Left vs. Right: 2 Young Politicians from Israel Tour the West Bank

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Two of Israel’s younger politicians — one from the left and one from the right — take a joint journey into the heart of the West Bank, to the controversial Ariel University and to the settlements. They debate not only on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also on the identity of the Israeli society.

“Oh, come on,” says Ayelet Shaked as we climb in the late summer heat up to the lookout point on the edge of Tel Hadid [in the central district of Israel, next to the city of Modi'in]. “The mountains of this place just strengthen the case.” The coastal plane is spread out before us, covered in light haze. The horizon is punctuated by the [complex of skyscrapers] Azrieli towers [in Tel Aviv], and slightly to their right are the City buildings of Ramat Gan [city in the Tel Aviv District]. Closer, just beneath our noses, sprawls Ben-Gurion Airport. In between is the Beit Nabala military camp, and in the other direction - through the sabras thickets and pine trees covering the Tel[-Hadid] [archaeological mound] and beyond the Green Line — rise the hills of the area Ayelet Shaked insists on calling “Samaria,” and which Yariv Oppenheimer insists on terming “the Bank,” or its full name — the West Bank.

We reached this spot at the end of last weekend during a joint tour within and beyond the Green Line, in an attempt to understand whether it is possible to find a point of agreement between Shaked, the founder of Israeli Sheli [My Israel], who is contending for a spot on the Knesset list of the [right-wing national religious Zionist] Jewish Home party, and [Yariv] Oppenheimer — director general of Peace Now.

The answer: not at all. At this point, they can only agree that the intense heat of the Land of Israel is unbearable and that they are committed to continue to love the land and protect its image — but preferably from within a car with air conditioning at full blast.

Except that for now, we are still on the Tel[-Hadid] and Shaked points to Gush Dan [Israel’s central region], which is laid out before us as though on a tray. “First of all, historically, we are on a Tel that was part of the Jewish settlement during the time of the Kingdom of Judah, in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. — and it is mentioned in the Bible as one of the places in which ‘the sons of Lod, Hadid, and Ono,’ returned to Zion” [Ezra 2:33] she says. “And what else do we see here? That the airport is just a stone’s throw away, and you don’t need a big army for a direct hit to shut it down and to cut the State of Israel off from the world. So this Tel illustrates the claim both historically and strategically.”

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Oppenheimer is not convinced. “First of all, we are on the state of Israel’s territory,” he tells her. “So the argument over who was here first is not relevant. And if you’re talking about security, I want to remind you that the biggest victory in the history of Israel, in the Six-Day War [1967], was when the Green Line constituted the state’s border. And we were dealt the biggest blow of the Yom Kippur War [1973] when we were at our largest size. So territory may be an important element, but it doesn’t guarantee security, certainly not in the missile age. And you know what, most ideological rightists, even if they were to receive a divine promise that the State of Israel’s security would be preserved — they wouldn’t agree to withdraw from the West Bank. So all this talk of strategy is no more than just more chatter.”

Between Tel Aviv and Ariel: Agreement or surrender

Both of them are 36, and if people reflect the landscapes of their birthplaces, their birthplaces also greatly resemble them. Shaked grew up in the Bavli neighborhood of Tel Aviv, and lives there to this day. Oppenheimer grew up not far from there, in Ramat Gan, and today lives in Tel Aviv. She was a “battalion head” in the Israeli Scouts; he studied at Blich High School, and was already active by then. Shaked is married with two children; Oppenheimer is “still single,” in his words. She is a graduate of computer science and electrical engineering and works in a high-tech company; he studied law. Both of them are trying to enter politics – Shaked through the Jewish Home; Oppenheimer will try, for the third time, to secure a promising spot on the Labor Party’s list. She is in the thick of the race, just before the primaries; he has some time, and both of them are incredibly skilled and seasoned.

In the car, on the way to Ariel [settlement in the West Bank], the conversation gets heated. “All territory that is withdrawn from, is taken over by Islamic fundamentalism,” says Shaked. “This is true here and it’s also true everywhere else in the Middle East. And you [the Israeli Leftists] are the only ones that call this process democratization.” “You yourself are a fundamentalist,” Oppenheimer responds. “And we have gotten security everywhere we withdrew from in an agreement. I’m not talking about withdrawing from the [West] Bank, I’m talking about an agreement, with international legitimacy and international guarantees, I’m talking about a demilitarized Palestinian state, under observation. Not just disengagement.”

“Nonsense,” she tells him. “You live in a dream. And I trust only us [Israel]. And anyway, which agreement are you talking about? And with whom? Arafat ran away from Camp David [in 2000], Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] ran away from Annapolis [in 2007], and you don’t have a partner even to the very generous agreement you are offering, you don’t have anyone to talk to about it. ‘Never,’ Mahmoud Jabari [lead Ambassador for Palestinian youth] from Hebron said, ‘will we sign an agreement with Israel.’ Did you hear that?”

“No.”

“Do you know him?”

“No. But I am sure that there are many Israelis, like you, who will say exactly what he said.”

