chance to annihilate it. Benziman asserted that this is the basic prism through which most Israelis, even those who are considered left wing, view the conflict.
Daniel Dor, media professor at Tel Aviv University, suggested that the major factor that feeds the idea of an "eternal conflict" is that Israeli society is convinced that "there is no partner for a settlement" on the Palestinian side. Dor insisted that the leader of the Labour Party, Ehud Barak, is solely to blame for this perception, because as prime minister at the end of 1999 he announced that he "presented [late Palestinian President Yasser] Arafat with the best deal any Israeli leader could offer, but Arafat responded to his generous offer with terrorist attacks in the form of a predetermined Intifada."
Dor believes that Barak's assertion convinced intellectuals on the left, who control the media, including most journalists, commentators, columnists, Orientalists and researchers whom Israelis watch on television and read in the newspapers. Some of the most prominent writers who were considered vanguards of the idea of a peaceful settlement, and leaders in the Peace Now movement, changed their positions and began calling for oppressive measures as a means to resolve the conflict.
A blaring example is Yuli Tamir who is the former director general of Peace Now and currently holds a Knesset seat for the Labour Party. Many intellectuals, such as Yaron London who was once at the forefront of the Zionist left, today do not miss a chance to advocate carrying out "atrocities" in Gaza. And so it goes.

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