MK Tzipi Hotovely knew her audience well. The last of nearly a dozen speakers at a conference advocating Israel’s annexation of the West Bank and the end of the two-state solution, the young Likud lawmaker described for the crowd a scenario very familiar to right-wing pundits in Israel: being challenged by the media about their views on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
“After having proven with signs and miracles that a Palestinian state would be a catastrophe and would just increase terrorism, the question that scares right-wingers interviewed by the media the most is this — the ultimate left-wing question: ‘So what is your solution? What’s your plan?’” Hotovely said. Raising her voice, she continued: “Friends, everybody here today knows that there is a solution — applying sovereignty [over the West Bank]. One state for the Jewish people with an Arab minority, lest any right-winger say there’s no solution!”
To the raucous applause of more than 500 conference-goers squeezed into the visitors’ center of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on Thursday, Hotovely warned against advocating merely the annexation of the West Bank’s Area C, which is under Israeli control and where most settlers live, an idea recently spread by some on the right. “We need to demand sovereignty over all of Judea and Samaria, and nothing less than that,” she declared.
There’s nothing new about far-right groups holding events in which speakers fantasize about “Greater Israel.” But Thursday’s conference was different: It indicated that the idea of the one-state solution has become respectable within a larger segment of society, including the ranks of Israel’s ruling party.
Hotovely was right: For years, moderate right-wingers tiptoed around the question of what they envision for the future of the territories Israel captured in 1967. Only hardliners openly admitted what perhaps many others secretly desired, but knew to be politically too incorrect to openly demand.
“We’re all here to say one thing: the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Why? Because!” co-organizer Yehudit Katsover proclaimed in her opening statement to the conference, which she organized with right-wing activist Nadia Matar.
‘It’s time to do in Judea and Samaria what we did in East Jerusalem and the Golan. It’s time to end this system in which the Palestinians take and take and we give and give’
Katsover and Matar did a smooth job with the logistics of the conference, making sure every participant had a bottle of water next to his or her seat and that enough sandwiches were distributed during the break, and even arranging for a mobile air conditioning unit to cool the over-crowded venue. They invited a broad range of speakers who lectured on different aspects of applying Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank, but all had one thing in common: stressing the necessity of that step, backed by the conviction that Israel’s inherent right to Judea and Samaria — whether derived from the Bible or international law — is nonnegotiable.
If only all Israelis believed that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jews as an eternal inheritance, Minister Daniel Hershkowitz, the head of the Jewish Home faction (the new National Religious Party), said wistfully. He quoted a famous Torah commentary that says that the Biblical narrative starts with Creation to demonstrate that the earth belongs to God and that it is his right to bestow the Holy Land on his Chosen People. If only the Israelis truly felt the land belonged to them, the entire world would feel the same, he asserted.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on record saying that he does not want to rule over the Palestinians and is ready to accept a Palestinian state. But that no longer prevents some members of his party from openly demanding a one-state solution. MK Miri Regev, speaking on a recorded video clip, boasted that she recently founded the Knesset Lobby for the Application of Israeli Sovereignty over Judean and Samarian Communities. The Likud constitution requires the application of sovereignty over the settlements, she said.
“It’s time to change the discourse in the State of Israel about Judea and Samaria,” said MK Ze’ev Elkin, the chairman of the coalition, also in a prerecorded statement. “For 20 years, we talked about what to give and why. Now the time has come for an entirely different discourse. This is our land, and it’s our right to apply sovereignty over it. Regardless of the world’s opposition, it’s time to do in Judea and Samaria what we did in [East] Jerusalem and the Golan. It’s time to end this system in which the Palestinians take and take and we give and give.”
Most speakers focused on Israel’s right to The Land — all of it — and tried to reassure the audience that they need not fear the so-called demographic threat. Israel would not lose its Jewish majority if it annexed the West Bank and granted citizenship to the Arabs living there, nearly all the speakers promised.
Estimates of how many Jews and Arabs live in the West Bank vary. Right-wingers claim that fewer than two million Palestinians and about 350,000 Jews make their homes in the area. Others reckon the number of Palestinians in the West Bank to be around 2.4 million, compared to 310,000 settlers.
‘This is not Arab Land. This is the Holy Land of God,’ said Hebron Rabbi Uzi Sharbaf, adding that it is ‘absolutely forbidden’ by Jewish law to retreat from any centimeter of the Promised Land.
Former Israeli ambassador Yoram Ettinger used his 15 minutes — the organizers strictly enforced every speaker’s time limit — for a slideshow in which he presented a lot of data ostensibly proving that there are a million fewer Palestinians in the West Bank than generally assumed. How come? Because the Palestinian officials dealing with statistics are either incompetent or lying, he said.
Ettinger’s graphs made it easier for subsequent speakers to dismiss the demographic argument against a one-state solution as left-wing demagoguery. Gershon Mesika, the head of the Samaria Regional Council, for instance, called the demographic threat a “big bluff.” Even most Arabs don’t believe the idea of two states for two people would work, he added.
And so the evening went by, with speaker after speaker preaching to the choir, rarely challenging the audience with provocative questions about, for example, Palestinian national aspirations. “This is not Arab land. This is the holy land of God,” said Hebron Rabbi Uzi Sharbaf, adding that it was “absolutely forbidden” by Jewish law to retreat from any centimeter of the Promised Land.
Lawyer Yitzhak Bam said Israel’s extension of legal authority to the Golan Heights was probably illegal under international law, as there was a previous sovereign before Israel conquered the area. On the other hand, there was “a legal vacuum” in the West Bank before Israel captured it, since the Jordanians had renounced their claims. But since the international community didn’t intervene in Israel’s takeover of the Golan Heights, surely there shouldn’t be a problem with Israel annexing Judea and Samaria, Bam argued.
At the end of the lengthy conference, as the crowds streamed towards the chartered buses — equipped with bulletproof windows — back to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Matar and Katsover grabbed the microphone one last time to reiterate their commitment to the one-state solution. They were “greatly moved,” they said, that so many people came out “to say that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel, and to hear another plan, one that is a breath of fresh air in our political reality.”
It remains unlikely that any Israeli prime minister in the foreseeable future would move to unilaterally annex all or part of the West Bank. But Thursday’s conference was a clear indication of a political trend that is becoming more visible every day: the annexationists are growing in confidence, demanding in outspoken fashion what they always dreamed of but have never dared to say quite so publicly.