Israel’s National-Religious Jews and the Quest for Peace
Israel’s National-Religious Jews and the Quest for Peace
Op-Ed 8 minutes

Israel’s National-Religious Jews and the Quest for Peace

Although the most recent Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resembled previous rounds of failed negotiations in many ways, when assessing developments since the Camp David summit in 2000 one change is unmistakable: right wing parties opposing partition are stronger within Israel and the national-religious are stronger within the right. Though Israel’s national-religious (or ‘Religious Zionist’) Jews comprise only eight to 10 per cent of the population, the 2013 elections brought 20 national-religious representatives into the Knesset. It proved the strong influence which national-religious Likud party members have within their party, and established the national-religious Jewish Home party under the leadership of Naftali Bennett as a major partner in the coalition. The increasingly visible power of Israel’s national-religious community presents both an opportunity and an obligation to address a longstanding weakness of the peace process: the near-total exclusion of religious interests and stakeholders.

How to include this religious community in conflict resolution efforts is far from obvious. Its ideological core, composed of followers of the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the pre-1948 Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, hold the view that full redemption will come only when the entire People of Israel live in the Land of Israel under full Jewish sovereignty. Settlement construction, it follows, forms an intrinsic part of their project.

Indeed, Kook’s contemporary followers are among the most ardent opponents of the two-state solution. They are of interest to the international community primarily because they continue to spearhead the settlement project. However, while international observers have tended to view the national-religious as successful in advancing the settlement project, in reality they have been more innovative and assertive in recent years precisely because they have sensed it is facing major setbacks.

Despite the outward appearance of success, Israel’s national-religious are more concerned than ever that the settlement project has reached a ceiling which it has failed to break through in nearly 20 years of effort. Existing settlements have continued to grow, but virtually no new official settlements have been established since 1996. Over 100 outposts – settlements deemed illegal under Israeli law – are home to no more than 5,000 settlers and face major legal challenges in Israel, putting settlement advocates on the defensive. This sense of failure dramatically increased with the 2005 Gaza disengagement, which saw all Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and four small settlements in the West Bank removed in an Israeli unilateral step. Nearly 9,000 settlers were uprooted in less than a week, demonstrating to national-religious settlers that 35 years of construction can be reversed much more easily than they wanted to think. Those who truly believed until the very day of the disengagement that divine intervention would prevent it from happening came to realise that political action, not prayer alone, is needed if they are to realise their objectives.

Those who try to challenge the state’s limits on construction of new settlements are mostly young activists, living in outposts, who bridle at not only state restrictions but the compromises of the mainstream settlement movement. Their frustration is expressed, among other things, in their resorting to vandalism and violence – infamously known as ‘price tag’ attacks. In such attacks they target the property and houses of prayer of Palestinian neighbours, non-Arab churches, and sometimes political opponents in Israel, in reaction to Israeli governmental action against settlement in outposts. Recently they have increasingly become embroiled in direct confrontation with the IDF itself over the Israeli military’s attempts to contain their activities.

The ideological core of the national-religious have reacted in recent years by accumulating power within the Likud party in order to affect national decision making from within. They have also launched assertive campaigns to win public hearts and minds in favour of retaining Israeli control over the Land of Israel. Some of their prominent leaders, realising the need to articulate a clear alternative to the two-state solution, began calling more explicitly and systematically than ever to annex some or all of the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and to naturalise some or all of its Arab-Palestinian residents.

Beyond the Stereotypes

But there is far more to the story of Israel’s national-religious than their political struggle over the land of Israel. Kook’s teachings and the sociological profile of his followers are multifaceted and one should reduce neither the doctrine nor its followers to their attachment to the land. Their theology does not sanctify only the land, and not all national-religious are equally inflexible about it.

First, the Gaza disengagement has all but disproven the numerous experts and pundits arguing that Israel’s national-religious settlers are fundamentalists who, when faced with the choice, would select land over country and turn to violence against the state. The community’s ideological core sanctifies not only the land but also, just as forcefully, both the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Indeed, they consider the state’s very existence to be a step in the process of redemption.

Consequently, Kook’s followers exhibit strong deference to decisions backed by a Jewish majority and strongly oppose forceful resistance to the state. These doctrinal elements could prove highly relevant in the event of a breakthrough with the Palestinians. Indeed, it is revealing that the youth perpetrating ‘price tag’ attacks have abandoned Kook’s teachings and follow instead rabbis who are disciples of Rabbi Yosef Ginsburg of Chabad or of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. The teachings of these two rabbis are focused not on the State of Israel as a step in the process of redemption but on a purportedly sharp qualitative difference between Gentiles and Jews.

