This morning’s joint press conference between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump was packed with a mix of salient foreign policy revelations and awkward jokes about Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. It marked a clear departure from the often turbulent, yet hardly obstructing and exceedingly financially generous Obama-era relationship with Israel’s hard right head of state. Although Trump has recently moved to moderate his earlier statements supporting Jewish settlement construction, the already well-formed personal friendship between the two leaders and their alignment on various political issues—including national security strategy, Iran, the “unfair” UN, as well as a fondness for walls—suggests the bond between the US and Israel may be stronger than ever.
This is good news for Netanyahu’s far-right friends within the Jewish settler movement, a growing group of largely Israeli and Israeli-Americans living on illegal towns and rogue outposts in the West Bank, an area captured by Israel during the Six Day War of 1967 and which has remained under military occupation for almost 50 years. Today it is home to approximately 3 million Palestinians, 550,000 Jewish settlers, and an unknown number of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers stationed at military checkpoints and watchtowers sprinkled throughout the territory, including within settlement blocks, where they serve as guards.
The language one uses to describe this disputed area is highly informative of their political, even religious leanings. For instance, for many Palestinians residing in the cities and villages west of the Jordan River (and in the Gaza Strip), this land is “Palestine,” their promised share of the larger historic Palestine that will one day be part of a two-state solution. For moderates respecting the neutral definition of the area as a still-to-be-determined not-yet-quite-a-county, the term “West Bank” is considered most PC, although its etymological objectivity is debated. Some instead prefer “Occupied West Bank” or “Occupied Palestinian Territories.” However, for hardcore Zionists holding to the belief that all of Israel—including the area west of the “Green Line”—is the God-given gift to the Jews, this land is “Judea and Samaria,” reclaiming its biblical name and hoping for its ultimate official annexation by the state of Israel. This term is also used in an official capacity by the government of Israel.
Pertinent to a discussion of Netanyahu’s remarks during his first press conference with our Dear Leader is some background information on the settlers’ biblically-based claim to “Judea and Samaria.” After all, Mr. Netanyahu evoked this notion while responding to a question on whether or not there was room for the two-state solution in a Trump-brokered peace process, stating,
“Jews are called Jews because they are from Judea. This is our ancestral homeland. Jews are not foreign colonists in Judea.”
It’s clear from the start that fact-checking this claim will not provide a definitive “yes” or “no” answer to its validity; that just isn’t possible with such deeply-rooted religious convictions that are based on ancient historical evidence. I hope that this post will instead draw attention to some of the divisive rhetoric employed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump, informed through the context of the religious ideological foundation of Israel’s settler movement, a dominating force placing enormous pressure on the leadership bodies of both the Israel and the US.
Claim: Palestinians are calling for the destruction of Israel and Jews have a God-granted right to the West Bank
Source: Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments during his February 15th press conference with Donald Trump; the Jewish settler movement in Judea and Samaria
Accuracy Rating: Undeterminable, but undoubtedly polarizing
Analysis: There was a particular segment of today’s Netanyahu-Trump press conference that really stuck with me. An Israeli reporter asked the following series of questions,
“Mr. President, in your vision for the new Middle East peace, are you ready to give up of the notion of two-state solution that was adopted by previous administration? And will you be willing to hear different ideas from the prime ministers as some of his partners are asking him to do, for example, annexation of parts of the West Bank and unrestricted settlement constructions?
And one more question, are you going to fulfill your promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem? And if so, when? And Mr. Prime Minister, did you come here tonight to tell Mr. — the president that you’re backing off the two-state solution?”
Trump’s response, essentially confirming that the US would no longer insist on an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan based on the two-state solution, attracted the most media attention, spurring front-page headlines on most major international news outlets. But it was Netanyahu’s tired repetition of the same old excuses for why the West Bank settlements are not an impediment to peace that garnered fresh significance in an era where these ideas are emboldened by a US President who will echo them back a minute after they are uttered.
After Trump’s reply, Netanyahu provides the following assertion,
“There are two prerequisites for peace that I laid out two—several years ago and they haven’t changed. First, the Palestinians must recognize the Jewish state.
They have to stop calling for Israel’s destruction, they have to stop educating their people for Israel’s destruction. Second, in any peace agreement, Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River because if we don’t, we know what will happen. Because otherwise, we’ll get another radical Islamic terrorist state in the Palestinian areas exploding the peace, exploding the Middle East.
