Tuesday, November 6, 2012

1979: What Are the Settlements For?

Last month, we published a collection of documents pertaining to the decision of the High Court of Justice to dismantle the settlement of Elon Moreh, in October 1979. We also blogged about it, here, here, here, here, here, and also here. Enough already, huh?

We're almost finished. [As an aside, if you think seven blogposts on one topic are too many, you should see this.]

The two longest documents in our collection were the stenograms of the two cabinet meetings that discussed the matter. The first, on October 28, focused on what the government should say in response to the court's ruling. Prime Minister Menachem Begin wished the cabinet to declare that it would respect the ruling and move immediately to find an alternative location for the settlement. A majority of the ministers changed his mind: Of course the government would respect the court ruling, they said, so there's no need for a declaration; since an alternative site had not yet been identified, why tie the two together, and create the mistaken impression that without an alternative, the government might, in fact, not dismantle the settlement?

On the first of November the cabinet held a special meeting (normally cabinet meetings are held Sunday morning). This one was rather long, and as unstructured discussions can be, it was sort of muddled. It began - and eventually also ended - with the need to decide where to put the dismantled settlement, and also whether to request a temporary stay of execution from the court until the alternate site was ready. Since there was as yet no nearby hilltop the lawyers were certain was not privately owned, that decision was relegated to a subcommittee; since there was no alternative, the minsters decided they'd have to remove the settlement on time no matter what, and not risk being slapped down by the court for appearing to drag their feet.

There was also the usual amount of personal needling between the participants, such as when Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon introduced his criticism of Deputy Minister of Defense Mordechai Zippori by saying how much he respected him, then aggressively poking holes in his position; Minister of Defense Ezer Weizman then noted dryly "but you respect him greatly none-the-less". There were some lighthearted moments, such as when Sharon compared a recent ministerial report to the infamous British White Paper of 1939, and Weizman suggested the cabinet call his (deceased) uncle Haim Weizman to participate in the meeting. Later on, Sharon told about how when he was younger and thinner he used to have no trouble climbing fragile watchtowers.

As the meeting stretched on, however, it morphed into a basic discussion about the settlement project. One needs to be careful not to read too much into this particular document, which can't on its own sum up the full comlplexity of the issue, but it is an important document.

All of the participants, every one of them, accepted that the settlements must be created legally. They all accepted that settlements not be created on private Palestinian property, and that the Elon Moreh case had been a mistake: at the time of its creation they had thought the land wasn't private. They were united in claiming there was no contradiction between building settlements and achieving peace; though many of them also felt that the impending Palestinian autonomy, agreed upon at Camp David with Egypt, would seriously hamper Israel's ability to construct additional settlements. Almost all were convinced that the settlements were permissable even in international law, since they were being constructed for security purposes.

Yet there were significant differences of opinion amongst them. At one pole stood Ezer Weizman and his deputy Mordechai Zippori. Weizman noted that there were 750,000 Arabs on the West Bank, and finding an acceptable mode of coexistance with them was itself an important componant of security; more so than the settlements. He emphasized his party credentials and his committment to its values, but then added:
I appologize for being personal for a moment, but when my son Shaul went down to the [Suez] Canal he didn't know what he was going to face there, but I did, because I was in the government. I wrote to him at the time: you are going into battle. When you were born I told your mother I hoped you'd never have to go to war. Now that you are, I ask myself what we did wrong [Shaul was seriously injured in the War of Attrition and never fully recovered].
Mordechai Zippori presented the practical face of his boss' position. He brought maps, and showed that plans had already been authorized to build thousands of apartments in a number of large settlements such as Maaleh Adumim. Why build dozens of tiny settlements all over the West Bank, he asked, and risk additional mistakes such as at Elon Moreh, when the decisions already made were not being fulfilled?

On the opposite side of the discussion were Education Minister Zevulun Hammer, and Ariel Sharon, who were not, however in full agreement with one another. Hammer gave a long speech-like statement full of vague allusions, but eventually seemed to be saying that creating settlements was the most important thing the government could do and decrying that they weren't at the top of the budgetary agenda. He also hinted that security considerations shouldn't be the guiding principle for their creation. Hammer, from the National Religious Party, was the closest speaker in the cabinet to the positions of Gush Emunim, which at the time was the central organization of the settlers (it was disbanded many years ago, but that's a different story).

Sharon's position was the mirror image of Weizman's. Where Weizman spent a chunk of his time reminding everyone of his solid political credentials as a leader of Likud (and its previous iteration Herut), Sharon apologized that he had grown up in the opposite political camp, that of the Socialists. "I come from the camp that built most of the settlements upon which the State of Israel is based", he said; "from the tradition that facts on the ground create reality. Seen from that perspective and as time is running out because of the near advent of the Palestinian autonomy, the most important thing to do right now is to sprinkle as many tiny settlements throughout the West Bank as possible. One they're there, they can later be expanded; but if they're not even there, quite soon it will be impossible to create them in the first place".

Most of the other ministers were somewhere between these two extremes. Some of them complained that the discussion had become far more strategic than they had been told in advance, and hadn't been prepared properly: for such a discussion it was critical to have more data, and see maps of private versus public land on the West Bank.

No general decisions were made.

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