Second, the community is divided between an ideological core, for whom rabbis have come to play outsized roles, both religiously and politically, and a mainstream that tends to consult its rabbis only on matters of personal religious observance. Unlike the ideological core, the national-religious mainstream does not look to the Torah for guidance on national matters and is therefore more amenable to pragmatic compromise. Winning support for a two-state solution from the latter group is within reach under certain conditions.

Including Israel’s National-Religious in Peace-making

Until now, the peace process has been principally advanced by the Israeli left and centre and premised on the exclusion of the religious-right. It is time to reconsider this approach by taking greater account of the national-religious community’s needs, and their critique of negotiations to date, some of which is sensible.
The national-religious point to at least four errors the left made in advancing peace. First, they thought ensuring a Jewish majority was sufficient for the future of the Jewish state, and therefore avoided efforts to shape the character and ensure the prosperity of a Jewish society. Second, they considered religion purely in individual terms, and approached the religious dimension of the peace process by mainly focusing on access to holy sites and worship rights, as opposed to Israel’s role in determining and maintaining the sites’ very character. Third, they showed all but hostility to the settler population – which it considered an obstacle, not a partner to peace – and its desire to maintain a connection to the entire Land of Israel. Fourth, they assumed Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation and mutual recognition of the other people’s national narrative would come, if at all, only after the conflict was settled.

If the goal is an agreement with maximum legitimacy which secures national-religious support or at least acquiescence, three kinds of changes to the reigning paradigm are needed: addressing their core interests; ratifying a putative agreement in a manner expressing clear majority (Jewish) support; and implementing it in a manner which reduces risks of confrontation.

First, in terms of the agreement’s substantive framing, national-religious Jews would more easily stomach territorial withdrawals if they believed the agreement ultimately solidified and secured Israel’s Jewish character. Current peace negotiations all but prove that insisting on Palestinian recognition of Israel’s Jewish character, as Netanyahu does, could kill the process, as Palestinians believe it would harm some of their core interests. However, committing to strengthening Jewish education and culture in a post-agreement Israel, though certain to trigger some opposition from other sectors in Israel, could be as effective in winning over the national-religious and would appeal to much broader right-of-centre Israeli constituencies. An investment in peace would become tantamount to an investment in Jewish culture and identity, instead of the opposite, which is how an agreement with the Palestinians has been seen until now.

In terms of the agreement’s substance, and bearing in mind the complex task of balancing national-religious concerns with the interests of both Palestinians and other Israeli constituencies, two adjustments could be helpful. Granting worship and visitation rights for Israeli Jews at holy sites falling under Palestinian sovereignty, like residency rights in a putative Palestinian state, would attenuate national-religious opposition to a deal. The effect would be all the more positive were these rights predicated on Palestinian recognition of Jewish religious and historical linkages to the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, as already alluded to in the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence. Granting sovereignty to Palestinians over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, given the Temple Mount’s centrality in Jewish messianism, would be considered a theological defeat and thus fiercely opposed. Therefore, if it were possible to dodge the question of sovereignty – for instance by agreeing that sovereignty belongs to God or keeping silent about it altogether – national-religious resistance would be lowered significantly.

Second, any agreement would need to be ratified in a manner demonstrating that a majority of Israeli Jews support it. Because the ideological core of the national-religious community sanctifies the ‘People of Israel’ – a theological term referring to Jews, not to Israeli citizens – it tends to defer to decisions of a Jewish majority. This could be secured with a supra-majority in the Knesset or, more convincingly still for the community, a popular referendum. Such a ratification mechanism likely would be contentious, among Jewish no less than Arab constituencies, since democratic norms do not permit investing one community with special prerogatives. A creative solution would need to be found.

Third, the agreement would need to be implemented less abruptly and confrontationally than Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank. Housing for evacuees, like financial assistance, would need to be prepared well in advance. Moreover, Israel’s government would do well to consider a gradual settlement evacuation. For example, the state might provide settlements slated for evacuation with only critical services while already built alternative communal housing would be offered to settlers relocating to Israel proper or to areas annexed to Israel as part of an agreement. Granting residency rights to Jews wishing to live under Palestinian sovereignty could also further mitigate the challenge of evacuation.

Many national-religious demands undoubtedly are problematic for other sectors of Israeli society and for Palestinians. But if national-religious acquiescence is vital to an accord, and all indications today in Israel are that it is, the challenge will be to offer inducements to both sides and craft mutually acceptable reciprocal arrangements. It is high time for peacemakers to cease looking at Israel’s national-religious community as mere spoilers and to make a genuine effort to include them in the quest for peace.

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