Focus on: West Bank settlements hit the US market
Think of Israeli exports, and you stereotypically think of the “Jaffa orange.” Or, perhaps, “Ahava,” the Israeli lotions and creams made from Dead Sea minerals. But if the settlers on the West Bank have their way, the next great Israeli export to the US market is going to be. . . real estate in West Bank settlements! Unfortunately, the settlers don’t intend to disassemble settlement homes and ship them Stateside. No, what they have in mind is to entice affluent American Jews to purchase property in the West Bank, primarily so as to rent the homes out on the cheap to young Israeli couples.
This past Sunday, the Orthodox Bnai Yeshurun synagogue in Teaneck, New Jersey, played host to a “Yesha investment event” – Yesha being the Hebrew acronym favored by settlers to refer to Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and Gaza (“Yesha” also means “salvation”). The event was the brainchild of Amana, the settlement arm of the ideological settler movement, Gush Emunim. With single-family homes being pitched for as low as $117,000 (prices in the Tel Aviv region can be three to five times that much), the Teaneck event was only the first step in a campaign that will target Jewish communities across North America. Amana’s campaign includes a toll-free US number and a revamped English-language website, reports Haaretz.
But what has motivated the settler community to suddenly cross the Atlantic in search of potential buyers? The answer was provided by none other than a spokeswoman for the “Yesha Council,” the settler organization that doubles as powerful lobby and quasi-autonomous tool of self-government: Israelis simply no longer want to move to the West Bank. Spokeswoman Aliza Herbst was commendably forthright when she admitted to The Jewish Week that fewer Israelis have been purchasing homes in West Bank settlements now that the Israeli government has slashed its subsidies to buyers there. So, now that Israeli society is beginning to wise up, it appears, and is learning not to throw good money after bad, the settler movement had little choice but to find a new source of sponsorship. In a letter to the editor, Meretz USA warned New York Times readers not to be ensnared by a settlement enterprise that exemplifies “The March of Folly.”
Happily, Amana’s two weekend events – the other one took place in Queens, New York – netted only a handful of interested buyers. Perhaps this was because the homes being offered are located in far-flung settlements such as Eli, Otniel and Sussia – nowhere near the settlement blocs along the Green Line that will likely be part of a future land swap with the Palestinians.
Back in Israel, meanwhile, the settler movement has been unrelenting in using whatever means it takes – legal, extralegal and illegal – to further its goals. Just this week, the “Supreme Planning Council for Judea and Samaria” – citing a loophole in Jordanian Law, no less! – had the audacity to allow the continued illegal construction of 42 apartment buildings in the sprawling ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modi’in Illit. Construction there had been frozen last year by Israel’s Supreme Court, due to suspicions of illegitimate confiscation of private Palestinian property. In a scalding editorial, Haaretz branded this decision “Legitimization of land theft.”
Elsewhere: In the northernmost section of East Jerusalem – as close to Ramallah as it is to Jerusalem’s downtown – Israel’s Housing Ministry is apparently planning the construction of an Israeli mega-neighborhood, meant to serve the needs of the city’s ever expanding ultra-Orthodox population. Although the Housing Ministry denies any knowledge of plans for the construction of 11,000 housing units, the Haaretz report comes from a senior Kadima MK, who is Ehud Olmert’s liaison to the settler community. And although this planned construction does not involve private Palestinian land, its location is smack-dab in the middle of a densely populated Palestinian area – a recipe for conflict and for the “balkanization” of Jerusalem, in the words of Danny Zeidman of the Ir Amim Association.
As if this is not enough, the Peace Now organization this week released a report indicating that 21 West Bank settlements and 10 unauthorized outposts have encroached on land from national parks and nature reserves for construction purposes. Although clearly bent by Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the settlement movement is far from broken.
Also of note
Livni to the rescue? Israeli Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni continues to stand out among Israel’s Cabinet Ministers for her essentially pragmatic, realistic approach to peacemaking. This week, Livni intimated in two separate interviews that she is willing to accept the 1967 Green Line as the basis for future Israeli-Palestinian borders. Livni’s interviews were with Israel’s Channel 10 , and with the Palestinian al-Ayyam newspaper. It is not clear to what extent Livni’s thinking reflects that of the Prime Minister or their Kadima party.
Jewish and democratic: Israel continues to wrestle with its commitment to being a Jewish and democratic state at the same time. This week, Adalah, the Israeli Arab advocacy center, proposed a “Democratic Constitution” for Israel, that would abolish the Law of Return and similar statutes. In the Boston Globe, David Green summarizes the controversy ignited recently by the Israeli Arab community’s outline of its “Future Vision” for Israel, which many say would turn the Jewish state into a binational one. Perhaps such proposals have served as a wake-up call for the Israeli government, which apparently has begun to look seriously at the problem of economic inequality between the country’s Arab and Jewish citizens.
On the ground, though, instances of discrimination and tension continue: The first Israeli Arab Foreign Ministry cadet was humiliated by Ben-Gurion Airport’s security handlers. And just today, Israel’s first Moslem minister, Labor MK Ghaleb Majadele, rebuffed calls from right-wing MKs that he either undergo a background security check before taking on Israel’s Science Ministry, or that he not be given responsibility for Israel’s space agency, due to its security implications. Cabinet ministers are not normally subjected to such background checks.
The American Jewish community always lags behind the prevalent mindset in Israel. Soon the settlers will have no one to call on for $$$.
Unsurprisingly, my comments were taken out of context. Demands for housing in Yesha communities remain far greater than the supply of housing available. Our population increase in Binyamin, for instance, was larger than any other part of Israel in 2006.
Furthermore, there were certainly far more than “a handful” of North American Jews who attended recent Yesha Housing Fairs who are interested in buying homes in Yesha and are progressing nicely along the process.