Now unfortunately, the Palestinians vehemently reject both prerequisites for peace. First they continue to call for Israel’s destruction inside their schools, inside their mosques, inside the textbooks. You have to read it to believe it. They even—you know, they even deny, Mr. President, our historical connection to our homeland. And I suppose you have to ask yourself, why do—why are Jews called Jews?
Well, the Chinese are called Chinese because they come from China. The Japanese are called Japanese because they come from Japan. Well, Jews are called Jews because they come from Judea. This is our ancestral homeland. Jews are not foreign colonialists in Judea.
[…] So this is the source of the conflict. The persistent Palestinian refusal to recognize a Jewish state in any boundary, this persistent rejectionism, that’s the reason we don’t have peace.”
This quote is weighty, so I’d like to home in on two subsections. First, I will briefly address Netanyahu’s claim that Palestinian’s are “call[ing] for Israel’s destruction inside their schools, inside their mosques, inside the textbooks.” On a related note, I would also like to make the distinction between the Palestinian recognition of the state of Israel, and a Palestinian recognition of the state of Israel as a “Jewish State.” I will end with a summary of the settler movement’s claim to Judea and Samaria on the basis of Jewish tradition, and how this religious belief influences Israeli policy implementation and any prospect for peace in the Middle East.
First, Netanyahu’s assertion of Palestinian incitement is overblown by the simple principle of distorting the scope of his representative sample. He says, “Palestinians” not “some Palestinians” or even “most Palestinians,” bundling all Palestinians under this collective label of violent terrorists hell-bent on Israel’s destruction. While anti-Israel calls-to-arms do indeed exists within Palestinian society and many Palestinians hold negative views of their Israeli neighbors, violence is in no way institutionalized in public schools, and these views are not held by even the majority of Palestinians citizens of the West Bank. Specifically, according to a public opinion poll administered by An-Najah National University in 2016, “45.7% of respondents supported the rise of a peaceful, unarmed intifada in the Palestinian Territories; 48.7% rejected that” and “38% of respondents supported the rise of an armed intifada in the Palestinian Territories; 55.7% rejected that.”
Regarding Netanyahu’s point that Palestinians refuse to “recognize the Jewish state,” a few things come to mind. First, the Palestinian government has already recognized Israel’s “right to exist.” An unofficial remark from former PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1998 is considered the first occurrence. Five years later, Arafat doubled-down on those statements in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin, formally invalidating prior PLO policy provisions rejecting Israel’s right to exist. Current President of the state of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas has also said that he recognizes the state of Israel, but rejects the idea of labeling is as a “Jewish state.” Notably, Israel has never formally recognized Palestine’s right to exist.
To understand this distinction—between Israel as a state and Israel as a “Jewish state”—it is important to understand the complicated demographic reality of Israel today in which Jews make up just 75% of the total population, as well as the competing historical narratives of Israel’s establishment in 1948, an event celebrated by Israelis as their “Day of Independence” and mourned by Palestinians as the “Nakba” or “Day of Catastrophe,” memorializing the expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 from their homes in what is now modern Israel. Those who object to the “Jewish state” label do so on the grounds that the Palestinians which remained in Israel and other religious and ethnic minorities that also hold Israeli citizenship will be considered second-class citizens under a government that officially identifies itself as Jewish.
One unnamed Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) official was quoted in 2016 saying that the PLO was willing to recognize Israel in accordance with any internationally-recognized definition adding,
“It’s not for us to define Israel’s identity. It’s up to Israel. We will recognize whatever the international community recognizes at the United Nations. If Israel wants to secure a more Jewish identity, it has to, first of all, give up on the occupation and grant equal rights to the Palestinians living inside Israel”
Israel’s far-right settler movement certainly rejects these concerns and sees no problem in blending nationalism and religion. After the Six Day War, a swell of religious Zionists began building outposts in Gush Etzion, led by a charismatic rabbi, and later hard-line National Religious Party politician, Hanan Porat. The religious Zionists that now occupy the West Bank in the hundred of thousands hold to a specific type of Judaism, distinctly different from their more recognizable, black-clad “ultra-Orthodox” peers. Jake Wallis Simons, in his in-depth feature for the Telegraph, “Meet the settlers: A journey through the West Bank,” explains,
“Most observant Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, the Jewish people – who were exiled from the Holy Land by the Romans in the first century AD – will return to the land of Israel, and peace will dawn on Earth.
