Why some Israeli settlers are willing to live in a Palestinian state

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has backed the idea, which could make implementation of a two-state solution more feasible. But some say it's a recipe for friction.

By , Correspondent

Nachum Pachenik’s newly built home in this unauthorized Israeli outpost is steps away from a Palestinian vineyard and an Israeli military watchtower – signs of the decades-old feud over land ownership in the West Bank.

But unlike most settlers on such outposts, who insist on Israeli sovereignty and Israeli security, Mr. Pachenik hopes that one day his home will be protected by Palestinian police as a Jewish citizen of a state of Palestine. He says he’s ready to live alongside Palestinian neighbors, obey Palestinian speed limits, and pay Palestinian taxes.

He's part of a small minority of Israeli settlers whose ties to the biblical land of Israel trump their need to live inside modern Israel’s borders. They say that even if Israel agrees to disband West Bank settlements under a future peace agreement, they would prefer to remain on land handed over to the Palestinians.

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"We don’t need evacuation. What happened in Gush Katif won’t lead to peace," he says, referring to Israel’s forced evacuation of some 9,000 settlers from Gaza in 2005. "If out of 600,000 settlers, there will be 60,000 who will want to stay – you should accept them happily.’’

Such preferences used to held by only a snippet of Israel's settler community. But in late January the idea was endorsed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said he doesn’t plan to uproot Jewish settlements in the West Bank like his predecessor Ariel Sharon did in Gaza.

An anonymous official in the prime minister’s office later told reporters that settlers living in areas slated for a Palestinian state should be given the option to stay.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat quickly shot down Mr. Netanyahu's suggestion, arguing that settlements are illegal and can’t remain. Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett also rejected the idea, saying that those who stayed behind would put their lives in danger.

The idea of allowing settlers to remain might make it easier for Netanyahu to strike a deal, since it means fewer forced evacuations of settlers. A recent poll by the dovish Blue and White Future group suggested that 40 percent of the 100,000 settlers living east of Israel’s separation wall would not leave voluntarily.

Symmetrical peace

Some Israeli experts on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks dismiss the idea as unrealistic.

"Theoretically the position of Netanyahu is just, and even essential in creating a symmetrical peace," says Yossi Klein Halevi, who profiled several founders of the settlement movement in the book "Like Dreamers." "The problem is the practical dimensions: settlers will have to surrender their weapons to a Palestinian government, and will find themselves, in effect, defenseless against people who despise them."

But Pachenik, who leads a movement of Israeli settlers and Palestinians who promote coexistence, takes a more optimistic view. He says that a Jewish minority in the Palestinian state could be a bridge between the two countries, and sees himself as an "ambassador."

He admits that many of his neighbors at Sde Boaz, located near Bethlehem, don’t share his view: they wish that the Palestinians would simply disappear or move to Jordan.

His movement is called "Eretz Shalom," Hebrew for "land of peace." It was inspired by deceased settler Rabbi Menachem Froman, who advocated finding common ground with Palestinian Muslims. "Eretz Shalom is a transition from [land] ownership to belonging," Pachenik says. "It means that I belong to the land, but it is not mine."

Jewish citizens, not settlements

Pachenik says he has no plan for how this would work. However, other like-minded settlers have drawn up a document calling for the creation of two states with open borders, in which some Israeli and Palestinian citizens would be permitted to be residents of the neighboring state.

Ashraf el-Ajrami, a former cabinet minister close to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, says the PA isn't opposed in principle to Jewish citizens in their future state, but won't accept Jewish settlements in their current form. 

According to Mr. Ajrami, Israel has suggested via US mediators that some of the settlements be allowed to remain in a Palestinian state as all-Jewish enclaves leased by the Israeli government. Mr. Abbas rejected that proposal.

"That’s something that can’t be accepted," Ajrami says. "If a couple of families want to remain in the settlements and stay as citizens, that’s possible. But that won’t be an Israeli settlement, it’s going to be a Palestinian city."

Living on biblical land

The desire to remain at all costs on land known in biblical times as Judea and Samaria is not limited to the minority of dovish settlers.

David Haivri, a resident of the Kfar Tapuach settlement and an adviser to the Shomron Regional Council, a settler umbrella group, says that Israel should extend its sovereignty throughout the West Bank. But he has also mulled over Netanyahu's proposal of living in a Palestinian state; he says he might run for political office in a future state so as to "call the Palestinians' bluff" on their promises of equality for Jews.  

"I think there are quite a few people who take [the prime minister’s proposal] seriously," he says. "It’s a difficult issue to get a direct statement from anyone in our community. People are not in the habit of making statements that would give the impression in any way that they acknowledge the [Palestinian Liberation Organization] or the PA" as legitimate authorities. 

Pachenik and other settlers who say they would live in a Palestinian state diverge from mainstream religious Zionist ideology, which teaches there’s spiritual value in living within and contributing to the State of Israel.    

But many Israelis worry that allowing those settlers who advocate maximalizing Israel's territorial claims to stay behind is a sure-fire recipe for friction.

"Those that would prefer to stay under any circumstances are the radicals," says Akiva Eldar, a columnist for the news outlet Al-Monitor. "The Palestinians would not like them to stay because they are the troublemakers."

Pachenik says he expects that peace would lead to a Palestinian democracy in which the Palestinian police protects the safety of all citizens, including Jews. He suggests a parallel status to Israel’s Arab minority, despite the fact that Israeli Arabs have suffered social discrimination for decades.

As for paying taxes to a Palestinian government, he's happy to do so. However, he expects to keep his kids in a Jewish school – like many American Jews do, he says.      

"We don’t need to be a mix to be together," he says. "A fence with your neighbor is a good thing."

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