Facing peace push, Israel’s settlers present a new face to the world
EFRAT, West Bank (JTA) — The Yesha Council has represented Israel’s settlement of the West Bank for four decades. They’ve helped create what appears to be an irreversible reality to both critics and champions: Some 400,000 settlers live in settlements, where they enjoy their own wineries, Israeli chain stores, a university, and a security infrastructure staffed by the Israel Defense Forces.
In the meantime, much of the world remains opposed to the settlements, which the United Nations considers illegal under international law, and which the United States variously considers “unhelpful” and “illegitimate.” Critics say the Jewish presence in land the Palestinians demand as part of a future state is a major impediment to any Israeli-Palestinian peace plans, including the recently launched French initiative.
For the Yesha Council, the umbrella group for Israeli settlements — its name is a Hebrew acronym for Judea and Samaria, the biblical names commonly used in Israel to designate the West Bank, and Gaza — impeding efforts to give back the biblical land of Israel is part of the point.
With the French initiative, and possibly a regional peace push, looming, the council last month appointed a new chief foreign envoy to make the settlers’ case to the world. Lt. Col. (res.) Oded Revivi will be the second person to hold the position, filling the shoes left empty over a year ago by Dani Dayan, the effective former council head who just became Israel’s general consul to New York (after Brazil rejected his appointment as ambassador there because of his settler past).
Revivi, 47, sat down with JTA Monday at the Gush Etzion Winery to discuss his plans for the job.
A powerfully built man who wears a small knitted kipa and speaks British English with a Hebrew accent, Revivi is a relatively rare Israeli who can claim to understand Diaspora Jewry. As a child, he lived for several years in the United States and England. After finishing his Israeli army service as an officer in the Armored Corps, he earned a law degree in London, where he met an Englishwoman who is now his wife.
Since 2008, Revivi has been the mayor of Efrat, a large settlement in Gush Etzion with a majority immigrant population and a reputation for ideological moderation.
(The interview has been edited for clarity and structure.)
What will you tell the world about the settlers?
Revivi: For the last 50 years, Yesha was mainly busy trying to build up the community and increase the numbers, and not so much telling and spreading the story. And all of a sudden we wake up almost 50 years later finding ourselves with all sorts of initiatives not understanding our message, not really understanding the reality in which we are living here, and that needs to be conveyed.
The message is, at the end of the day: There are hundreds of thousands of Jews living here, there are a lot of Palestinians living here. There is an ecosystem that is working. It can be improved. There are things that need to be amended.
But it’s definitely not a conflict zone. Most of the terrorist attacks occur outside of Judea and Samaria. Yet the myth is that once there won’t be any Jews in Judea and Samaria, there will be peace and quiet in this region. And I’m trying to convey a message that let’s see how the people actually live here day to day, one next to the other, how can we maybe create and spread a different story that there is coexistence going on, that there is cooperation going on, and it definitely can be improved, but we need to start somewhere.
And your message is obviously that the settlers are here to stay.
Revivi: Of course.
What will you take from Dani Dayan, and what will you change?
Revivi: Dani basically set the foundations for the understanding that we can’t just focus locally. He definitely invested a lot of time with the official diplomats, with the international media. I think it’s not enough. I think we need to do more. I think we need to find efficient ways to spread messages and relatively cheaply, which is what this whole new media is about, something that during Dani’s time wasn’t developed.
Having said that, we also need partners, and one of the potential partners that is out there but needs to be pampered, developed and hugged, is the international Jewish community, which, because of some religious disagreements sometimes, feel out of the picture. Maybe by creating alliances with them, we’ll be able to multiply the message through the Jewish organizations throughout the world.
That might be hard in the U.S. A growing number of American Jews are giving up on Israel, in part over frustration with the occupation. Does that worry you?
Revivi: I think some of the Israeli politicians don’t realize the importance of the alliance with the different sectors of Judaism around the world. When you are saying, “I have nothing to do with Conservative Jews anymore,” you’re basically saying that within a few years, you’re going to close down the strongest lobby that Israel has around the world, which is called AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee]. That is something that Israel cannot allow itself.
Again, let’s see what’s the common denominator, let’s see what’s the common ground, let’s see where the bridges are we can build with Conservative and Reform even if we don’t fully accept the way that they practice their Judaism. There’s a joint interest. And that’s a major theme in what I’m trying to convey. And it doesn’t matter again with which groups we’re having the dialogue.
One way we want to start reaching out to the Diaspora Jewish community is to let them buy products from Israel, including Judea and Samaria, on our website. We actually got the idea from AIPAC Canada. That’s an excellent way to overcome BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel]. Not confronting it, just overtaking it.
The current wave of Palestinian violence, which is centered in the West Bank, seems like a challenge to the message that Jews and Arabs can live together there under Israeli rule. Do you see it that way?
Revivi: That’s an excellent example of how people don’t know the facts and jump to conclusions. Most of the stabbing attacks, the last time I looked at statistics, over 60 percent of them, happened in what we call “Little Israel” [within the 1967 borders]. Only 40 percent happened in Judea and Samaria.
That misconception is an example of how the conflict is going wrong, what the challenges are and how a wrong reputation is being built up. Then, all of a sudden, you need to challenge the myth instead of actually dealing with the problem itself. Again, what I’m trying to do is to build bridges and to show the common denominator.
The majority of the developed world today is dealing with that same challenge. If we understand that it’s a global challenge, if we understand that there’s a common denominator to what we’re suffering here and what people are suffering in Brussels and in France and in England and in the United States, maybe the leadership of the world will put the focus on those small, violent, strong minorities, instead of rejecting the majority by collective punishment.
When you refer to “collective punishment,” is that a criticism of how Israel responds to Palestinian violence?
Revivi: Building fences is not the answer. You have all the time to build security, which as far as I’m concerned means to find a shared interest, or an interest that the result will be the same that both parties can benefit.
For example, in Efrat, where the security fence is not built, it’s not a motorway for suicide bombers because — and not a lot of Israelis are willing to admit this — the Palestinian Authority realized that the pictures of suicide bombers don’t serve their interests, and they’re doing quite a lot to stop those extremists from coming and blowing themselves up.
So you see both sides have interests, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the same interest, but the result is the same. Both sides enjoy the fact that there’s no fence and there are no suicide bombers crossing.
I know you are close with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many other Israeli officials. Will you work closely with the government?
Revivi: I think anybody who thinks at this stage that you can work independently, ignoring the different views, ignoring the different politicians, doesn’t understand how the system works.
One of the things that we’ve achieved is arranging agreements with official representatives of the State of Israel that within official tours, within official visits we will get a slot to express our vision, our history our background, our story.
I had here yesterday the minister of religion [David Azoulay], who is one of the people who is getting criticism from the Reform and the Conservative movements. I can have a discussion with him, and yet I can go and speak to the Conservative and Reform synagogues or temples asking them to support us in our initiative against BDS.
Once we establish that connection with the different groups, maybe it will be used even to support the agenda of the Conservative and Reform movements. I don’t know where it’s going to lead. What I do know is that we are not strong enough to stand by ourselves, and we need allies of all different sorts, and we’re going to try to reach out to anybody who can help.