Jewish settlers see a friend in Netanyahu Goal of 'Greater Israel' expected to gain under new Israeli leader

June 05, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

OFRA, West Bank -- The fruit of Benjamin Netanyahu's election victory will appear in a field now thick with only brambles and weeds, the Jewish settlers believe.

They envision 35 duplex homes arising from the field -- already sown with underground water and power lines -- to house new settlers coming to Ofra.

The Labor Party's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin blocked the construction plans to expand the settlement when he won election in 1992, and his successor, Shimon Peres, did the same. The settlers expect Netanyahu to give the go-ahead.

"The first result of the election is to show that this land belongs to the Jews, and most Jews want it this way," said Yona Hoffman, secretary of Ofra, a sprawl of red-roofed houses north of Jerusalem. "This is the Zionist dream."

The goal of a "Greater Israel" was out of vogue under the Labor government of the past four years. It will return to fashion under Netanyahu, the settlers believe.

"They were delegitimizing the right wing, making us out to be a small minority. I felt like a second-class citizen," said Menucha Nathan, who moved 21 years ago with her husband and three children to an abandoned Jordanian army camp to help establish Ofra.

But for all their complaints about the Labor government, settlers did not fare so badly under Rabin and Peres. The number of settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip rose to 132,700 in 1995 from 104,800 in 1992, according to Israel's Central Statistics Authority -- a 27 percent increase.

Much of that increase was in the bedroom communities of metropolitan Jerusalem, where growth was supported by the Labor government. But even the isolated West Bank settlements managed to grow.

'Families started to come'

"I thought when things got difficult families would pick up and move out," said Moti Zemer, 42, an accountant who has lived here for 12 years. "But it was a very surprising phenomenon: Families started to come."

Ofra's population, for example, rose to about 1,300 from 1,000 when the Labor government came to power, according to Hoffman. The newcomers moved into houses that were just being finished when the government took office, or into empty mobile homes that once housed Russian immigrants, or dilapidated old Jordanian army buildings that had been scheduled to be torn down.

"You can't stop development. You can't stop families from growing, and businesses from opening up and people from coming," Hoffman said.

The growth under the Labor government was somehow fitting. Ofra was begun in 1975 when Peres was defense minister. While the government was evicting settlers 20 miles to the north, six families quietly moved here. They came ostensibly as workers erecting a fence around an army post.

It became the first settlement in the West Bank north of Jerusalem. Today, Ofra is a community of 305 houses, four schools, a swimming pool and a huge synagogue that sweeps over a dip in the barren terrain. Hoffman said he gets an average of three calls a day from families wanting to move here. He expects to build at least 50 houses a year.

Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war. The Labor government of that time initially assumed it could quickly negotiate a return of the land in exchange for formal peace with its neighbors -- but found no takers. And the land-for-peace formula has been at the heart of a bitter debate within Israel ever since.

The Likud governments that ruled Israel for almost 15 years pursued with varying degrees of enthusiasm the theory that the land of "Eretz Israel" -- the biblical land of Israel -- was given to Jews by God and should not be given up.

After Rabin's election, Israel endorsed land-for-peace through the Oslo Agreement of 1993 and turned over the Gaza Strip and seven West Bank cities to Palestinian control.

Being realistic

The settlers here do not expect Netanyahu to plunge into a settlement-building program. They recognize that he will be pressured by the United States to continue with the Oslo Agreement, and pressured by other Israelis to spend government money on education and social needs inside Israel.

And Netanyahu's election does not solve the basic impasse in Gaza and the West Bank between 133,000 settlers who believe the land is God-given to them, and 2.2 million Palestinians who live there. But "if Bibi will honor only half his promises, we will get permission to build, and we can grow," said Hoffman.

Just as important to many of the settlers, they say, was the feeling of relief that followed his election. After four years of feeling ostracized by an antagonistic Labor government, they said, they suddenly feel they will have a friend in the premier's office.

"I think the struggle in this election was between two cultures," said Avraham Giesser, the rabbi for Ofra. "It was a contest between the culture of Tel Aviv and the culture of Jerusalem.

"Tel Aviv is secular, universal, and not especially identified with the Jewish history. Jerusalem is a complex place, where Jews and Arabs live together. In Jerusalem, there is a deep linkage, an affinity with Jewish values.

"The election meant that the people here discovered that their agenda is the same as the agenda of 60 percent of the Jewish public," he said. "It was a victory of cultures. Now the agenda is an agenda of Jewishness, of Jewish priorities, of 'All the land of Israel from Jordan to the sea.' "

Pub Date: 6/05/96

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