- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 31, 2012

ELON MOREH, West Bank — Israel’s democracy has long been a point of pride for its citizens - setting the country apart in a region of autocratic governments.

But veteran settler leader Benny Katzover says democracy is getting in the way of what he believes is a higher purpose.

Mr. Katzover has been at the forefront of a religiously inspired movement to take over the West Bank, hilltop by hilltop, helping build a network of settlements over four decades that are now home to hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

Today he argues that democratic principles, such as equality before the law, have become an obstacle to deepening Jewish control over all of the biblical Land of Israel - though he stops short of calling for dismantling Israel’s democratic institutions.

They are disintegrating on their own, he says, and losing legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

“We didn’t come here to establish a democratic state,” Mr. Katzover said in an interview with the Associated Press. “We came here to return the Jewish people to their land.”

Mr. Katzover’s comments appear to reflect a growing radicalization among some right-wing religious groups. They come at a time of a rise in attacks on Palestinians by vigilante settlers and an increase in complaints by liberal Israelis that the country’s right-wing parliament and government have launched an unprecedented attack on the pillars of democracy.

Israel has preserved its democratic system through decades of turmoil, though it never extended it to Palestinians in occupied lands.

Mr. Katzover, 64, led the first group of settlers into the northern West Bank in the 1970s and helped establish the settlement of Elon Moreh in 1980.

Like other prominent settlers, he has been a confidant and informal adviser to a string of prime ministers over the years.

Mr. Katzover remains influential among hard-core activists and heads the Committee of Samaria Settlers, a group that tries to block government attempts to raze any of the about 100 unauthorized settlement outposts or uproot settlers as part of a future - and for now very remote - partition deal with the Palestinians.

“Across the country, these ideas, that democracy needs dramatic change, if not dismantling then at least dramatic change, these ideas are very widespread,” he said in his modest home in Elon Moreh, a settlement of 2,000 people with a sweeping view of the West Bank hills the Palestinians want as the core of their future state.

The mainstream settlers’ umbrella group, the Yesha Council, distanced itself from Mr. Katzover’s comments, first made in a small ultra-Orthodox publication and picked up by Israel’s liberal Haaretz daily early last month.

The Yesha Council is firmly committed to democratic principles, said its chairman, Dani Dayan.

But Mr. Katzover claims he is expressing publicly what many others, including more mainstream settler leaders, think privately.

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