Traveling in the West Bank (Part 1)
Last week, while protesters battled autocratic regimes, the United Nations chose to focus its ire on Israel's settlements in the West Bank. It seems that no matter what else happens in the 50 or so Muslim-majority countries around the world the so-called international community remains obsessed with the dispensation of this portion of the only Jewish state.
Mike Huckabee gave a timely interview to Ben Smith in which he talked about his recent trip to Israel, which included a trip to the West Bank. Huckabee's view, that a two-state solution is not possible and that Israel should maintain its settlements, is not one shared by many American politicians. But if his view seems inexplicable to those who consider the West Bank simply an item on the "peace process" checklist, a trip to the West Bank provides some perspective.
As readers of Right Turn know, I was recently in Israel. I spent a day in the West Bank. What I saw surprised me.
Even well-informed consumers of international media imagine that the West Bank is crowded, dangerous and replete with roadblocks and officious Israeli security forces. So when one leaves Jerusalem, crosses the Green Line -- a cement wall and a checkpoint (not unlike the set-up for an agent at a U.S. border) -- and travels up and down the highways of Samaria (the portion of the West Bank extending north), you realize how little non-Israelis know about the Jews who live in territory that is the focal point of so much international attention.
The media terminology doesn't comport with one's direct observations. "Settlements" are not hovels tended by goat herders. Settlers are not uniformly religious. The Palestinians who demand the right of return are generally the descendants of those who left Israel proper in 1948; the region is still sparsely populated and was even more so in 1967. And while negotiators have shuffled back and forth trying to reach a peace deal, there are at least signs of peaceful coexistence between some Palestinians and Israelis who shop and work together.
On a Wednesday afternoon Naftali Bennett met me in Jerusalem. He drove up in an unassuming, white compact car. He was dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt and wore a small knitted kippah not unlike conservative and modern Orthodox Jews in the United States. His parents made aliyah from the U.S., so his English is impeccable. It was not until we were well on our way that I learned he was Bibi Netanyahu's chief of staff during the years in opposition and also the founder of a high-tech company, Cyote, that makes 70 percent of the software used to detect bank fraud. In 2005 Bennett sold the company. After a stint with another high-tech company, his life took a dramatic turn.
He told me that he realized during the second war in Lebanon that Israel's survival was not assured. "I grew up in the 1970s," he said. "But I never thought all this talk about Israel facing an existential threat was real." Then his best friend (who served in the same elite unit as Yoni Netanyahu) was killed. The realization set in that Israel's survival was not a given. For reasons that became apparent as the day unfolded, he is convinced that his three children will not grow up in a vibrant and safe Israel unless the West Bank remains part of the Jewish state.
The West Bank is a mountain range. On one side is the Jordan Valley, and on the other the heart of modern Israel. (Ben Gurion Airport is a few miles from the foot of the hills of the West Bank.) What strikes you are the vast open spaces -- hill after hill of barren land. There is no shortage of living space. This area is not distinct from but is part of the Biblical lands of the Jews. Religious Jews and Christians know it as the land of the Patriarchs. (During the day we passed Joseph's and Joshua's tombs.) The region of Binyamin, named for one of the 12 tribes of Israel, includes Shiloh, the city Joshua conquered immediately after Jericho. Excavations are underway, and already a massive amount of broken pottery, the leftovers from the ritual meals after animal sacrifice and the bones of animals (kosher only) have been found. In the modern era, Binyamin was deserted until the mid-19th century when early Zionists repopulated the area. Bennett explained that this is why settlers and many other Jews and Christians (in Israel and elsewhere) think of this area as "the heart of Israel."
Now ninety-five percent of Palestinians are under the jurisdiction of the PA, which is responsible for everything from local police to schools. Israel's official interaction with West Bank Palestinians is limited to intelligence gathering and extraction of terrorists. Israelis don't patrol the streets of Ramallah or Nabulus. There are currently 330,000 settlers in Judea and Samaria, roughly a third are entirely secular, a third "knitted kippah" Jews like Bennett and a third Haredi (ultra-orthodox).
Five or ten minutes after we crossed the Green Line we stopped at a new, very large grocery store, a place where Jews and Palestinians shop together. Palestinians are under an edict by the PA to boycott Israel goods, but the PA cannot enforce the boycott at the consumer level. Jews and Palestinians buy everything from fruit to Cocoa Puffs. What is most striking is how utterly ordinary is this place, in the middle of territory about which the entire world argues. A Palestinian father pushed two small children in a shopping cart; men with kippot filled the shelves.
We continued to the Psagot winery (about twenty minutes from Jerusalem), a stylish facility that could be in the Sonoma or Napa Valley in the U.S. There is a visitor center with a film explaining the history of the region. Its viewpoint is entirely absent from international media coverage. Only about 15 people operate the winery that produces 10,000 cases a year, some for export and some for Israeli consumers. A state of the art bottling line washes, fills, corks and labels the bottles. Each year volunteers from the states come for five weeks at a time to help out, living in a garage-like annex.
The owner Yuri is a second generation Israeli; his parents came as part of the wave of immigration from Russia. Huckabee, Yuri told me, had been there on his recent visit. Yuri explained, "The prerequisite for economic progress is quiet, not peace." In other words if violence is abated he and his neighbors can work, live and expand their business. The winery started only in 2003 and now features all the varietals one would find in a California winery.
We drove a short distance up the hill to Yuri's home. It is beautifully furnished but not lavish. We passed through the annex that looks like a camp dorm and climbed up a small hill. In a small cave we saw the remains of a wine operation 2500 years old, from the time of the Second Temple. In another cave are the remains of an ancient olive press. It was another reminder that while a modern country, Israel is also a giant archaeological site. Yuri, in a real sense, is one link in the Jewish historical narrative; his forefathers were cast around the world by Herod in 70 CE and now he has returned to pick up the same profession, in the same spot as those ancient Jews. During the Second Intifada Yuri's commanded three tanks a few hundred yards below the caves. We stood outside his home, a few miles from Jerusalem. As with so much else in Israel, security, religion and history are intertwined.
On Monday I'll have Part 2 of this post.
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