Olmert said at an early morning victory rally, ”We are prepared to compromise, give up parts of our beloved land of Israel, painfully remove Jews who live there, to allow you the conditions to achieve your hopes and to live in a state in peace and quiet.”
Olmert said the West Bank separation barrier would be the starting point for the Israeli border he wants to draw over the next four years.
There are currently about 190,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, according to the CIA World Factbook, although other estimates reach as high as 320,000. There are 70,000 settlers living outside the current barrier route, according to The New York Times.
Although the settlers once wielded a great deal of power in Israeli politics, the relatively peaceful evacuation of some 9,000 Jewish residents from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005 has put them on the defensive.
Israel’s settlers are not a monolithic group. Some are professionals drawn to inexpensive housing, tax incentives and mountain air in the suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Others are ultranationalists who see their mission as part of God’s plan to return the land stretching from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia to the Jews, a precursor to the redemptive era culminating in the arrival of the Messiah.
Settlers also are divided in their reaction to the government’s plan. Some have chosen to work within Olmert’s Kadima governing coalition and try to control the terms of a withdrawal, while others such as the outlawed Kach group, have promised violence and blood shed if the Army is once again used to evacuate settlements.
Kach, which has been blamed for the deaths of dozens of Palestinians, subscribes to the racist ideology of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who demanded the forced expulsion of all Arabs from the Holy Land. The United States has designated it a terrorist organization.
There also are groups of unaffiliated young people, including the so-called “hill-top youth” who created summer camp-like outposts in remote areas of the territories.
The settler issue has been part of Israeli politics since 1967 war, when Israel captured the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem from Jordan.
Following the unexpected victory over Israel’s Arab nation enemies, even the center-left Labor Party justified establishing settlements in the Jordan Valley as necessary to ensure state security — the narrowest point at Israel’s middle is only 9 miles wide. Labor Party leader Shimon Peres and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin supported the initial settlements, which are illegal under international law, seeing them as the continuation of the pioneering spirit that helped realize the dream of a Jewish state.
When the conservative Likud Party took over in 1977, Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s agriculture minister, Ariel Sharon, oversaw a security strategy to crosshatch the Palestinian territories with Jewish towns, industrial parks, and Jewish schools, yeshivas. The children who grew up in those towns are now represented in the Israeli Army’s top combat units, according to Jeffrey Goldberg of the New Yorker.
However, Sharon reluctantly changed course by the time he became prime minister in 2001, as he and many of the Israeli top officials came to accept Israel’s precarious demographic reality — that the number of Palestinians is growing faster than Jews and Jews are expected to make up less than 46 percent of the population in the landmass of the combined Israel and Palestinian territories by 2020, according to the Israeli demographer Sergio Della Pergola.
The land granted to Israel by the United Nations in 1947 has a population that is 80 percent Jewish, said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“But if you look Israel West Bank-Gaza, you’re talking about 5 million Jews and about 4- 4.5 million Arabs. And within a decade and maybe even within six years, the Jews could be the minority,” Makovsky told the NewsHour.
If the Palestinians are not granted their own nation and demand the right to vote where they live, Jews will either become the voting minority, meaning the end of the Jewish state, or they will have to rule the majority with force and the two-tiered legal system of an apartheid state — something most Israelis, and perhaps most importantly, Israel’s staunch supporter, the United States, are unlikely to accept.
“Even within the Likud Party they’re saying that democracy and the demographic self-interest trumps the land. This is a major change for the Likud,” Makovsky said.
Sharon, and then Olmert, who took over when Sharon was incapacitated by a severe stroke in January 2006, realized that the time had come to set the final borders of a Jewish state living beside a Palestinian state.
The change did not come easily for Sharon.
“I know what the consequences are for thousands of Israelis who have lived for many years in Gaza, and were sent there by Israeli governments, and had children there who didn’t know another home,” Sharon said when he argued for the disengagement policy in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in October 2004. “I know. I sent them. I was a participant and many are my personal friends. I am aware of their pain, their anger, their despair.”
For the ultranationalist settlers, who make up about a quarter of all settlers, the so-called “population bomb” means nothing. They see themselves as part of God’s plan to return the Jewish people to their biblical homeland.
When reporter Goldberg asked Rabbi Moshe Levinger, Hebron’s first Jewish settler in 1968, about the scriptural basis for the settler movements, Levinger took out the Torah, the five books of Moses, and opened to Genesis.
“Now the Lord said to Abraham, get out of the country, and from the kindred, and from the father’s house, to the land that I will show you, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you,” he read.
“All my ideas are formed from the Torah,” he continued. “It’s not complex. The land is ours. God gave it to us. We’re the owners of the land.”
In the months leading up to the Gaza pullout, there were both peaceful and violent protests. The Israeli paper Haaretz reported an increase in threats against the prime minister and other government figures that were taken very seriously in the wake of the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli right-wing activist who opposed Rabin’s signing of the Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian Authority.
While some groups bused protesters to the Gaza settlements to face off with the Army, others launched a media campaign to win the hearts and minds of Israel. The Yesha Council, which claims to represent all Jews living in the occupied territories, used funding from several companies and Jewish donors around the globe, to create savvy media and political lobbying campaigns featuring the slogan: “Stop for a minute, think again.”
However in the 2006 elections, the majority of Israelis seemed to reject their plea by giving Olmert’s new Kadima party a majority, although a slim one, in the Knesset.
David Tal, a history professor at Tel Aviv University, said the elections were a referendum on the withdrawal strategy.
“These elections are one of the most important elections in the history of Israel, because it is the first time that the Israelis made a very clear statement about their wish to see Israel withdrawing from the West Bank,” Tal told the NewsHour.
Still, many within Israel believe settlement supporters are marshaling their financial and political resources for the upcoming battle over the much larger settlements in what they see as the “biblical heartland” of Israel in the West Bank.