Where Israeli vote leaves settlers
Many prefer a hard-line prime minister, but some may give Ehud Barak a
BEIT EL, WEST BANK — They put him into power, and then they took him out.
They are the approximately 170,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who held enormous sway over a nation of 5.8 million during the troubled three-year tenure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Now, still in a state of shock over the sweeping victory on Monday of Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak, most settlers are ruing their decision to reject the Wye River accord and topple Mr. Netanyahu in the hope of fielding an even more obdurate candidate for prime minister.
Disappointed in the expectation that he would keep the peace process permanently on hold, settlement leaders forced a vote of no-confidence on Netanyahu's government late last year after he tried to implement the land-for-security accord, which required Israel to hand over an additional 13 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control.
But some are showing a surprising willingness to move on, to give Mr. Barak a chance, and even to participate in a centrist coalition with him for the sake of national unity. A remarkable 25 percent of the voters in the settlements chose Barak on Monday.
Barak, many point out, has indicated he will build a broad coalition rather than a narrow, left-wing regime that might keep Israel dangerously divided. He is known to be conservative on security issues, and as recently as last year, he promised that some settlements - this one in particular - would stay in Israel's hands forever. But under the Wye accord that Barak promises to honor, almost all the land surrounding Beit El is to be turned over to Palestinian control, potentially leaving settlers here feeling like an isolated island in a sea of Arab-ruled territory.
"This certainly wasn't what I hoped for," says Yedida Shilo, a reluctant Netanyahu voter who recently bought a house in this settlement of 8,000 near the Palestinian city of Ramallah. "We have some fears, but Barak is no Peres," says the teacher, referring to Israel's last Labor prime minister, Shimon Peres, who was seen by many Israelis as extraordinarily dovish. "At least if there are attacks or bus bombs, Barak won't continue to transfer land to the Palestinians as though nothing has happened."
The morning after their big loss, settlers looked dazed, disheartened, and simply leaderless. Following Netanyahu's concession speech, during which he also announced his resignation from the leadership of the rightist Likud Party, the leader of the far-right National Union Party, Benny Begin, resigned, too. The head of the highly influential Settlers' Council, Pinchas Wallerstein, also stepped down from his post, saying that he felt someone had to take responsibility for the mistake of demanding too much of Netanyahu.
"During my tenure as chairman of the Settlers' Council we acted, either formally or by silent support, to topple the present government," Mr. Wallerstein said in his letter of resignation to the council. "I hope that the Settlers' Council leadership has the strength to change and prepare itself for the new government."
Rabbi Benny Elon says he does. One of the original inhabitants of this 20-year-old settlement, he was just reelected to a parliamentary seat for the National Union, which incorporated his extreme-right Moledet (Homeland) Party and two other parties that oppose trading land for peace. Though his bloc will oppose Barak's coalition no matter how centrist it is, he thinks it's better that Barak lead most of the nation than for Netanyahu to lead a small part of it.
Either way, he still thinks the 1993-94 Oslo agreement will lead to disaster - and probably war with the Pales- tinians - but at least, he says, the Jewish people will be united when things reach that point.
"We created a Frankenstein, a real monster that will want all the land of Israel and not part of it," Rabbi Elon charges of the Palestinian Authority. "At least Barak can take us to that point with the whole of the people, and not half of it," he said during an interview in his cramped home yesterday.
Elon boasts that the period of time between the Knesset's call for new elections last December and this week's ballot allowed settlers to establish new satellite townships throughout the West Bank, all of them strategically placed in areas they feared would be turned over to Palestinian control.
Eager for support from the settlers, Netanyahu took a laissez faire policy to this expansion program, denounced by the Palestinians and the Clinton administration as a violation of his promises to them.
"The settlements changed the political map and created an irreversible achievement," he says. New clusters of mobile homes were placed at areas between existing settlements to create swaths of land that politicians won't be able to break apart. "The Palestinians' game is territorial continuity, and this is our game too."
Elon says he doesn't regret contributing to Netanyahu's downfall, but others are more contrite. Yehudit Tayar, the spokeswoman for the Setters' Council, was one of three settler leaders who went to Wye Plantation last fall and bent Netanyahu's ear in a lawn-chair meeting over the future of the West Bank.
"We warned him that if he brought back a signed agreement, he wouldn't have a government," recalls Mrs. Tayar, who maintained her support for Netanyahu.
"Now we have a government that may decide between forcing people out of their homes or making them live under hostile foreign rule," she says, adding with disdain of her fellow settlers' intransigence: "You have to deal with what you have, not what you want."