Amona Violence an Uncertain Harbinger

Had Ariel Sharon been able to continue as Israeli prime minister, his main strategic goal would have been establishing a new long-term border between Israel and the West Bank.

That remains the primary aim of his Kadima Party, but last week’s violent clashes between settlers and police at the tiny West Bank outpost of Amona show just how difficult achieving it might be.

The intensity of the confrontation highlighted a profound rift between young settler radicals and the State of Israel. Some even go so far as to say they no longer feel any allegiance to secular Israel and want to establish a theocratic “State of Judea” in its stead.

The confrontation also brought to the surface differences inside the settler movement itself: The young radicals advocate uncompromising physical resistance to any further withdrawal plans; the moderates argue that the most rational thing the settlers can do is work with the government in drawing up new lines that take their interests into account.

The issue surfaced again when Israel’s acting prime minister said a probe into the clashes is unnecessary. Ehud Olmert said at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting that accusations of excessive police force during the Feb. 1 evacuation of Amona should not be investigated because he doesn’t want to politicize the event.

On Sunday night, settlers and their supporters showed they wouldn’t let the issue die easily either, as tens of thousands filled the streets of Jerusalem to rally against what they called an excessive use of police force in quelling the riots.

The already-explosive situation is further complicated by the fact that Israel is in the throes of a general election. All the major parties are trying to exploit government-settler tensions.

In the fighting over the demolition of nine illegal permanent homes built at Amona, more than 200 people were injured. The radical settlers wanted to make a point: Further evacuation of the West Bank will encounter much tougher opposition than the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank in the summer did. The police wanted to establish a precedent, too: to show that nothing will deter them from carrying out government policy. Both sides are convinced they got their messages across.

For the young settler radicals, the evacuation of the Gaza and northern West Bank settlements was a traumatic experience. For many it caused a major shift in their attitudes to the State of Israel. From ardent Zionists, they became bitter critics, arguing that settlement is a central Zionist tenet, a step toward the coming of the Messiah, and, therefore, any state that gives up settlements undermines hope for redemption.

“A growing proportion of the National Religious public is becoming post-Zionist,” said Avihai Boaron, a young lawyer who headed the Amona campaign against the homes’ demolition. “The State of Israel is no longer seen as the beginning of redemption. On the contrary, it is seen to be impeding the natural development of the Jewish people. Not very wisely, Israel is turning good citizens from lovers of the country into, dare I say it, enemies of the state.”

For the moderates, the lesson learned from the Gaza withdrawal is very different. For them, the state remains supreme, and the challenge is to prevent a schism between the rest of the people and the settlers.

Leading the moderate camp is Otniel Schneller, a former head of the Yesha council of settlers.

The settlers, he argues, are servants of the majority, as reflected by the elected government. It can expand or curb settlement as it sees fit, and the settlers should go along with whatever decisions it takes. His goal is to avert future confrontation by getting the government to adopt a plan for new borders that most settlers will be able to support.

To this end, he has joined Kadima, and put his plan for settlement relocation on the table. Schneller defines four types of settlement: those inside the separation fence, those close to it, those with strategic or historic value and those far from the fence with neither.

The first three categories would be retained by Israel, the fourth relocated inside the fence or in Israel proper to make way for a contiguous Palestinian state alongside Israel. Schneller said he showed his plan to Sharon the day he suffered his major brain hemorrhage, and to Olmert a few days later. He claims both were impressed and that he has reason to believe the plan will be adopted as official Israeli policy.

The key, though, is how much settler support he gets. Many young radicals are already branding him a traitor. But Schneller claims most settlers are behind him.

“It’s hard to believe. I thought there would be an intifada against me. But it’s just the opposite. People have not stopped phoning me. They want to help, to take things forward, to see where it leads,” he said in an interview.

The current settler council is vacillating. Its leaders maintain close ties with radicals, while exploring compromise proposals of their own with the government. A day after doing virtually nothing to curb settler violence on Amona, council leaders Benzi Lieberman and Zeev Hever met with Foreign and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to discuss their proposed map of settlement.

The feelers came as all the main political parties are trying to use government-settler tensions in the wake of the Amona clash to score political points. The parties on the right maintain that Olmert deliberately sought the violent confrontation to create a strongman image. On the left, the claim is that under Sharon, things would have been under control, and the level of violence much lower. Olmert’s retort to critics on both sides of the political spectrum is the same: He was simply doing what had to be done — carrying out a Supreme Court order to demolish the illegal homes.

The public seems confused. On the one hand, 50 percent think that Olmert wanted a bloody fight; on the other, 57 percent blame the settlers for the level of violence. More importantly, the Amona fracas seems to be having no perceptible effect on the nation’s voting patterns. In weekend polls after the violence, Kadima still had more than 40 of the 120 Knesset seats, with Labor at somewhere 16 and 21 and the Likud at between 13 and 17.

The fact that such major developments as the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections and the violent police-settler showdown have failed to dent the polls has led several Israeli pundits to conclude that election has, to all intents and purposes, already been decided. Although balloting is still eight weeks away and the campaigns have hardly started, it seems that it will take something really extraordinary to alter the anticipated outcome.