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Olmert pushes plan for West Bank

MA'ALE MICHMAS, WEST BANK — MA'ALE MICHMAS, West Bank -- Otniel Schneller, who helped establish this hilltop settlement 25 years ago, knows he won his seat in Israel's parliament without much support from his neighbors.

His political ideas are nothing short of toxic here, since he supports dismantling dozens of isolated settlements in the West Bank, including, most likely, his own. But Schneller believes that his transformation from an ardent supporter of settlements to an architect for the new government's plan to abandon them is evidence that even the most committed settlers can change their views about what is best for Israel's future.

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"I know my society, and I know very well how to lead them," he says.

That is the hope of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose centrist Kadima party, including Schneller, has banked its political future on its plan to uproot tens of thousands of settlers and move them to a relatively small number of large settlements that Israel intends to keep as part of any final peace agreement.

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The withdrawal plan will probably be high on the agenda this week when Olmert meets with President Bush and others in Washington.

While Olmert seeks to build international support, Schneller says his role is to convince the toughest customers, the settlers, that withdrawal is the right course. It will be a difficult, if not impossible, job. Settlers have vigorously defended even the smallest outposts, and have clashed with soliders and police, as occurred during Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

But as a longtime settler leader who worked alongside Ariel Sharon in the 1980s and 1990s, Schneller believes he has standing to convince other settlers that their leaving is in the best interest of the state.

"I don't come from the outside. I work from the inside. I feel everything they feel," Schneller says.

What the settlers feel now, he says, is a sense of uncertainty, mistrust and betrayal since the Gaza withdrawal. "To live with the question of what will happen the day after tomorrow is very difficult," Schneller says.

Sharon, as prime minister, asked Schneller to oversee the Gaza withdrawal, but Schneller says he refused because he disagreed with the government's plan. He favored Israel swapping land with the Palestinian Authority to preserve some of the Gaza settlements.

After the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon, who had created the centrist Kadima party, again approached Schneller, asking him to sketch out proposals for a withdrawal from the West Bank.

Late in the afternoon of Jan. 4, Schneller met with Sharon, presenting him with a plan, and stressed Israel's need to foster cooperation of the settlers before moving ahead with the evacuation. "He gave me 20 minutes. We spent an hour and a half together," Schneller recalls. "He told me very clearly that he supported the principles of my plan."

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Schneller remains secretive about most of the details, but he proposes that some of neighborhoods in Jerusalem be returned to Palestinian control. Schneller has been attacked by the political right for proposing to redivide Jerusalem, whose eastern half Israel captured from Jordan during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. According to his plan, however, most of Jerusalem would remain under Israeli control, including the Old City, where Christians, Muslims and Jews share adjacent holy sites.

Schneller says that redrawing the boundaries of Jerusalem would give Palestinians enough land to create a capital they can justly call Jerusalem, as part of an eventual independent Palestinian state.

What Sharon truly thought about these ideas will likely never be known. Several hours after the meeting with Schneller ended, Sharon suffered the stroke that has left him in a coma.

Sharon was succeeded by Olmert, who adopted Schneller's plan and made a pullout from the West Bank the centerpiece of his election campaign. Olmert also called on Schneller to help him establish closer ties with Israel's religious Zionists.

Schneller appears to have only estranged himself from his neighbors, who appear unwilling to follow him. Many settler leaders hope Olmert's coalition government will collapse before the prime minister has time to pursue withdrawal.

Here in Ma'ale Michmas, a hilltop community of 1,000 people overlooking the Jordan Valley, none of the residents interviewed offered Schneller support.

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"He's become a traitor," says Gabriella Kaiserman, 43, pushing a shopping cart through the narrow aisles of the settlement's grocery store. "There are always people like him [who] change their policies in the government. How much do we have to give away? All we'll have left is a handful of sand."

On the political left, Schneller's plan is unpopular for not going far enough.

"We believe any solution has to be achieved between Israel and the Palestinian Authority," says Ran Cohen, a member of parliament from the leftist Meretz party. "It's not possible to paint our own solution with ourselves."

Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now, cautions that Schneller's idea of a partial withdrawal from the West Bank is not a workable formula for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "He is talking about a very minor move that will include only small, isolated settlements," Oppenheimer says. "We are afraid that disengagement will not have any real significance."

Schneller, 54, has sloping shoulders and a hairline that long ago headed south, and wears a blue knitted skullcap. In 1981, he helped establish Ma'ale Michmas, and then watched it grow from a few trailers to a community of 200 families with businesses, schools and small industries.

A former army colonel and a past head of the Yesha Council, representing settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, Schneller shifted from the political right to the center - a considerable distance in Israel.

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"Otniel Schneller is a very interesting phenomenon," says Dror Etkes, head of Peace Now's Settlement Watch project. "He was in the core of the settler institutions, and suddenly he is able to position himself against his own camp and say what we've done till now has to change."

The change did not occur easily. Schneller's natural reaction to threats to the West Bank settlements was to sink his roots deeper into the land with a trip to a nursery or the hardware store.

During the 1991 Madrid peace conference, which brought together negotiators for Israel, the Palestinians and several Arab states, Schneller planted trees and expanded a garden at his house. After the failed Camp David talks in 2000 between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, he bought a second house in his settlement for his daughter and her family. When Israeli police and soldiers began evacuating settlers from Gaza, he began construction on an addition onto his house.

"We thought we could bring 500,000 people to Judea and Samaria" - using the biblical terms for the West Bank - "but the atmosphere was different back then," he says, sitting on his patio, which offers views of the desert hills leading to the Jordan Valley. "All the government supported us. It was a heroic atmosphere."

But settlers never arrived in the hoped-for numbers, more Israelis began questioning the military and financial costs of supporting the settlement enterprise and many began to believe that Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza threatened the country's existence as a majority-Jewish state.

"I respect the Palestinians very much as human beings, but I don't want to live with them," Schneller says. "I respect them as a nation, but I don't want to be part of the nation."

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He performs a delicate balancing act in his arguments. While advocating a retreat from dozens of West Bank settlements, he maintains that God gave the Jewish people the land and that one day they will return.

"Maybe in 200 years or 1,000 years," he says.

It remains unclear whether the Bush administration will endorse plans for only a partial West Bank withdrawal. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected any unilateral moves by Israel; Hamas, the Islamic party that controls the Palestinian Authority, has balked at any Israeli withdrawal that would fall short of Israel's 1967 borders.

Olmert has said he would allow six months for negotiations to begin, though talks seem highly unlikely given that Hamas refuses to recognize Israel.

Schneller, meanwhile, is moving ahead with his plans to create the national consensus he believes is necessary to make the pullout possible.

"We need to create the right atmosphere. There must be maximum cooperation with the right parties, with the settlers, with the religious leaders to get the support we need," he says.

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"It's not going to be easy, but I will lead the process."

john.murphy@baltsun.com


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