by Noah Kulwin
Image credit: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com
CRAMMED INSIDE THE BASEMENT of the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. on Monday afternoon, the leading lights of the Israeli settler movement and their allies had a little celebration.
Just a few blocks from the comparatively moderate 2018 AIPAC Policy Conference, the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, an umbrella group for settlements called the YESHA Council, and the Jordan Valley Regional Council held a session of their own for a completely packed room of about 200. Though the event wasn’t an official AIPAC session, some of Israel’s most well-known rightwing and settler groups were in attendance, including the U.S. tax-subsidized Hebron Fund, which bankrolls extremist Jewish settlers in Hebron, and Ariel University, which is located deep within the West Bank.
Over kosher sushi, and dates from Israeli settlements, Hebron Jewish community spokesman Yishai Fleisher set the stage for a lineup that included Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, who serves as both the Israeli Minister of Education and Minister of Diaspora Affairs; both represent the Jewish Home party, the leading pro-settlement party in the Knesset. Yuval Steinitz, a member of the ruling Likud Party and Israel’s energy minister, and Israel’s New York Consul General Dani Dayan also delivered brief remarks. Congressman Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina best known for shouting “You lie!” at Barack Obama during a State of the Union address, even found the time to stop by.
The message from everyone who spoke was straightforward and more aggressive than anything at official AIPAC-sanctioned events: to protect Israel means to protect the settlements, as settlers in the West Bank (what settlers and their advocates call Judea and Samaria) are on the spiritual and literal front-lines. The two-state solution is dead, and what remains is to impose Israeli sovereignty and limited Palestinian governance in the region.
“This is my third year at [AIPAC], and we barely had a minyan of people the first time. Barely a quorum of ten folks and now look at all of you,” Fleisher said to open up the event, then noting the line of around a hundred people outside the synagogue all clamoring to get in. “The time is to embrace our heartland, the time has come to embrace the 600,000 [Jewish] people who live in Judea and Samaria and East Jerusalem. The time has come for alternatives to the two-state solution.”
The Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which sent out invitations to “combat the de-legitimization of Israel through the embrace of Judea & Samaria” at the event, served as the lead-off batter with a video message from Minister Gilad Erdan about the importance of fighting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, and “spreading the truth about Israel… about the coexistence of Jews and Arabs in Judea and Samaria.”
Erdan’s ministry was created in 2006 as something of an international propaganda arm, but it has become known in the last year as the “blacklist” ministry, for publishing a list of twenty BDS-supporting groups whose members are to be denied entry into Israel. Prior to the Monday event, left-wing Meretz Knesset member Tamar Zandberg condemned the ministry’s naked pro-settlement bias, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s top non-political appointee slammed the office for its habit of hiding its activities abroad from other Israeli diplomats.
AYELET SHAKED, a secular woman who is widely viewed as the next leader of Israel’s right-wing, spoke next. Shaked has argued that Israel’s Jewish majority is more important than a commitment human rights, and she was introduced by Sarah Stern, director of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, a think tank linked to anti-Muslim activist Frank Gaffney and right-wing megadonor Sheldon Adelson.
Shaked stressed the importance of mainstreaming the YESHA Council and other settler politics, and bringing them even further into the American political fold. It’s “very important that the AIPAC delegation, they are also doing a tour with YESHA council” on AIPAC missions to Israel; such trips are the bread and butter of AIPAC’s educational non-profit arm, as AIPAC claims 62 percent of sitting members of Congress have visited Israel on such trips.
At a meeting with AIPAC donors and American political leaders, Shaked said, she “explained that the Jewish Home and part of the Likud think that a Palestinian state will be a failed state, and Judea and Samaria is part of our homeland.
“For some people here in U.S. and Europe, it sounds absurd… they are used to the old paradigm of the two-state solution, but we are talking with those diplomats and donors over and over again, and Congressmen and senators, and I see a difference,” Shaked continued. “I see people now understand that the difference between Israelis and Palestinians is too wide to be bridged.”
Shaked, whose Justice Ministry is currently weighing whether to prosecute Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu on multiple charges of taking bribes for positive media coverage, declined to mention the ongoing scandal. But her party leader, Naftali Bennett, an intra-right-wing rival of Netanyahu’s opened his remarks with a vocal defense of the Prime Minister that was well-received by the crowd.
“I have known him for twelve years from inside and outside, and that Prime Minister Netanyahu would never sell Israel’s security or national interests for personal gain,” Bennett declared. “I stand behind him, and hope it’ll all become clear over the next few months.”
Bennett, a tech executive-turned-Jewish nationalist, added that “the Palestinian state is off the table, it’s done,” to raucous applause, and noted that the Palestinians should accept a quasi-national sovereignty, like the Isle of Man or American Samoa.
But the biggest applause lines for the YESHA crowd didn’t touch on settlements exactly. Much like the reception at AIPAC, the biggest celebration was saved for President Donald Trump and his decision to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Shaked called his decision “courageous,” and Dani Dayan, a former YESHA Council chairman who was controversially reassigned from a diplomatic appointment in Brazil, could hardly contain his excitement for the May 14th opening ceremony.
Though Israeli settlement construction and the right-wing politics of settlers are broadly unpopular in the U.S., Naftali Bennett offered some parting words about the Golan Heights about how Israel can preserve territorial gains for settlements in the West Bank.
“It’s never pleasant two weeks after, but after two months it fades away, and twenty years later and forty years later it’s still ours,” Bennett said smiling. “Forever.”
Noah Kulwin is a reporter based in New York City. He most recently served as the technology editor of VICE News.