West Bank mayor promotes personal vision of coexistence
Ron Nachman, the mayor of Ariel, wants people to come visit the West Bank town to see the facts for themselves. He has had his fill, he said, of journalists and politicians and “peaceniks” who insist on their own vision — one that would prefer to ignore communities like his.
To begin with, he told a gathering at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains on Feb. 22, he would like them to stop using the words “settlers” and “occupiers.”
“Music is made by the words you use,” he said. “How can you be an occupier if this is your home?”
“Occupiers,” he said, come from a foreign land; Ariel is in Samaria, part of the Jewish homeland as defined in the Bible, and its citizens are residents, like everyone else.
Nevertheless, Ariel is beyond the Green Line separating Israel from what the United States calls the West Bank, territory it considers “occupied” by Israel. In most conceptions of an eventual two-state solution — which Nachman opposes — Ariel is usually considered among the Jewish communities to be included on the Israeli side.
In 1978, Nachman, then employed in the Israeli Military Industries, led a group of 40 families in establishing the community, to boost security in the area. It was a pioneering role familiar to the non-religious, fourth-generation sabra; his grandfather and father had also been civic leaders.
His four daughters grew up in the modern, hilltop community, as his six grandchildren are doing now. Nachman became Ariel’s first elected mayor in 1985 and has served in that role ever since, guiding its growth and development. He also served in the Knesset from 1992 to 1996, the only Likud member from Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.
The town now has a population of over 18,000, including a large contingent of Russian immigrants and a smaller cohort of Ethiopians. Its Ariel University Center of Samaria, with around 9,500 students, is striving to get official classification as a university from Israel’s Council for Higher Education. Ariel is designated a “Smart City,” because of the innovative telecommunication system shared by its inhabitants, linking them via the Intranet and Internet with municipal services and educational, cultural, and business information.
Talking over lunch with lay and professional people from the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, Nachman said he is hoping to attract foundations and individuals who will make a commitment to his city. He underlined the fact that — despite its controversial identity as a Jewish center — the town has a Muslim-Arab city manager, and some 3,000 Arab families derive income from its industrial park.
“I believe in equality, liberty, and freedom of thought,” Nachman declared. He said that what he wants is not just “coexistence” but real cooperation, with shared services and improved infrastructure. Some of the nearby Arab communities have actually sought to be incorporated into Ariel, he said, to benefit from the services it offers.
But desperately needed financial aid — American and European — gets blocked, he said, by boycotts and policies that prohibit support for Israeli-led projects in the West Bank.
Nachman was in the United States for a week, traveling with Avi Zimmerman, the Ariel-based executive director of American Friends of Ariel. He was speaking to congregations and private groups. “I go where we have personal connections,” he said, acknowledging the antagonism he encounters on account of Ariel’s geographic location. He also had met with reporters from Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Economist.
Asked about his vision for the future, Nachman dismissed the familiar two-state suggestion, and instead outlined a more “holistic” solution. He proposed an investment of $20 billion over 10 years for development of Gaza — in coordination with Egypt — and another $20 billion for the West Bank Palestinian Arab areas, to be linked with Jordan. To work, there would also need to be cooperation from Lebanon and Syria, and the Muslim states beyond them — like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, and Pakistan.
“If one of those circles is missing, you can’t finish the holistic plan,” he said.
He isn’t optimistic about that vision being fulfilled, especially with Israel facing the threat of aggression from Iran — probably alone, without U.S. military support. “There is no solution,” he said. “That’s why we have to be strong.”
Gene Reiss of Scotch Plains, a member of the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said he visited Ariel on a business trip to Israel many years ago. “It really is set on these hilltops, and it’s beautiful,” he said.