In April 1986, Israeli peace activists convened in the West Bank city of Hebron. Their aim was to rally support for a negotiated settlement, and they invited left-wing Knesset members and Palestinians to join them. But the event turned out to be dominated by a group of people they hadn't invited--settlers who beat and cursed the activists, blocked a road leading to the hotel where the meeting was to take place, and smashed the windshield of a Knesset member's car, eventually requiring the Israeli army to break up the mêlée. Allegedly orchestrating the violence, according to criminal charges later filed by two Knesset members, was a man named Otniel Schneller, the head of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of Jewish settlers. "We wanted to show that this kind of meeting--Jewish people meeting with the PLO and talking about how to throw the Jewish people from Israel--we think is very, very dangerous," he said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Two decades later, it is Schneller who is devising plans to, as he might once have put it, throw the Jewish people from Israel. Now a Knesset member for the centrist Kadima Party, Schneller has been entrusted by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with preparing maps for unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank. Schneller, whose knitted skullcap fits bowl-like on his balding head, still considers himself "very right-wing" and still lives in Michmash, a settlement between Ramallah and the Judean desert. That, combined with his past, might make him seem an odd advocate for unilateral withdrawal. But, for those Israelis who want their government to vacate large parts of the West Bank, Otniel Schneller has emerged as an unlikely--and fortuitous--ally.
A colonel in the reserves, Schneller, 54, moved to the territories in 1982. He came for security--not religious--reasons: He was convinced that preventing a Palestinian state was an existential Israeli interest. The first hint of Schneller's political transformation came during his nearly three-year tenure as secretary-general of the Yesha Council in the mid-'80s. Concerned that the settlers hadn't devised a plan for dealing with the Palestinian population, he proposed granting municipal autonomy to West Bank towns, a move he believed could forestall a Palestinian state. "The right only knew what it didn't want," he has written. "The lack of a political plan meant that we were dooming Israel to either endless war or a binational state." Fellow settlers, however, saw the proposal as a near-betrayal.
Several years later, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin suggested that the real existential threat to Israel wasn't a Palestinian state but rather left-right divisions within Israeli society. Seeking dialogue with the left, Schneller found a partner in Professor Yair Hirschfeld, one of the initiators of the Oslo process. Last year, the two co-authored a book called Bridge of Paper, which offered a series of proposals seeking to unite the Zionist left and right around unilateralism. Peace, they agreed, wasn't an end in itself but a means to ensuring Israel's Jewish majority and Jewish identity. To achieve that end, Schneller conceded, Israel would need to withdraw from much of the West Bank. He even declared his readiness to "give up my home" for the sake of national cohesion.
While Schneller won't divulge the outlines of his map, it's clear he wants to retain at least 30 to 40 percent of the West Bank during the next withdrawal. That includes, according to Schneller, the strategic Jordan Valley, as well as Jewish enclaves inside the West Bank city of Hebron. (He envisions linking those enclaves with the nearby Jewish town of Kiryat Arba.) If that is indeed the future of unilateralism, we need to forget everything we've been told by the press about the West Bank security fence determining the border. And we also need to forget what we have been told by Olmert himself, who just last week declared in London that he aims to withdraw from 90 percent of the territories in an interim agreement with Mahmoud Abbas. That statement was hardly convincing: Olmert, whose foreign minister dismissed Abbas as irrelevant after Hamas's electoral victory, was probably just trying to prove he had exhausted the diplomatic option before moving forward unilaterally.
Compared with Olmert's vision of a 90 percent withdrawal, Schneller's more modest map makes sense, both politically and strategically. Olmert, after all, faces a public increasingly skeptical of unilateralism. According to a recent poll, only 37 percent support the plan. While Olmert almost certainly lacks the clout to uproot the 70,000 settlers who will find themselves on the wrong side of the security fence, he may be able to manage Schneller's plan, which calls for uprooting "isolated" settlements whose residents probably total no more than 20,000 settlers.
There are strategic virtues to Schneller's proposal, as well. With the rise of Hamas--along with the ongoing shelling of Israeli communities bordering Gaza--even many Israelis who backed withdrawal in Gaza now question the wisdom of withdrawal in the West Bank, which borders Israel's main population centers and infrastructure. Moreover, writing in Haaretz, journalist Ari Shavit, once an ardent unilateralist, recently pointed out that, if Olmert implements his plan, "the Palestinians will have sovereignty over the entire Gaza Strip and some 91 percent of the West Bank"--precisely Israel's offer to the Palestinians at Camp David in July 2000--"and all this without recognizing Israel and without ending the conflict." In other words, terrorism pays. Schneller's scaled-down map, by contrast, grants Palestinians considerably less than what they would have gotten had they opted for negotiations. It thereby dispenses with the absurd diplomatic consequences of Olmert's proposed 90 percent withdrawal, which would leave Israel with almost no territory to bargain over should final-status negotiations ever resume.
For Schneller, the key to his plan's success lies in winning support from the settler community--which he calls "my community." That won't be easy. What many settlers really think of Schneller's plan may have been best captured by a recent cartoon that appeared in the right-wing weekly Makor Rishon, which played on the fact that Schneller was one of the last people to visit Ariel Sharon before his stroke: As Schneller reveals his withdrawal map, Sharon collapses.
Indeed, Schneller's self-appointed role as guardian of settler interests irks many of his former allies. "Otni constantly refers to himself as a settler from Michmash," says one neighbor. "But who gave him permission to speak in our name? Otni doesn't represent anyone but himself, but he uses us for his purposes." Longtime friends have distanced themselves, while others have called for more drastic measures: In a recent radio broadcast, radical Rabbi Dov Lior urged settlers to bar Schneller from their communal prayers. "A healthy body vomits out unhealthy elements," declared Lior.
A second roadblock facing Schneller's plan comes from the international community. Schneller believes that the key to persuading uprooted settlers to leave their homes peacefully is international support for Israel's right to remove the largest remaining settlement blocs--two near Jerusalem and the third centered around the West Bank town of Ariel--from any future negotiations and to continue construction in those areas. "That," he says, "is what will make it possible for Israel to withdraw with national consensus." Yet American--let alone European--support for Israel's right to build within those settlement blocs is hardly a given. After releasing its 2004 letter to Sharon affirming Israel's right to remain in some settlement blocs, the Bush administration promptly equivocated and explained that the final borders would be resolved only through negotiations.
The toughest sell, however, is also the one Schneller is best positioned to make: persuading his old settler allies to give up their dream of Greater Israel in order to save the Jewish state. He is convinced it can be done. When settlers "see the benefits of building and developing within the blocs, most will accept it," he says. "Maybe the fringes will resist, 5 percent, no more. And then the Israeli schism will be over." Which, after all, is the real peace agreement Otniel Schneller is seeking.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to The New Republic and a senior fellow of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
By Yossi Klein Halevi