Later they discuss how many Jews live in Shaked’s Samaria and Oppenheimer’s [West] Bank. Shaked says 365,000; Oppenheimer agrees with that number, but says that what is relevant to the solution of two states for two peoples are only the few thousand who live in the outer settlements.

Shaked: “That won’t happen. The Arabs of Judea and Samaria live decently. Maybe without realizing their national rights, but for that they have Jordan, 70% of whose citizens are Palestinian. Their lives may not be perfect, but that’s the only way to prevent them from taking your home.”

Oppenheimer: “It is irresponsible nationally to ignore the circumstances, to cover reality with makeup. When we are with our backs up against the wall, after another Intifada and unnecessary bloodshed, you will discover that the Israeli public is ready to evacuate from the West Bank not only 80,000 settlers but also the half million Jews who are there — if they’re [still] there.”

When we enter Ariel, each of them is sure to reinforce their stance: “A large and important city of Israel,” says Shaked. “Another settlement sucking the state’s budget,” says Oppenheimer.

The university center in Ariel  academia at the heart of the dispute

The Ariel University Center is immersed in greenery. Wide lawns between buildings covered in marble, just like the campuses in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Bar-Ilan and Be’er Sheva. Students who are here to finish registering for the coming school year, and to meet with heads of departments. Shaked uses the last few minutes in the car for an exhaustive explanation of the course of events. “There was a panel that Ehud Olmert, when he was prime minister, established. Nobel laureates were among its members. The committee recommended approving the center, only the other university heads were opposed.”

She tells me, “Write that when the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was established, the heads of Beirut University were staunchly opposed, because one in the region is enough. When Tel Aviv University was established, people in Jerusalem were against it. Both of them opposed Bar-Ilan [University], and it took ten years until it received approval [to issue] first and second [B.A. and M.A.] degrees. Now they’re doing it to Ariel, after all of the relevant authorities have already given approval; only the prime minister is delaying the decision.”

It’s the defense minister, I tell her.

“No,” insists Shaked, who once served for two years as the manager of Netanyahu’s bureau, when he was head of the opposition. “It’s the prime minister’s issue. And he is like a soccer player, who is standing front of an empty goalpost, scared to score a goal.”

“It’s a classic example of the reality of our time,” Oppenheimer intervenes. “Instead of fighting for a university in Tel Hai, Sapir, or the Jordan Valley, we are again surrendering to manipulations that are meant to normalize the settlements, and the result of course is ostracism and international boycott.”

Shaked: “Again with your intimidations.”

Oppenheimer: “It’s not intimidations. I, as opposed to you, fear this boycott.”

Shaked: “Even if you fear it, it’s not a relevant excuse. Boycotts won’t determine whether there will be a university here.”

Oppenheimer: “There are enough universities. And if there aren’t, we can establish one in Safed [in the Northern district of Israel, where no university center exists].”

Shaked: “Let them establish one in Safed as well. In this university [in Ariel], Palestinians from Judea and Samaria also study, there’s coexistence here.”

Oppenheimer: “Oh come on, coexistence between occupier and occupied. No makeup can conceal that.”

The argument is interrupted by Professor Yossi Pinhasi, dean of the Faculty of Engineering. He is an electronics engineer by profession, and moved to Ariel from Tel Aviv. He brings us into his lab, with a particle accelerator — which takes up an entire auditorium –the university received from the Weitzman Institute. He talks to us about innovative research taking place in Ariel, the production of radiation through accelerators, and international cooperation on the issue. Oppenheimer loses patience and clarifies that he didn’t come for a public relations tour. “I don’t want to enter into a political argument with you,” he says to Prof. Pinhasi at the end of the tour, “but it’s clear to you that your presence here has political significance. This center doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and the question isn’t what its contribution is to science – but rather why here.”

Pinhasi: “True. I am here on behalf of Zionism.

Oppenheimer: “So your Zionism is different from mine.”
Pinhasi: “If you would be willing to listen and hear what we are doing here, it would also relate to your Zionism. This is also a place with a social mission. Not just political.”

Oppenheimer: “That is not a convincing alibi. Does everything seem normal to you here?”

Pinhasi: “Things aren’t black and white. We open the gates of this institution to everyone.”

Oppenheimer: “What you are saying is that you eat kosher steak at a non-kosher restaurant.”

Pinhasi: “What I’m saying is that I don’t speak in slogans. What we are doing here is relevant to science, relevant to society in Israel.”

Shaked: “This is a proper academic institution. All of the boycotts and the threats of boycott are nonsense. Scientists are cooperating between themselves and don’t deal with boycotts.

Recognition vs. petition

We continue to Nofei Nehemia [an Israeli outpost east of Ariel], on the way to Rahelim. Soft hills, stone terraces, and olive trees ahead of the coming harvest. (“There will be rampage,” says Oppenheimer.”) Poterium and Sticky Fleabane plants line the shoulders of the road. “Where else in the world can you walk knowing that your forefathers marched on the same path 3,800 years ago?” asks Shaked. “It’s amazing, in my eyes, that our father Abraham spoke in the same language that I speak, walked in the same places, and believed in the same God.”

“I don’t deny our Jewish connection to this place,” Oppenheimer answers. “But there is a difference between the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, and this connection is disputed.”

