- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 12, 2006

EIN TZURIM, Israel — As acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert signaled a readiness to evacuate more Israeli towns in the West Bank last week, his election campaign received an unexpected endorsement from one of the founders of the settlement movement.

Rabbi Yoel Ben Nun endorsed Mr. Olmert’s Kadima party, acknowledging that the dream of Israel’s controlling all of the biblical land of Israel is unrealistic and accusing settler leaders of isolating themselves from the Israeli mainstream.

By throwing his support behind Kadima and working within the party that is projected to form the next Israeli government, Mr. Ben Nun hopes to minimize the number of settlements that will have to be moved.

“It’s more important to get a consensus on the settlements in the West Bank than claiming every hilltop,” he said. “All of these years, the settlers council has gone to the extreme to get more and more settlements. And that is dangerous.

“The Titanic is sinking, and they’re still dancing on the top. But below, the water is rising.”

Mr. Ben Nun in the 1970s helped found the Gush Emunim settler movement, whose members today live in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut.

For settlers, he has been an iconoclastic voice who advocated reaching out to centrist and left-wing Israeli parties. But last year he accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of deliberately setting the stage for violence with his plans for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Times have changed. Mr. Ben Nun now says that only by currying favor with the new government will Jewish settlers have any hope of protecting their communities from the fate that befell the settlements in Gaza. If the settler lobby does not venture beyond the confines of the far-right Israeli political parties, the settlers are liable to be find themselves isolated.

Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem Center research institute, said the endorsement may carry more weight with secular voters than within the settler movement.

“What’s significant politically in his endorsement isn’t necessarily its effect on the religious community. … The significance is for secular Israelis who see Rabbi Ben Nun as a spiritual authority and the embodiment in what is best in Judaism,” he said.

Mr. Ben Nun’s call will appeal to “liberal Israelis who would have not voted for Kadima, who care about the cohesiveness of Israeli society and Jewish leadership.”

Shaul Goldstein, the head of a local settlers council in the West Bank, said Mr. Ben Nun’s endorsement could bring Kadima a handful of swing voters, but would be seen as a “big mistake.”

“Keeping good relations is important, and I’m doing it all the time,” he said. “But to say that we have to … make a call to support Kadima is going too far. Everyone has to stick to their ideology. My ideology says that any concessions in the West Bank weakens the settlements.”

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