Former Rothschild lecturer Dov Waxman sees Israel’s West Bank settlers as major players in the controversy over whether Israel should proceed with annexation of as much as 30 percent of the border area. But there are several considerations in that decision, including the role of American Jews and others. Three years ago, professor Dov Waxman delivered the annual Rothschild Lecture at The Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University on the relationship between American Jews and the state of Israel.
Waxman is a professor of Israel Studies at UCLA and heads its Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. We caught up with him recently and asked what he sees as the role diverse forces are playing in the annexation issue.
AJT: First, who are the settlers on the West Bank?
Waxman: One of the most popular misconceptions about settlers is this image or stereotype that they’re all religious zealots, you know, with long sidelocks or payes. That’s not true for most settlers. A majority of settlers are not there for ideological reasons; they’re there for economic reasons. That division is readily apparent in the different reactions to the prospect of annexation and the different reactions to the Trump administration’s peace plan.
So, on the one hand, you have the pragmatists that has to take the view that, well, look, this is a very good opportunity for Israel to make sure that at least a number of major settlement blocs will permanently become part of Israel.
There is another smaller group who are dogmatists or ideologues, who believe God’s biblical promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So they oppose a Palestinian state in any part of the land of Israel, even a small fraction of the West Bank because they believe that the Palestinians have no right to be there.
AJT: Where do the settlers get their support?
Waxman: The most significant support from the United States that the settler movement receives is probably from evangelical Christians, not from American Jews. It comes from Christians United for Israel, which is the largest pro-Israel group in the U.S. today by far. It’s way, way larger than AIPAC. It has 8 million members. AIPAC has something over 100,000. Evangelical Christian organizations have donated tens of millions of dollars to support settlers.
Evangelicals have emerged as an influential voice in American policy, specifically in the Republican Party in terms of lobbying for the settlements and putting forward a settler perspective, if you like. If there is a kind of settler narrative in American politics, it is based in part on Evangelical Christians support for the settler movement to reclaim the West Bank as part of the ancient land of Israel.
One other thing I’d just say about evangelical Christians, they actually go to the West Bank settlements and volunteer to work on them. Most American Jews don’t.
AJT: What about support from within the Trump administration?
Waxman: I would say specifically it comes from the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Long before he became ambassador to Israel, he was a supporter of the settlements, a financial supporter of one settlement in particular. Since taking that position as ambassador, he has really broken new ground, if you like, in his outreach to settlers. He’s obviously giving them much greater importance in American diplomacy in the region. Of course, you know, before Freidman, no U.S. ambassador went to the settlements.
AJT: What about support for the settlers by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
Waxman: Netanyahu has recognized that his political vulnerability comes from the right and not from the left. Therefore, he needs to protect his right flank and he needs to ensure that he has support from the settlers, or at least not major opposition because that would allow competitors on the right to challenge him.
Also, over the last decade, settlers have successfully penetrated Israeli institutions. Many settlers are now Knesset members; they are in the upper echelons of the IDF. They work in the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy. So they’ve developed a deliberate strategy and it’s been successful.
AJT: So how does the prime minister balance all these competing pressures?
Waxman: He’s really caught between a rock and a hard place. He needs to keep the settlers happy because of his own political needs and at the same time, he needs to keep the Trump administration happy. And if annexation occurs, I believe it really is going to be a much smaller kind of annexation and one that’s not going to upset or alienates America’s allies in the Arab world.
So on the one hand, the Trump administration is going to be pressuring Netanyahu to slow it down or stay back. And on the other hand, the settler lobby is pressuring Netanyahu to expand and move swiftly. So he’s really caught between these two powerful forces. And I think whatever will come about will be his attempt to kind of triangulate, if you like, those two pressures from the inside and from the outside.
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