Editor’s Notes: A proud, bitter aftermath

By David Horovitz August 26, 2005

Eviction from Gaza was one of religious Zionism’s finest hours, argues Israel Harel

Eight months ago, immediately after his colleague Pinhas Wallerstein issued the opening call for mass civil disobedience to thwart Ariel Sharon’s pullout from Gaza, I met with Israel Harel to gauge this most pragmatic of settler leaders’ sense of whether the campaign would work.

He predicted that it would, that ‘a government that will have to fight tens of thousands of people won’t win… And the Gaza settlers will have tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank with them, and a few thousand from inside Israel, too.’

While clinging to his insistent line against soldiers’ refusing orders, he noted, too, at the time that ‘now you have 3,000 soldiers and officers who have already signed a petition [advocating refusal to evacuate settlers]. And I know there’s three times that many [soldiers who feel the same], a vast number who will refuse orders… So Sharon can be euphoric that he has a Knesset majority. But on the ground that doesn’t matter.’

I met with Harel again this week, on Wednesday evening, the day after the pullout had been completed in a dizzying six days.

‘Yes, I said it could be stopped,’ he acknowledges before I’ve hardly begun to ask a question, ‘and I also said there’d be no violence, that there was no potential for civil war. So I was right about that.’

Harel looks as droopy-eyed and glum as ever. He also sounds deeply and unsurprisingly bitter about the forces that have combined to destroy what he considers to have been a central element of the religious Zionist enterprise. And there’s an air of alienation that I don’t think he carried eight months ago.

But he is at pains to convey his pride – pride in a religious Zionist community, and especially, he says, its rabbinical leadership in the field, which ‘instinctively’ determined, at the moment of its deepest crisis, that while mass refusal was utterly viable and would definitely have prevented ‘this uprooting,’ it would also have spelled the beginning of the end for Israel and would thus have to be eschewed.

In Harel’s summary, then, it seems his camp – and he uses that term every now and then – showed heroic commitment to Israel even as it was being betrayed.

HE BEGINS with an aggrieved protest against the IDF’s chief of General Staff, Dan Halutz, and those of his senior officers who talked up what proved to be baseless fears of an extremist resort to live fire against the security forces during Wednesday’s evacuation of Homesh and Sa-Nur in northern Samaria.

‘If that’s the accuracy of Halutz’s information,’ he says dryly, ‘then he’s not terribly well informed.’ Beyond misinformation, though, Harel asserts, those hyped fears reflect what has been a consistent effort ‘to demonize the settler public: ‘If they can shoot at soldiers, then we can take any and all steps against them; if they can refuse orders, then their youth can be thrown out of the army.”

Harel stops short of directly accusing Halutz of responsibility for such demonization, but speaks more vaguely of ‘a certain amount of jealousy in the defense establishment’ of the predominance of religious Zionists in the officer corps, the elite units and throughout those army bastions previously dominated by kibbutzniks.

‘When I was in the paratroops, eight out of 10 were from the kibbutz,’ he recalls. ‘By my son’s era the proportions had been reversed.

‘There’s been a lot of ideological interest in creating a picture of fear,’ Harel goes on. ‘I want to believe that Halutz, coming out of the air force, simply didn’t know enough about religious Zionism. But he still should have known better than to threaten or warn of eventualities when he would be so obviously exposed as wrong just a day later. And he should have thought more about the future well-being of the army: A supreme commander’s job is to unify, not deepen rifts.’

The defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, should certainly have been better able to judge the true dimensions of potential settler threat: ‘He knows this public well. He lived at [the settlement of] Elkana for a while when he was a student at Bar-Ilan University. He was a senior commander in Judea and Samaria, and the general in charge of the Southern Command. [Media adviser] Eyal Arad spinning this stuff for the prime minister is one thing… but these people?

Putting that specific dispute aside, Harel focuses on how and why the anti-disengagement struggle failed, and the implications of that failure in the months and years ahead.

