State of flux in West Bank

ARIEL, West Bank –
When a group of Israeli artists recently refused to perform in the new theatre
at this large Jewish settlement, local residents reacted with a mixture of hurt
and defiance.

When scores of
leftist Israeli academics, prominent writers and intellectuals said they would
not lecture at the Ariel University Center or in any other settlement, many
here said that nobody had asked them to come.

But the protest
broadened again recently when an American advocacy group, Jewish Voice for
Peace, said that more than 150 international film and theatre professionals,
including Julianne Moore, Theodore Bikel, Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Kushner,
had endorsed its statement in support of Israeli artists against performing in
the settlements, which are viewed by much of the world as a violation of
international law.

Ariel, an elongated
urban settlement that lies about 20 kilometres inside the West Bank, has long
been labelled in Israel as part of the “consensus” – local code for settlements
destined to be included within Israel’s borders under any peace deal with the
Palestinians. It often appears as one of the regular dots on Israeli weather
maps.

Yet as Israel and the
Palestinians embark on a new, American-sponsored peace effort, and with a
temporary Israeli moratorium on residential construction in the settlements set
to expire, Ariel has suddenly found itself at the crux of Israel’s settlement
conundrum, and perhaps not so much in the consensus as it likes to think.
Linked to Israel’s coastal plain by a modern, high-speed highway, it
underscores the bind Israel’s settlement policy has created for those who seek
a two-state solution. The settlement was founded in 1978 by a group of
employees from Israel’s military industries, secular security hawks who wanted
to ensure that the high ground of Samaria – the northern West Bank by its
biblical name – would remain under Israeli control.

Successive Israeli
governments have insisted that Ariel, with its sizable population and strategic
location, must remain within Israel’s borders under any final peace accord. So
far, no Palestinian negotiator has agreed to that. The Palestinians argue that
an Israeli “finger” reaching that far into the West Bank would preclude the
territorial contiguity of a Palestinian state. They also note that Ariel sits
on a major aquifer.

Ariel’s 19,000
residents are mostly secular Jews. About half are immigrants from the former
Soviet Union. Many say they came for the good air and cheap housing, but they
are also living an inner contradiction. While considering themselves part of
the Israeli mainstream, many say they are not certain about Ariel’s future,
their anxiety compounded by the renewal of peace talks.

Although Ariel juts deep
into the West Bank, the town’s mayor, Ron Nachman, has toiled to give it a
feeling of middle Israel. He is fond of pointing out that Ariel has all the
characteristics of a normal city: a hotel; a nearby industrial park that
employs thousands of Palestinians alongside Israelis; a university centre; a
sports and recreational complex with its central John Hagee Building, named for
the American preacher whose ministries donated $1.5 million toward the project;
and the theatre, which is scheduled to open in November.

“There was a big
effort to turn Ariel into a consensus town,” said Amiram Goldblum, an Israeli
professor of chemistry and a founder of Peace Now, the liberal advocacy
organization. “But it seems that Ariel is not part of the consensus, and people
will understand that now.”

The settlement’s
future is not clear. As well as an obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian
agreement, it could also serve as a crucial trade-off for negotiators hammering
out a final deal.

In January, to mark
Jewish Arbor Day, Israel’s conservative-leaning prime minister, Benjamin
Netanyahu, planted a sapling in Ariel. He declared it the “capital of Samaria”
and an integral part of Israel. But Oren Ben Uziyahu, the owner of a toy store
in Ariel, said that in return for genuine peace, most people would “leave
behind their fake leather couches” and give up their Ariel homes.

“It is reasonable to
assume,” he continued, “that in the end, Ariel will have to go.”

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