From ardent Jewish settler to Wye negotiator

ISRAELI PR MASTER

As far as Jewish settlers go, there isn't an Israeli around with credentials as loyal to the cause as Uri Elitzur.

Less than a year ago, he was a passionate right-wing radio commentator, a sort of Rush Limbaugh of Israel. Mr. Elitzur was also a founder and leader of Gush Emunim, the religious nationalist movement that advocated West Bank and Gaza settlements.

But now Elitzur is standing by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's withdrawal from the West Bank. Not only that, he's running his office. In March, Mr. Netanyahu appointed Elitzur to a position similar to an American president's chief of staff.

At first Elitzur resisted the job offer. But soon he found himself strolling the green lawns of Wye Mills, Md., agreeing to give up land that every fiber of his education told him was the Manifest Destiny of the Jewish people.

Giving up land - the latest redeployment took place over the weekend - was and remains "difficult and painful," Netanyahu's adviser and chief gatekeeper says in a Monitor interview. But necessary, Elitzur adds, for two key reasons.

"From an Israeli internal point of view, it's already been 30 years that we've had a debate between the ideological left and the ideological right, and I can say in religious terms that God puts the decision in the middle, because both sides have good Jews who have the good of the Jewish people in mind," Elitzur says.

"In international terms, I think there's a decision of the Israeli people that we don't want to rule over the Palestinian people, and that has a price in land. But also, this is a decision that hurts people, and they still want to hold and settle the land of Israel."

Flabbergasted friends

To many of his colleagues, this kind of talk is heresy. His neighbors in Ofra, the settlement near Ramallah that Elitzur helped found in 1974, are flabbergasted. Old friends speak about him the way Orthodox Jews traditionally would about a child who married out of the faith - in the past tense.

"He was one of our best. He shared my views, our views," says Yisrael Harel, a fellow Gush Emunim founder. "This is not the Uri we know. Something very deeply has changed in him," he says. Reflecting on the 25 years they've known each other, he clarifies. "We are still friends; we are neighbors. But to advocate things that are not right ... I'm very disappointed."

Some observers say, though, that Elitzur's appointment was a brilliant tactical move for Netanyahu, allowing him to show skeptical settlers - who played a key role in his 1996 election - that he was consulting them every step of the way.

In less favorable analyses, the appointment was classic divide and conquer: Hiring Elitzur separates the moderates from the extremists. Perhaps it's working. In the wake of the new Wye accord, some cry treason; others, like Elitzur, say this is the best they're going to get.

Those close to Netanyahu say his choice was more basic: Netanyahu trusts him. The two worked closely when Netanyahu was leader of the right-wing opposition against the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his successor, Shimon Peres. Considered a brilliant wordsmith by even his most bitter critics, Elitzur wrote some of Netanyahu's speeches.

Former, aggressive campaigns

When the peace process he is now poised to defend began, Elitzur's opposition to the Oslo accords was virulent, according to a new book called "Murder in the Name of God: The Plot to Kill Yitzhak Rabin." Israeli authors Michael Karpin and Ina Friedman write that as leader of the settler council's PR department, Elitzur wanted to mount a campaign against Rabin that was "aggressive, on the border of violence," according to quotes attributed to Elitzur.

But to see him entering his office, he seems more like the mild-mannered math teacher he trained to be. Slight in build, wearing a green cardigan sweater, casual loafers, and knitted yarmulke, the father of six and grandfather of seven looks as gentle as Mr. Rogers.

Born in Jerusalem to a family of accomplished academics - his father was a prominent Bible professor and his mother an author of children's books - he took family trips around Israel that were some of his most formative experiences.

"My father taught us to make a link between what we read in the Bible and what we see," Elitzur says. "We need to continue walking through those areas, even the ones that are going over to Palestinian control. The religious and spiritual connection we have with these places is not only connected to politics."

The aftermath of the Camp David accords has also shaped Elitzur's positions. After Israel signed the agreement with Egypt 20 years ago, Elitzur led the protest movement to prevent Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. Ultimately, the Israeli army forced out the last settlers.

"I learned something when that great struggle ended in failure," Elitzur says. "I learned that not always, even if you concentrate all your strength and explain things well, will you win in the end. I learned that political decisions are made with coalitions."

That's why Elitzur, considered a master of public relations, is aiming for the Israeli center. If Netanyahu's victories are seen as a victory for the settlers, Elitzur warns, he won't succeed.

In the eyes of many, to be sure, Elitzur is still far from a moderate. He fully agrees with the explosive statement by Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon that settlers should "run, grab hills" before they're turned over to the Palestinian Authority. Elitzur says such moves - viewed by Palestinians as the gravest violations of the peace accords - are perfectly legitimate. "Whoever is quicker and more dedicated will get a larger share," he says.

A link to the settlers

Elitzur is an important link to the settlers, but he's not exactly the solution to all that troubles Netanyahu. If he is frowned on by neighbors in Ofra, home to mainstream settler leaders, others in more militant settlements pose a still greater threat to Netanyahu's decision to continue trading land for peace.

Elitzur stands out from among the settlers in one sense: He does believe in the possibility of reaching a livable peace arrangement with the Palestinians. "I am not naive ... but with some goodwill, not even a lot, it can be done."

If it can't be done by Netanyahu, he says, a left-wing government will return to power, and the settlers themselves will be to blame.

"I'm not sure he [Netanyahu] will be able to succeed," says Elitzur. "If he doesn't, it will be because the right wing made it too difficult for him."

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