He is adamant that, had it wished, the religious Zionist leadership could have stopped the pullout in its tracks – as he had predicted. ‘If the religious leadership hadn’t acted responsibly,’ he asserts, ‘refusal would have reached massive proportions and the pullout would have proved impossible.’ Given that vast proportion of officers and combat troops from religious Zionist backgrounds, ‘if the atmosphere among rabbis and teachers and parents had been one of ‘Don’t follow orders,’ religious Zionism would have prevented this uprooting.’

Harel stresses that he comes from a Bnei Akiva background and that he is generally worried about the ‘rabbi-ization’ of religious Zionism. ‘So I can’t actually believe that it’s me saying this,’ he offers. ‘But I was in Kfar Darom and Neveh Dekalim for the past two weeks, and if there’s an element that prevented violence and refusal, it was the rabbis. The Council of Jewish Communities’ – the Yesha council that Harel founded and headed for its first 15 years – ‘purports to be the supreme institution. But the real influence is the rabbis. No Yesha council could have done what they did.’

Didn’t some of religious Zionism’s most prominent rabbis strenuously advocate refusal? Which rabbis is he talking about?

Former chief rabbis Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliahu, who were indeed outspoken on the issue, he answers, ‘weren’t there in the field. I’m talking about 30 or 40 rabbis from hesder yeshivot, from the pre-army academies, settlement rabbis. They went house to house. They did social work. When the chief of staff says he’ll get even with those rabbis, he doesn’t understand that they saved his army.’

WHAT, THEN, of that central anti-disengagement slogan, the implicit demand for refusal in the ‘A Jew doesn’t expel another Jew’ campaign? Isn’t Harel merely trying to put the best face on an ignominious failure?

Not at all, he insists. A pro-refusal rabbinical lead, followed by ‘key religious Zionist army commanders,’ would have meant mass refusal.

But the ‘Jew doesn’t expel another Jew’ slogan was not a carefully formulated demand, he says. ‘It was not a deliberate, philosophical, Orthodox message.’ Quite the reverse. The rabbinical leadership, ‘rabbis who barely knew each other and who didn’t sit down and make an agreed decision,’ nonetheless ‘intuitively recognized that the price of dismantling Gaza is grief for generations, but the price of not pulling out would have been the beginning of the end for Israel.’

Isn’t it, rather, that Jewish settlement in Gaza was just too far from the mainstream Israeli consensus, and that the mass of the Israeli public could not be prevailed upon to join the campaign against its demise?

Harel disputes this, albeit partially conceding the point.

‘Gaza is at the heart of the Zionist-Torah ethos,’ he says, ‘the ultimate example of Torah and manual labor: Torah and agriculture, toiling hard in the hot sun while also donating private money to establish settlement yeshivot.’

But marginal, nonetheless, to much of the wider public?

‘Politically, maybe, I don’t know,’ he says, then snaps: ‘For some, the politics were secondary. The idea was to break religious Zionism.’ Singling out the newspaper for which he himself writes a column, he asserts that ‘Ha’aretz editorials day after day included inciteful misinformation.’

And yet, he argues, calming down rapidly again, ‘something very positive came out of this: The Israeli public became more familiar with this [Gaza settler] public. They discovered that it wasn’t only an Ashkenazi elite. They saw the kinds of families [it comprised], these people from Sderot and Ofakim who came to Gush Katif and built more productive agriculture than some of those bankrupt kibbutzim. They survived for 30 years, and especially the last five years of hell. They achieved a feat in the order of the establishment of [the first kibbutz] Deganya. And now they’ve been knocked down by the Israeli elite.’

What will become of those families now?

‘There are 21 families from Morag at Ofra’ [Harel's home settlement]. ‘You feel their sense of insult. They may make something positive out of it, a kind of ‘we’ll show you’ response. But it could also be anger, alienation.’

Harel is withering in his criticism of Sela, the government Disengagement Authority, and its head Yonatan Bassi, over a lack of appropriate alternative housing for the evacuees. Unlike Harel and his predictions of a thwarted pullout, after all, Bassi was charged with planning for a day that, he was assured by the government, would definitely dawn. ‘It’s true that 1,000 of 1,800 families didn’t cooperate,’ says Harel, ‘but he [Bassi] knew they’d be leaving. What did he think would happen the next day?

