The Secret of its Strength

The Yesha Council and its Campaign Against the Security Fence and the Disengagement Plan

Policy Paper No. 61

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  • Number Of Pages: 386 Pages
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How did the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza (Yesha) become the most influential interest group in Israel? A field study of the Yesha Council’s campaign against the Disengagement Plan and the security fence, and the conduct of Israel’s political system in a dynamic reality under conditions of uncertainty.

The purpose of this study is to encourage citizen involvement and participation in politics. On the one hand, Leiman-Wilzig has contended that "the rate of participation in public protest in Israel is exceptionally high," and that "the Israeli public sees protest as a means with sufficiently reasonable chances of influencing decision makers and of getting what it wants from the political system," (Leiman-Wilzig, 1992: 149-150) and Yael Yishai has argued that "more than 400 public, political, professional and social organizations show that they there is value in their work" and that "a high percentage of citizens acknowledge 'belonging' to a public organization" (Yishai, 2003: 216-218).

Nevertheless, my impression is that alongside the increase in the importance of civil society, there has been a decline in the level of political participation by average Israeli citizens. This is so despite the growing ability of citizens to have an impact on decision-making, which is itself the result of several factors: increased democracy within the parties and the expansion of the bodies that choose the parties' candidates for the Knesset, significant developments in the areas of communications and technology, and the constitutional revolution that has given ordinary citizens "standing" with regard to almost any issue. Notwithstanding these developments, most citizens have the sense that they lack any influence, that political processes are dictated by some "supreme force" and that politics is a system that cannot be fundamentally changed, except perhaps marginally.The relatively low turnout for the elections for the sixteenth Knesset – in comparison to the turnout for the elections to the previous Knesset – is one type of evidence for this increasingly intense feeling.The purpose of this study is to demonstrate not only that it is possible to influence politics, but also that there is actually more than one way of doing so.

The Yesha Council has attained the image of a group with the potential to influence politics in particular and our lives in general. The Council accomplished this by using various methods, from its manner of organization through its methods of operation. This study therefore contributes not only to an understanding of politics, but also to a comprehension of the role and importance of citizens as the wielders of political influence – or as actors with the potential to wield such influence. First, as stated above, this paper is an attempt to shed some light on a group which is perceived as one of the most influential non-parliamentarian groups in Israel, and to identify – through an analysis of two of its campaigns – the secret of its strength. Second, this paper presents a variety of methods of action through which it is possible to have an impact on politics and on decision makers in a practical manner, rather than just enjoy a theoretical influence.The Yesha Council's methods and modes of activity are only part – albeit a large part – of the variety of ways in which citizens can influence politics. There are additional methods, some of which I will discuss with regard to other groups that were active in the political arena during the campaigns under discussion, and others which I will not discuss at all, such as strikes and the use of professional Knesset lobbyists. Third, through the description of the Yesha Council and its struggles, I have attempted to present the complexity of political struggles in general, their dynamics and their dynamism, and to then describe the degree to which every political organization needs to be able to change and to adapt itself, its strategy and its tactics, and the methods through which it deals with changing circumstances. I have attempted to give a reader who views the issue from an external perspective an understanding of the impact – sometimes short-term, sometimes long-term and sometimes only after the fact – exercised by various elements that are active in the political field. This will in turn lead to an understanding of the challenges faced by extra-parliamentary groups and other elements who seek to influence politics – such as, for example, the need for patience and an ability to read the changing political map correctly.

The two processes on which the study focuses – the security fence and the disengagement plan – are, at the time of this writing, still in their formative stages, and it appears that they are a long way from being concluded. This study is therefore only a glimpse into each of them, taken within a defined period of time that begins with the first appearance of the idea and continues through critical stages of its development, ending in the establishment of a formal reference point. Thus, the analysis of the campaign regarding the security fence ends with the government's approval of its full route in October 2003. The analysis of the struggle against the disengagement ends with the Knesset's approval of the main points of the plan on the 26th of October, 2004, followed by the approval in a first Knesset reading of the Disengagement Plan Implementation Law (Evacuation-Compensation Law) on the third of November, 2004.

The security fence, defined as the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in the State of Israel, was put on the national agenda at the beginning of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000 by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He raised the issue after reaching the conclusion that "there is now no Palestinian partner" and that the State of Israel must unilaterally withdraw to defensible borders. Three and a half governments and two Knessets have come and gone since then, but because of its security importance and its political significance, the security fence issue continues to arouse all the various groups in the political system, as well as the public, the law enforcement authorities, the army, and the media. The disengagement plan was, at the time of its first appearance on the national agenda in December of 2003, subjected to ridicule and harsh criticism from right and left - and to very limited trust from the public, the military and the media. Nevertheless, it has become – over the course of 2004 – the Israeli government's leading (and only) political plan. Between the inception of the political process established for the purpose of resolving the Israeli Palestinian conflict at the 1990 Madrid Conference of 1990 and through the 2003 appearance of the disengagement plan, Israel went through five prime ministers, seven and a half governments and five Knessets. But the implementation of the disengagement plan represents the first time – and this is what makes the plan so special and important – that the Israeli government is directing a comprehensive plan that goes beyond a redeployment from areas in Judea, Samaria and Gaza to include the actual evacuation of Jewish settlements. At the time of this writing, no elections have been announced – but the "earthquake" which the plan had caused even before it passed a third reading in the Knesset, and the public protest which followed it, have already made their mark. Adopting the plan led to an intense upheaval within the political system, the establishment of a new government, the creation a deep break within Israeli society and within the army, and an intensification of the split between religion and state. Most significantly, we have seen the beginning of a far-reaching and significant public debate regarding basic issues such as: the nature of the common denominator and shared goals of the various groups comprising Israeli society; the rules of the public protest game in Israel; and the question of authority – is it given to those who rule on Jewish law or to democratically chosen leadership? At the same time, this upheaval has also set the stage for the inevitable debate regarding the stability of Israeli democracy and of its future.