It takes the two of them a minute and a half to finish being excited by the beautiful views. “94 percent of Judea and Samaria are empty of people, and only six percent are settled, so there is room here for both [peoples],” says Shaked, and Oppenheimer rushes to disagree: “This place cannot contain two national movements on the same territory,” he says, and reminds us that at the basis of any resolution must be an agreement on “two states for two peoples.”

When we move to the underground junction at the entrance to the settlement, Oppenheimer protests. “The government of Israel built this interchange for 30 families or something like that. Where in the State of Israel, within the Green Line, is such an interchange built for 300 families?”

Later he remembers that at the age of 19, during his IDF service in the Nahal Brigade, “I guarded the chicken coop of some settler here.” Just yesterday, he says, he received a call-up order for military reserves. Again, he will guard some settlement.

Shaked mentions that he [Oppenheimer] supported the petition submitted by the residents of the nearby Arab village, whose view is obstructed by Rahelim [outpost]. Oppenheimer says there was a petition to evacuate the village, and Shaked responds that Netanyahu established a committee that determined that the community was a recognized one. She recalls that “this is how communities in the State of Israel were established. Ra’anana [city in the center district of Israel] and Beit Shemesh [city in Jerusalem district] existed for years, grew and blossomed, before there was a government decision on the matter.”

In the village, we are greeted by cottages without character, painted a shade of orange, overlooking a stunning view. Some of the old caravans, which are now crumbling and which remain from the early days, house young recently arrived couples who are waiting for a government decision to recognize the community’s establishment, “because that is what will determine whether we can get a mortgage for the house.”

One of the young people recognizes Oppenheimer, “a famous figure here,” and asks him what he thinks will happen. “Your declarations are always optimistic,” he says to Oppenheimer, who is initially embarrassed by the recognition, “so I want to know what you think.”

At this point, unrelated to Rahelim, Oppenheimer and Shaked both take off their gloves.

“European governments don’t succeed in influencing Israel through acceptable diplomatic means,” Shaked says. “So they apply pressure through left-wing organizations that they fund and to whom they dictate the agenda. Some of them are Zionist organizations like Yariv’s, and some are post-Zionist. Add to this the fact that the left, which is a powerless minority, doesn’t succeed in making an impact through the Knesset, so it does two things: it informs the Americans of every community that is established, and floods the High Court of Justice with petitions. They know that there won’t be a hearing on the crux of the matter of ownership of land. [Former Supreme Court] Justice Edmond Levy [July 2012], in a report he submitted to Netanyahu, referred to that fact and recommended establishing a special court to discuss land rights of Jews in Judea and Samaria. And the best example of this is the Meriva House in Hebron. In real time, they didn’t allow the buyers to prove ownership, but it was proven only after the evacuation.”

Oppenheimer: “I’m happy that Ayelet raised the matter, because it gives me the opportunity to explain what gets me going. The real argument between us isn’t on the fate of the territories. The argument is over Israel’s internal character. The right is trying to abolish or at least weaken the High Court, on a [general] course to delegitimize anyone who thinks differently. Everyone standing against them in the struggle over the kind of state we will have. Take Migron [outpost]. Even Benny Begin [Ruling Likud party's MK and Minister without portfolio, son of former Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin], who is a symbol of the real, ideological right, told them clearly that it was no longer a matter of politics at that point; it was land theft. And when the High Court of Justice rules and forces the state to evacuate, they take advantage of the opportunity to exploit the state for the second time, out of millions of shekels, at the expense of taxpayers. And they are the ones who determine what kind of attorney general we’ll have, and whether Shai Nitzan [deputy AG for special projects] is worthy or not, and who is a collaborator, and who’s a rat. This is a group of people who don’t see anything except for themselves.

Shaked: “This society is [reflected by] the man who we met here, in these crumbling caravans, and the ‘exploitation’ of the state is comprised of the conditions in which he lives here. If anyone is exploiting the state it’s you, twisting democracy in order to receive money from Belgium that will dictate to us how to manage our lives here. Traditional anti-Semitism today wears an anti-Israel face – and you are feeding it. You, the left, don’t build, you only demolish and destroy projects.”

Oppenheimer: “The Israeli left established the state.”

Shaked: “And now? What are you building now?”

Oppenheimer: “We are building and preserving Jewish democracy. And what you’re building, you’re building with my money. You are better than us at populism, but we are a source of pride in the world, which demonstrates that Israel is still a democratic, moral, peace-seeking state.”

End of the road  one point of agreement

At the end of the day, a light breeze can be felt, joining the blossoming squills and reminding us that the autumn is indeed upon us. On the way back home, after a long day of arguments, Shaked and Oppenheimer agree to put their weapons aside.

They do have something in common: both of them think that Israel needs to be a Jewish and democratic state, both believe in Zionism, both oppose refusing military service, and both will do what ever it take, through legitimate means, to annul what they see as an evil decree — but won’t call to refuse an order. And if that’s not enough — although it’s a lot for Shaked, and above and beyond for Oppenheimer — at least one other point of agreement was discovered over the course the tour: both of them really truly can’t stand coffee.

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