- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

JERUSALEM — It was the ultimate amen corner.

At the behest of settler leaders, hundreds of Israeli Orthodox rabbis filled a Jerusalem hotel banquet hall for an “emergency meeting” Monday evening, listening to sermons railing against the U.S.- sponsored “road map” peace initiative.

“The land of Israel is for the people of Israel from the time of our ancestor Abraham,” said Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, a former chief Israeli Sephardic rabbi. “Our borders are … borders of holiness.”

The bottom line of the Jewish legal rulings adopted by the convention of right-wing rabbis was unmistakable: The road map is irreconcilable with the Torah and resisting implementation — like the dismantling of dozens of hilltop outposts erected in the last two years — means saving lives of Jews.

But there was a caveat: resistance against soldiers and security officers must be nonviolent.

Just outside of the proceedings, though, Shimon, 26, was showing off a mini-exhibition of photographs from the clashes last Thursday at the West Bank outpost of Mitzpeh Yitzhar, the first populated outpost to be evacuated by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The protest was meant to be an exercise in passive resistance, but Shimon’s album seemed obsessed with the force used against the settlers, with image after image showing a group of soldiers and police dragging off the protesters.

“The rabbis are saying, ‘You need to use passive resistance because the police might have weapons,’” said the bearded yeshiva student, who called the police officers at the demonstration “wicked.” “But they’re not expecting some guy who gets kicked in the head to be quiet. The violence will only get worse.”

The remarks of the young photographer, who gave only his first name, underscored how difficult it will be for settler leaders to harmonize two of their tactics. While enlisting rabbis to rally the faithful by fanning the embers of religious and moral fervor for the land of Israel, the settler leaders have to ensure that the demonstrations don’t spiral out of control.

Mr. Sharon’s call for a Palestinian state along with his willingness to dismantle the outposts in the West Bank has forced the settler leadership into a delicate balancing act. They fear setting a precedent that one day may lead to the dismantling of larger communities in the territories, but need to avoid alienating a public that overwhelmingly supports the adoption of the road map plan.

“It’s an unprecedented dilemma. In the last three years, they’ve won points for being on the front line of the war and showing on the whole admirable restraint,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, an authority on the settler movement.

“They’ve succeeded in convincing the Israeli public they were right about [the] Oslo [Accords], and yet none of that was enough to convince the Israeli public to stand with the settlers politically in their most desperate time. That’s the tragedy of the settlement movement. It’s not the tragedy of rejection, it’s the tragedy of, ‘Yes, but … .’”

At the helm of the settler leaders are religious pragmatists who are politically savvy and want to make sure that the outpost protests don’t isolate the 220,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from mainstream Israel.

The memory of the public vilification that followed the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has not faded. Many Israelis blamed the settler leaders and Orthodox rabbis for calling Mr. Rabin a “traitor” and for fanning the violent protests that culminated in his assassination.

At the same time, they must grapple with a group of influential rabbis whose followers are more strident and less committed to Israel’s version of liberal democratic government, Mr. Halevi said.

The pragmatists believe the key to defeating the road map lies in convincing the Likud parliamentarians to stop Mr. Sharon, rather than urging the far-right National Union Party and National Religious Party to withdraw from the coalition. They say they must be selective about when and where they call for massive resistance to the outpost evacuation.

“It’s very easy to create a situation of ‘Us and Them.’” said Pinchas Wallerstein, a former chairman of the Council of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, an alliance of settler leaders. “There is a fear that we’ll make so many actions that the people of Israel will say ‘Enough, I’m sick of this. We don’t want the settlers.’”

Last week’s struggle on the Mitzpeh Yitzhar hilltop marked a major victory for the settlers, Mr. Wallerstein said. Even though the army ultimately dismantled the tent and makeshift structure that housed 10 settlers, the protest effort succeeded on two fronts, he explained.

The evacuation took the better part of a day and proved to be a psychological burden on the soldiers — signaling to Israel that dismantling larger settlements would prove to be a national ordeal. At the same time, newspaper headlines of “Brother Against Brother” the following day was proof that the settlers’ image hadn’t suffered in the scuffle.

In the days since the dismantling of Mitzpeh Yitzhar, several new outposts have been established.

“What they have done is scratching the surface. The serious outpost infrastructure hasn’t been touched. It’s all nothing more than spin,” said Dror Etkes, who has documented the growth of the outposts for Peace Now.

But criticism of the tactics isn’t only coming from the left. Debates over Israeli security and outpost evacuations shouldn’t be the focus of rabbinical rulings, said Rabbi Shlomo Brin, who teaches in a yeshiva in the West Bank town of Alon Shvut.

“There’s an internal contradiction when you say that this is anti-Zionist, immoral, illegal, and then you say resist without violence,” he said. “Once you say there is no legitimacy, of course a wide public will say we can resist even with force. It’s a dangerous explosive.”

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