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michael bell

Two weeks ago, a friend of mine, Danny Seideman, a Jerusalem lawyer who works pro bono on settlement issues respecting Palestinians threatened by displacement, had his car stoned in East Jerusalem. He himself suffered a concussion. No suspects have been identified. Both Israelis and Palestinians are beset by radicals. This time however those throwing stones were Palestinians. This I have confirmed with Danny. They must be roundly condemned.

Danny has devoted himself at great cost to a solid and viable outcome to this historic dispute. Sadly, while he has supporters on both sides, he has angered groups on both sides.

Among Israelis, debate on their country's future is, to their credit, universal and wide-ranging. There have been a variety of responses, from a very slim few welcoming the attack to the great majority who see it as a transgression of Zionist ideals. Indeed, Mr. Seideman has received messages of regret and concern from a number of the settlement communities' leadership.

He has long been welcome in the corridors of power in Washington. He is as staunch a Zionist as any I have met.

Within Israel, that he is an advocate of accommodation on Jerusalem and the creation of a viable Palestinian state does not really differentiate him, in terms of outcomes, from the pragmatic right. Former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak hold not dissimilar views. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu realizes there must be give on these issues or Israel will face a continuing conundrum. Mr. Netanyahu will not tip his hand in the midst of a negotiating process, as no good negotiator would, but there are maps circulating, all of which depict specific settlement blocs becoming part of Israel proper.

Mr. Netanyahu, as did his predecessors, faces a conundrum. The problem is not just out of control Palestinians. His challenge is the willingness of the Israeli ultras increasingly to violate Israeli law in pursuit of their vision of a Greater Israel. A kind of theological fervor governs their behavior, albeit a common and pervasive phenomenon elsewhere in the region. For, as they believe, one cannot ignore the will of the Deity?

In the four day period from Oct. 1-4, 2012, alone, the following transpired: Radical settler gangs installed caravans on land belonging to the town of al-Khadr near Bethlehem; such settlers vandalized a Franciscan monastery in Jerusalem; they stoned vehicles in Ramallah and Qalqilia; set fire to agricultural land in Nablus; began building an outpost on land belonging to Palestinians from Yanun village near Nablus; and destroyed 100 olive trees and 60 grape vines near Bethlehem.

Such extra-legal actions constitute clear cut challenges to the civil power. The complexity of Israeli politics and unique structure of Israeli governments does not help. There has never been a "majority government" in Israel's history such as we in Canada have come to know. Israel's system of near pure proportional representation creates a legislature where a majority can be attained only through an alliance of political parties of diverse and often hostile views. This brings about a situation where one party or even a single minister can pursue policies at variance with the Prime Minister's direction. Ultra-nationalists within any governing alliance may control ministries such as housing and infrastructure which they can use to determine outcomes, despite the position of the Cabinet as a whole and often the Prime Minister.

Not that those few ministers publically advocate ignoring the rule of law, but they can change the political environment, often reinforcing proclivities which justify, in the eyes of ultras, ideals which both espouse. This is the challenge for any head of government, magnified for Mr. Netanyahu by the passage of time. Populations become inured and resigned to behavior otherwise considered beyond the pale. Even for this Prime Minister, an able and persuasive politician, this is a tough nut to crack.

Such is the conundrum of Zionism today: The mainstream's goal being the establishment of a Jewish democratic national state; the religious nationalists' being the control of the land as the instrument of redemption, in some cases at whatever cost. The seed of Palestinian defiance stems largely from the settlers' drive to settle the densely Palestinian populated Samarian mountain ridge. Largely these high points but not only the ridge. Mr. Seideman has been most active respecting the Elad settlers' movement in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood just outside the Old City's walls, beneath which the earliest foundations of Jewish Jerusalem lie.

He has been keen to point out that, while still in hospital, he received a call from one of the leaders of the Elad. Mr. Seideman relates that "his concern was real and his offer to help in any way possible genuine." It is the fringe few, however, by their defiance of their country's own laws, who make life so difficult for the victims of their rage. And it is this conundrum that shadows Mr. Netanyahu.

Michael Bell is adjunct professor of Political Science at the University of Windsor, and also teaches at Carleton University. He has served as Canada's ambassador to Jordan, to Egypt and to Israel.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article contained speculation that the attackers of Danny Seideman might have been radical settlers. Mr. Seideman has since said that his attackers were, in fact, Palestinian. The article has been amended to reflect this change.  Mr. Bell regrets the error.

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