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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace


The Philadelphia Inquirer

A campaign to 'buy' settlers home
By Jim Remsen
August 3rd, 2003

Money's the key in a grassroots effort to lure Israelis out of occupied lands, advance peace process.

INQUIRER FAITH LIFE EDITOR

Money enticed most of them there, and money is the surest way to bring them back.

That is the guiding principle of a costly, controversial grassroots Jewish campaign tackling one of the Mideast conflict's thorniest issues: the Israeli settlers living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"A Call to Bring the Settlers Home to Israel" aims to mobilize American Jewish support for a prospective fund to help willing settler families return, primarily from the most isolated, fortified outposts.

The petition drive was generated by a faction of liberal U.S. groups spearheaded by the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. The call's leaders, who include Philadelphia City Council attorney Steve Masters, say the goal is both to get embattled settlers out of harm's way and to advance the peace process.

The alliance has gathered more than 6,000 signatures on a national petition that it believes taps into a broad but little-expressed Jewish sentiment. Masters, the author of the petition, said polls showed that the majority of Israelis and U.S. Jews supported evacuating most of the 145 settlements from lands captured in 1967 as part of a final peace accord with the Palestinians.

The call's leaders say polls suggest many settlers are open to the idea, as well.

While the 200,000 settlers are often seen as religious hard-liners, a survey for the Israeli group Peace Now found that 80 percent were actually "economic settlers" of limited means who were drawn by the special tax breaks, housing subsidies, and other incentives that Israel extends to settlers.

A Peace Now survey released last month found that 71 percent of settlers would prefer to stay, but 74 percent would be open to compensation offers.

The call campaign furthers an idea floated by some think tanks and policy analysts: an international fund to help settlers relocate inside Israel's pre-1967 borders, primarily through grants to buy homes on the open market.

The campaign envisions the money - an estimated $3 billion, or nearly $190,000 per settler family - coming from Israel, U.S. foreign aid, the European Union, and perhaps other donor nations.

"The more [settlers] that leave, the more opportunity there is for a negotiated settlement" under the U.S. road map, Masters told a July 24 organizing meeting in Center City. At the same time, he said, the buyout initiative "isn't dependent on the vagaries of diplomacy" but could be implemented separately.

Israel's incentive package to settlers costs that country more than $400 million a year, not including defense expenses. Many other Israelis resent the special treatment, Masters said, because the country's economy is struggling and because the outposts require a constant military guard.

"They have been a tremendous burden and liability" for Israel, Masters said.

Though he presents the call as an elegant win-win approach, Masters acknowledges that it faces "an uphill struggle."

Evidence of that came at the organizing meeting at Congregation Beth Ahavah, when local Zionist activist Darrell Zaslow stood and told Masters, "Your mission and methodology are sorely mistaken."

Zaslow, a board member of the local Zionist Organization of America chapter, said later that he considered the campaign's surveys unsubstantiated and believed that most settlers moved to the territories "because they feel God's call."

"To suggest that they can't live in that space just because they are Jews should be objectionable to the world," Zaslow said. Also, he said, "Who's offering to buy out the Arabs there?"

About 120,000 of the settlers live in large settlement blocs that hug the pre-1967 "Green Line" border. Buyouts for many of them may be moot because most of their communities are expected to become part of Israel proper under land swaps negotiated with the Palestinians, Masters said.

Instead, the call focuses primarily on the 80,000 settlers who are in compounds farther out in the occupied territories. Religious or Zionist ideals run highest among those settlers, making them less open to buyouts.

"An economic offer would not bring them home, so to speak," said Tamara Wittes, a Middle East specialist for the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington policy center.

Moreover, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was an architect of the settlement expansions and has been slow to dismantle or freeze settlements as part of the road map. His Likud regime is hardly likely to redirect Israeli funds to actively depopulate settlements, Wittes said.

Likud "leans in the opposite direction," she said.

Israel's leaders consider settlements "a card they can play" in the peace talks, she said. "The argument is that the settlers put pressure on Palestinians because the more they grow, the less land is available for a Palestinian state... . It's a way of creating a sense of urgency for Palestinians to engage in negotiations."

According to Wittes, various analysts have proposed that the final peace accord include a large international fund that would "help cement the peace" by compensating both Israeli settlers who relocate and Palestinians "who agree not to assert claims to properties left behind in what is now Israel."

"But it wasn't a live thing," Wittes said. "The talk was hypothetical."

The call petition began circulating in May. It has been signed by a handful of celebrities, including entertainers Ed Asner, Theodore Bikel and Tony Kushner, and by about 40 Philadelphia-area rabbis and educators.

Organizers hope to approach legislators with their proposals in about a year.

The petition can be seen at http://bringthemhome.btvshalom.org.

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