Central to the particular beliefs of religious Zionists is that the modern state of Israel is a manifestation of this prophecy. They argue that Jews should not wait for supernatural intervention, but should strive to expand and protect the state of Israel, thus creating the age of the Messiah themselves. Approximately 700,000 Israelis subscribe to this ideology (the population of Israel is about seven-and-a-half million).
Thus, whereas ultra-orthodox Jews, recognised by their black clothing, prefer to wait for divine intervention and are exempted from serving in the army, religious Zionists – who wear distinctive knitted skullcaps – believe that military service is a religious obligation.”
Jewish settlers in the West Bank literally believe that they are doing God’s work. They see the expansion of the Jewish state of Israel, and the subsequent removal of the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria as concrete steps toward manifesting the Messiah. Thus, their claim to this land does not just stem from a 2,000-year-old connection; it is a divine mandate that has contemporary relevancy. This fundamental difference between the patiently-waiting Orthodox Jews and the actively-working religious Zionists is key to how the latter has been able to amass such considerable influence in the Knesset; simply put: they have the motivation.
In 1994, that same ideology led Baruch Goldstein to enter the Ibrahimi Mosque (Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron and open fire on a crowd of praying Muslims gathered for Ramadan prayers. He killed 29 people and wounded 125, sending an already tense situation in Hebron into all-out war between Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the center of the Old Town, from which the city has never recovered. Goldstein’s gravesite in Hebron became home to settler celebrations commemorating the anniversary of the massacre. A marble plaque on his tombstone reads, “To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people, the Torah and the nation of Israel.”
Goldstein’s terrorist act occurred more than 20 years ago, and today a new crop of violent, zealous Zionists have emerged as a growing minority within the settler movement. These “hilltop youth,” called because of their penchant for constructing makeshift shelters on elevated locations on Palestinian land, follow an ideology like that espoused by rabbis at the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva (religious school) and publishing house, whose leading rabbis’ (Yosef Elitzur and Yitzhak Shapira) infamous book, “Torat Hamelech,” justifies the murder of non-Jews.
I must be explicitly clear here: I am not saying that all settlers in the West Bank are violent, or wish harm on their Palestinian neighbors. Just like the nuanced reality of the Palestinian perspective, the Jewish settler movement cannot be tied up in a nice box and labeled a violent terrorist organization. The opinions held by individual settlers are much more complex. However, as a unified organization, the settler movement does advocate some very serious positions, which inform both the current Israeli political landscape and hold clues to the future of the two feuding states.
The Yesha Council, a group representing roughly 40 Jewish settlements, actively lobbies the Knesset for immediate annexation, or “liberation,” of the West Bank. The Council’s young former Director and now Israeli Education Secretary and leader of the Jewish Home Party (successor to the National Religious Party), Naftali Bennett, holds massive influence in the Knesset and flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian state “within the tiny land of Israel”., If realized, Bennett’s vision for the Israel/Palestinian solution leaves little room for non-Jewish residents of Israel. In a 2016 statement outlining his plan, Bennett said, “Only a combination between Judaism, nationalism, and universalism will lift up our people toward our goal,” evoking what one writer refers to as “theocratic-nationalism,” where, in Bennett’s own words, one mustn’t worry, “As if Jewish contradicts democratic.” 
However, to his critics, that is just what Trump risks by abandoning a two-state solution; he also abandons the chance to invoke our best friend Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East” and a pillar of human rights amidst a hostile region infested with religious extremism. The growing influence of the Jewish settler movement, in their dangerous blend of high-intensity religious fanaticism and ethno-nationalist political ambitions threatens the future of Israel’s democracy, and has all but officially destroyed any chance for a viable, free Palestinian state.
While a one-state solution is not out of the question, it will require Israel to abandon its hope to be a purely Jewish democracy, because in a single state, occupied by both Israelis and Palestinians, such state-sponsored favoritism toward one religious group over another risks violating civil rights. Today’s Netanyahu-Trump press conference takes appeasement of Israel’s religio-nationalist right to a whole new level. We are now entering an age where the United States’ passivity to Israeli-Palestinian peace is openly acknowledged, further emboldening the political aspirations of Jewish settler extremists.
ADDENDUM ADDED FEBRUARY 19, 2017: After reviewing my original post on Jewish settler ideology, I don’t think I adequately addressed the critical question, what is ancient Judea and Samaria? And furthermore, what is the biblically based claim to its divine bestowal upon the Jewish people? I hope a brief history lesson will suffice. Further, I hope the biblical passages quoted in this post will provide some insight into how easily violent settler ideologies can draw upon scripture to justify their point of view.