Leap of Faith: Israel’s National Religious and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Leap of Faith: Israel’s National Religious and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
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  1. Executive Summary
Meltdown Looms for the West Bank’s Financial Lifelines
Meltdown Looms for the West Bank’s Financial Lifelines
Report 147 / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

Leap of Faith: Israel’s National Religious and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

For peace talks to produce an agreement enjoying maximum legitimacy, Israel’s national-religious community should be engaged lest it obstruct the path to peace.

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Executive Summary

Although the landscape of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking might bear resemblance to that of a decade past, one change is unmistakable: the right is stronger within Israel and the national religious are stronger within the right. This has consequences, some already felt, whether in politics (the rise of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home); negotiations (Prime Minister Netanyahu’s commitment to submit any putative agreement to a popular referendum); or on the ground (the rise in confrontational tactics among some young West Bank settlers). Adjusting to this reality means neither ignoring the national-religious agenda nor surrendering to it. It means acknowledging its importance and understanding ideological nuances within it. If the goal is a peace agreement that garners maximum legitimacy, including among the national religious, attention will have to be paid to the substance of the deal, the way in which it is ratified and eventually implemented.

Born in the early twentieth century, the national-religious movement represents the pairing of religion with modern political Zionism. In contrast to many religious Jews, its adherents – and notably followers of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of the pre-1948 Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine – saw the emergence of a Jewish state, even a secular one, as a step in God’s plan. Kookists, by far the most influential among the national religious when it comes to devising policy toward the West Bank, 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.

On the face of it, these have been good years for the national religious. They enjoy unprecedented clout. Their numbers, roughly 8 to 10 per cent of the population, belie their outsized political influence. The Kookist stream in particular has invested in state institutions to mould them from within. Bennett’s party registered an impressive electoral showing. The governing Likud itself increasingly is shaped by the deliberate influx of national-religious members, which helped squeeze out more liberal voices from the party’s upper echelons. Kookists, again, have launched assertive campaigns to win the public’s hearts and minds. All in all, they have encountered success in shaping the national agenda, whether on domestic issues or in relations with the Palestinians.

But these have been lean years as well. The greatest setback came with the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank, which the national religious were signally unable to prevent. The humiliating defeat had momentous consequences. It highlighted inherent tensions between the tasks of defending the Land of Israel, preserving the unity of its people and respecting the decisions of its state. In so doing, it exacerbated internal divisions over whether and to what extent one should respect – or resist – state decisions that run counter to core national-religious beliefs. The disengagement gave rise to a small albeit significant group of more radical, oftentimes violent and generally youthful settlers that condemns its elders’ purported sell-out. In this sense, the effort to amass power within state bodies and mainstream political parties coupled with public campaigns to convince others of the wisdom of its positions are signs of a national-religious camp both in full swing and in crisis – one that increasingly must choose between broader influence and ideological purity.

In the view of the international community and others invested in the peace process, the national religious constitute a powerful obstacle to peacemaking. Their current electoral strength and influence in state institutions – and now within the governing coalition – are unprecedented. Their admixture of religion and politics vexes those whose sense of politics and negotiation are based in the here-and-now. What is perceived as their maximalist demands – seen by many as tantamount to a call for Palestinian surrender – and doctrinally-dictated inflexibility make them seem implacable and unwilling to compromise. Once this group was in opposition to the Israeli government because of what it saw as foot-dragging over settlement activity; later, as momentum gathered behind a two-state solution, it was cast as a spoiler; today its representatives sit around the cabinet table. What hope then for peace?

Yet viewed from within the national-religious community, the picture looks quite different. While outsiders see them as united and powerful, they themselves are acutely aware of their internal fragmentation and of having failed to convince non-observant Israeli Jews to put an end to the Oslo process. Indeed, with the disengagement followed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s imposition of a (partial) ten-month settlement construction freeze and acceptance, albeit conditional, of a two-state solution, it sometimes seems to them that the partition of the Land of Israel is all but a done deal. National-religious figures enjoyed electoral success in 2013, but large parts of their constituency now are realising this resulted from putting forward a pragmatic face regarding matters of religion and state and allying with avowedly secular forces.

Moreover their community is not monolithic. Quite to the contrary: while all parts of it evince a strong commitment to the Land of Israel, they differ on fundamental theological, social and political issues and are beset by a sense of fragmentation. Their feeling of vulnerability has compelled some of their leading figures to revise long-held views concerning what a political end-game might look like and, for the first time, put forward concrete ideas for getting there. These, which often include full or large-scale annexation of the West Bank, are far from acceptable to the international community – much less to Palestinians – but given that they resonate with a wide swathe of Israelis, beyond the confines of the national religious community, they demand some consideration. What is more, Kookists exhibit strong deference to decisions backed by a Jewish majority and equally strong hostility to forceful resistance to the state – doctrinal elements that could prove highly relevant in the event of a breakthrough with Palestinians.

Most of all, this paradox – a national-religious camp that looks almighty from the outside yet is riven by doubt on the inside – invites reconsideration of a peace process principally advanced by the Israeli left and centre and premised on the exclusion of the religious right. If the national religious often have played the spoiler, it is no small part because their concerns have been neglected. But given that they largely shaped the conflict on the ground and now are in a position to shape its future, continuing this approach could be self-defeating. Several questions need to be asked: Are there ways to encourage Palestinian recognition of the historic link between Judaism and the Jewish people to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea? Can a peace agreement include visitation rights to holy sites and residency rights to some settlers in a future State of Palestine? Is it worth putting a deal to a referendum to bolster legitimacy among the national religious? Can the evacuation of settlements be managed in a way that – unlike the Gaza precedent – is experienced by the national religious as less of a shameful defeat?

Many national religious demands undoubtedly are incompatible with those of other Israelis or of Palestinians. But one ought not rule all of them out until they are further identified, explored and engaged. In the end, the best-case scenario likely will be that parts of the national-religious community get behind a two-state agreement. At a minimum, the goal ought to be to ensure that a majority among them acquiesce in an agreement of which they do not approve but whose legitimacy they will not contest.

Jerusalem/Brussels, 21 November 2013

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