‘You are the Zionist pioneers’ – centrist Israeli minister hails messianic settlers

Israel’s long-running settlement enterprise is about creating “facts on the ground”. The facts appear typically as “outposts” built by true believers that lack intial authorization, either on land seized by the state’s military, or simply on private Palestinian land. The question is then how to retroactively legalize the theft and how to frame it. One tends to think that this enterprise is mostly the project of the right-wing, but historically it has been encompassed by both the right and the left, in varying shades of overtness.

This week, a centrist minister dropped an overt bomb.

On Sunday, Israeli Diaspora Minister Omer Yankelevich from Benny Gantz’s Blue-White party hailed the colonialist settlers at a “Settlement Forum.” In doing so, she confirmed a move by Defense Minister Gantz and his party colleague Michael Biton (Minister of Strategic Affairs) to retroactively legalize 1,700 settler housing units, which even by Israel’s lenient laws (which defy international law) are considered illegal.

Yankelevitch called for Jewish supremacist “unity” over the settlements, saying that “it’s time to put an end to the discourse of splitting and of hate towards the settlers”. Journalist Neri Zilber said in sharing a video of her speech, that the statement was a betrayal. “Blue-White were voted in on backs of million+ center-left votes”.

But do those million-plus voters really object? The Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot already exposed three weeks ago the possibility of such a move, which the settlers were of course hailing, a move which Peace Now blasted as “implementation of a Messianic settler policy”. And at that time, Oded Ravivi, head of the Efrat regional settler council, said that “the Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria has become consensus”.

Journalist Mairav Zonszein noted the Yankelevitch statements, commenting on Twitter:

Not just any minister, Omer Yankelevich, Diaspora affairs minister, who oversees relations with American Jews, who by and large oppose settlements.

American Jews are one thing. Israeli Jews are another. Yankelevich was saying in no uncertain terms, that Gantz is in complete support of the move that was being headed by Biton, to legalize the illegal settler homes.

In the past, such overt promotions of legalizing the illegal came from Benjamin Netanyahu’s right, such as former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who in 2017 pushed the “regularization law”, which similarly provided legal cover for the retroactive legalization of about 4,000 illegal settler homes.

Omer Yankelevich, Diaspora Affairs minister, from an official video in Oct. 2020. Screenshot from Youtube.

With her statement, Yankelevich was basically saying that a centrist party, Blue White, was overhauling Netanyahu to the right, and even going further than Shaked– since this particular ‘legalization’ is meant to be applied even before a specific law applying to these homes is passed. Yediot reports that the intention is to pass the motion under what is called “market regularization”, which “enables the purchaser to receive rights over the property if it is proven that the purchasing was done in good faith”.

Yes, “good faith” is the term often used by promoters of these acts. The outpost settlers are collectively called the “young settlement”, as Yankelevich also called them, rather than colonialist land thieves.  

Yankelevich’s comments have become a can of worms for Gantz, who at least needs to appear as a centrist. Thus on Monday, there was an argument in the party about whether this view actually represents the party line. Gantz said it didn’t, and that Yankelevich was misrepresenting, (as reported on Walla):

The chair of Blue White Benny Gantz clarified today (Monday) that he does not support the motion to regularize the outposts, and distanced himself from the statements by Diaspora Minister Omer Yankelevich who yesterday said at the protest encampment that Gantz supports them. In the meeting of the Blue White party Gantz said that “we do not support the illegal outposts and it doesn’t matter who sits there, whether it’s a person [who is] a pilot or a doctor, it doesn’t give him permission to sit there on illegal areas”.

However, Gantz pointed out that this does not mean he opposes settlements in general, nor ‘regularization’ in general. It just has to be done properly, as it were:

“I support the Jordan valley [settlements and] staying in [settlement] blocs without going back to ’67 lines… The Ministry of Defense is working on the regularization of all the outposts which sit upon legal areas exactly according to the regulations and laws. Any straying from this line is not Blue White’s line”.

This is somewhat confusing, since outposts which sit upon legal areas do not need to be legalized. The whole point is that they are sitting on areas which are not yet clearly defined by Israel as legal for settlement: they may be lands confiscated and under ‘survey’, or simply private Palestinian lands.

In any case, the retroactive ‘legalization’ of such areas is the very process that Gantz is referring to – the ‘regularization’. But even for the perplexed, the point being made by Gantz here betrays that Israel is institutionally working on such a colonialist expansionist basis via its military establishment. The only question is how fast things need to go, before it begins to look like the Wild West Bank.

Blue White lawmaker Asaf Zamir (formerly Minister of Tourism) assailed Yankelevich at the meeting and said she was “causing political harm in regions where we have no voters”. Zamir alluded to the possibility of looming elections:

We are at the eve of a potential dissolution of the Knesset [parliament], it’s best that we remember who we are because these statements and these uncoordinated acts you perform distance the mothership from our voters.

But Yankelevich wasn’t having any of this. She held her ground like a good young settler:

The position of the party, as was said at the party meeting by the party chair, is support of the regularization of the settlements which are built upon state lands, built in good faith. That’s the position that I also expressed and I am proud of it. We are talking about the salt of the earth, people who live in sub-conditions and it’s about time to provide them honorable living conditions. Don’t believe false quotes.

So then, Blue White will fight a bit between themselves, and decide what the party line really is. Is it overt and blatant theft, or is it more civil theft?

Two years ago, this writer wrote that the left-right debate in Israel is over the speed of colonization, not how to end it. Blue White is the supposed liberal opposition counterweight to Netanyahu’s Likud. But it is no such thing, and it can’t even work out what it stands for. Gantz says “colonization light”, Yankelevich says “Zionist pioneering”.

And the memo for the Jews abroad, particularly in the US, which Yankelevich is supposedly a minister for – there is no political dynamic that effectively opposes the settlements in Israel. The Zionist “left”? Which left? It hardly exists. Oh, and what about the Palestinian Joint List bloc of legislators? It is systematically excluded from governance – yes, also by Gantz.

And if you say that’s a racist endeavor, well, watch out, the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism might be out to get you.   

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