He says his social worker wife, who helped out in Gaza, was told by former residents of Gush Katif’s Gadid settlement that ‘they were sent to a whorehouse in Bat Yam. It wasn’t deliberate. They’d wanted to put them in the Crowne Plaza, but there was no room. Now we all know that mistakes happen, but someone who has just been thrown out of his home sees it as a deliberate plot.’

I ASK Harel what lessons he and the settler leadership have to learn from this struggle, what different strategies they’ll have to pursue to stave off the further dramatic withdrawals – unilateral or negotiated – that many in Israel and much of the international community will demand in years ahead.

In the political sphere, he says, the struggle was inexpert. ‘We weren’t good enough; we didn’t try hard enough; we weren’t skilled enough. If the National Religious Party had left [the coalition] when Uzi Landau was fired [last October],’ he posits, ‘the dynamic might have been different.

‘We did the things we know how to do, which weren’t necessarily the right things to do. We know how to organize marches and demonstrations, so we did. But we needed to bring out the non-Yesha public, educated non-Yesha religious Zionists. We thought Yesha would be enough to stop it, and we were wrong. We needed the secular Likud, we needed those who are concerned about terrorism. We didn’t make the effort to reach them… Also, we allowed it to appear as though it was a case of religious Zionism against the rest. And we didn’t speak enough to the general public – recently yes, but not over the years… So a future pullout? Yes, we can prevent that, if we’re effective enough.’

‘Of course, there are also those who say we weren’t Orthodox enough. I say that’s dangerous and contradicts the path of religious Zionism. Don’t leave it up to God.’

Maybe some religious Zionists, some of those who, in his words, ‘stayed home in Rehavia and Talbieh and Ra’anana,’ did so because they didn’t oppose the withdrawal or even support Sharon?

Harel won’t hear of it. ‘They’re all with us,’ he says firmly. ‘All of religious Zionism saw this as an assault on them. Look at the Har Etzion yeshiva [in the Etzion bloc]. Despite the fact that its two principals, Rabbis Lichtenstein and Amital, are from [the dovish] Meimad [political grouping], their students are against them. They respect their rabbis, as they should, but they oppose them. Lichtenstein and Amital have educated generations – some of whom are themselves now yeshiva heads – and they oppose them. The instinct of religious Zionism is nationalist, not Left.’

WHAT OF lessons for those who championed disengagement?

Harel says he doesn’t recommend a future prime minister attempting something similar ‘without a very wide consensus,’ and warns that the patience of the religious Zionist community ‘may run out.’ Political leaders, he goes on, ‘can’t run on one ticket and implement another. They can’t initiate a referendum [in the Likud, which voted against the pullout] and then act against it.’

Grieving now, religious Zionists will ultimately be strengthened by this episode, Harel believes – but strengthened, it seems, too, in its alienation from the ‘establishment.’

He notes, almost incidentally, that ‘my camp’ has lost faith in a court system that can hold a 14-year-old girl in remand for days for road-blocking. Widening focus, he asserts a sense among religious Zionists that the ‘whole world’ has conspired against it. In the US or Italy, he declares, judges, the police and the media may be corrupt, or act out of fear. ‘But here, the most hated man suddenly becomes the most loved. It’s the same worldwide. And that tells the religious Zionist public that the whole world, including Israel’s elites, is conspiring against it. If that public then gives in anyway, that only proves its morality and its commitment to the country’s future.’

What now? What must be this camp’s agenda for the weeks ahead?

‘Bring down the government,’ he says in a flash.

Then, delighting in the subversion, he urges all religious Zionists to ‘vote Left. Because only the Left can’t do uprooting. Arik took the Likud to the Left, and we have to save the Likud. If everyone votes for Peres and Beilin, the Likud will rediscover its true identity, it will come back to itself.’

Seeing me smile at the notion, he repeats the message, but then offers an alternative.

‘I call on the whole religious Zionist public to vote Left,’ he says. ‘But Bibi [Netanyahu] would be okay, too. As a politician he would uproot [settlements] but, personally, he couldn’t do it. He’s not as brutal as Arik.’

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