Uzi Benziman
Haaretz (Opinion)
April 2, 2008 - 6:47pm

Three weeks ago, a smug real estate agent appeared on TV and announced with certainty that all the apartments to be built in Givat Ze'ev's Agan Ayalot neighborhood would be populated immediately. He added that he was convinced of his ability to sell every apartment built in this settlement because there is tremendous demand from ultra-Orthodox families for housing in this area. As if to make his words more concrete, little boys with long peyot and little girls in long dresses were shown playing in the background. Identical messages and scenes were seen in interviews with entrepreneurs and apartment owners in Har Homa, where building had been unfrozen several weeks earlier.

This week, in the wake of separate meetings between United Torah Judaism and Shas leaders with the heads of the Beitar Ilit settlement, the prime minister's decision to allow the establishment of 600 new housing units at Pisgat Ze'ev, and 800 at Beitar Ilit, was made public. There is no doubt about it: The ultra-Orthodox factions have become the spearhead of the settlement enterprise over the Green Line, and they are busy competing with one another over which of them will lead it.

An instructive process is developing: The original settlers, with their knitted skullcaps, are becoming more ultra-Orthodox, while the ultra-Orthodox public is becoming more nationalistic. The proximity of beliefs between the two camps is creating an effective pressure group having a real effect on the government's moves.

The levers that Gush Emunim and the Yesha Council of Settlers knew how to use on prime ministers and defense ministers over the generations are now in the hands of the leadership of Shas and United Torah Judaism. Ehud Olmert needs Shas in order to hold on to his government, and he has to satisfy UTJ's demands so it will serve as a safeguard in case his coalition breaks up.

These two parties exploit their political strength and move Olmert around like a puppet on a string. Olmert tries to pretend that his response to their demands is mere small change, but in fact they are dictating the agenda with regard to settlement over the Green Line and, in this way, they have an influence over the entire Israeli-Palestinian arena.

The spiritual leadership of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox public has always espoused a cautious stance toward Israel's Arab neighbors. This approach was said to be rooted in considerations of Jewish law - in terms of saving lives and preventing bloodshed - and was derived from the temperament of the Lithuanian rabbis and the way they perceived their relations with the state. The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox public chose to dissociate itself from the central Israeli existence and regarded the state and its way of life as an entity with which one should come into contact as little as possible.

This point of view led, among other things, to the "Torah is his religion" arrangement by which yeshiva students are exempted from compulsory military service, and created the independent education stream, the towns and neighborhoods where the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox families choose to live, as well as the limited degree to which they are prepared to partake in the burden of maintaining the state.

Shas, which came into existence against a different social and cultural backdrop, is led by politicians who have adapted themselves to the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox way of life, and by a spiritual leader who forgoes his own opinions in favor of those of the Ashkenazi rabbinic elite. In an ironic twist of history, the heads of the ultra-Orthodox public, both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, now take a completely hawkish stance from the diplomatic point of view, while their disciplined public follows in their footsteps.

On a moral plane, it would be difficult, on the face of it, to complain about the diplomatic positions adopted by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef if they were to instruct their people to fulfill the duties that come in the wake of these positions. But unlike the settlers who wear knitted skullcaps and who share the burden, to a considerable extent, of defending the state, and who take on the risks involved in their decision to live in Judea and Samaria, the ultra-Orthodox shirk serving in the Israel Defense Forces and throw the responsibility for protecting them onto others, even when they go to live in neighborhoods and settlements over the Green Line.

This is a crazy reality: The force currently pushing forward the demand to beef up Jewish settlements in the territories belongs to a segment of the population that is not prepared to bear the burden involved in this, and whose basic attitude toward the state is one of alienation and differentiation. How long will the general public stand for this?


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