The historical, political, social, economic, security-related and international importance of both of these processes, and their implications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for Israel's global status, for the country's future identity, and for the composition of the political system – each sufficiently explain the need for a deep analysis of these two political struggles. However, beyond the content and importance of the political initiatives themselves, the presentation and step by step analysis of these political processes as a continual progression – from the beginning of the idea's birth through its arrival at the stage of practical execution – is more generally important in terms of developing an understanding of the manner in which decisions are made in Israel, and of the reasons why particular decisions – and not others – are made.

The focus on these two campaigns is intended to demonstrate that political processes do not take place in a vacuum, but are instead dictated by many different factors and that they can indeed be influenced and changed. In the dynamic reality in which political campaigns such as these are conducted, their nature and their results are a function of the totality of the factors that were active in the arena while the processes took form. Each player in the arena can influence the process, and the degree of each actor's influence is the result of a number of parameters, including – as this study shows – the level of belief that it is possible to change and influence, the translation of that belief into action, the level of familiarity with the system in which the parties are acting, the depth of understanding the rules of the game and the perseverance displayed in seeking to achieve the particular actor's goal.

The first chapter of this study is a general review of interest groups in a democratic society and their importance. The purpose of this review is to give the reader a conceptual framework for analysis, and the tools for understanding the special nature of the Yesha Council as a model for an interest group. At the beginning of the chapter, an attempt is made to categorize the various interest groups. Next, the groups' modes of action are surveyed, and finally attempts will be made to give reader the tools they need for choosing their own method of action – whether their goal is to understand the methods with which society's interest groups operate or whether they wish to act and be influencial themselves.

The second and third chapters of the study focus on the Yesha Council, and provide general background regarding its management of political struggles as expressed in the two campaigns described here. The second chapter is more descriptive, and focuses on the conditions and factors which led to the establishment of the Yesha Council, its organizational structure, its decision-making processes, its goals, the areas in which it is active and its sources of financing. The third chapter, by contrast, is an attempt to understand the secret of its strength. This is done through an analysis of the nature of the Yesha Council's manner of proceeding, of the reality in which the council operates and which shapes the council, and of the tools and modes of action which it uses in its campaigns. The variety of the parameters presented in this chapter as the sources of the Yesha Council's strength or weakness were randomly chosen in an attempt to identify the structural and environmental elements that lead to the council's successes and partial successes, or alternatively, to its lack of success in influencing the public and political arenas in Israel.

The last three chapters deal with the specific campaigns conducted by the Yesha Council regarding the security fence and the disengagement plan. The fourth chapter is an attempt to analyze the method used in conducting the struggles. I have divided this analysis into separate parts or elements of a campaign – the definition of a goal, the definition of the organization's counterpart or "enemy" and the determining of a strategy. With respect to each campaign, I sought to clarify whether and to what degree these three elements had been dealt with – three elements that are critical for understanding the behavior of an organization in political processes and which also make a significant contribution towards understanding the complexity that the organization is required to face. The fifth chapter presents a sort of snapshot of the current situation, and describes the step-by-step development of the two campaigns over a defined period of time. Through a description of the conditions and circumstances in the context of which the Yesha Council has operated, I sought to demonstrate the complexity of the political process and the need to properly deal with the three above-mentioned critical elements of a campaign. I had also wished to describe the challenges that actors seeking to influence Israel's political process must face. Finally, the last chapter is an analysis of the two campaigns, and includes an attempt to reach an understanding of the environment in which the Yesha Council operates, the challenges it faces, the degree to which it has succeeded in meeting them, and the manner in which all of these elements influenced the council's behavior and its success or lack of success.

This study is based mostly on primary resources: interviews with key personalities; informal conversations with residents of the territories and with activists; documents and explanatory material published during the course of the campaign; and my personal participation in various activities during the struggle, in internal meetings, faction meetings and Knesset committee sessions. I also used additional materials, such as journalistic pieces that I collected during the duration of my research, in order to give a more general picture by presenting additional opinions and reference points in the campaign. In addition to significant amounts of material from the national mainstream Israeli press, I also sought to express the internal debate conducted among the settler public in the territories and among their supporters, the positions stated in the right-wing newspapers, the religious Zionist newspapers, the Yesha settlers' newspapers and the websites of the relevant entities – in particular, the Yesha Council's site and that of the Gush Katif Campaign Headquarters.

One of the challenges of the study was to understand and analyze the strategy used by the Yesha Council in its activity against the disengagement plan. The research was conducted as the campaign was taking shape. Thus, much of the data and situation analyses that I collected and the conclusions at which I and the active individuals arrived – as well as comments made in the context of the reality at that particular time – turned out, at a later time, to have been less relevant to the final development of the process than they appeared to be when they were first collected. In other words, the dynamism of the campaign itself, its dynamics, its complexity and the personal involvement of the subjects of the research made it difficult to connect the data and then create a single, smooth, clear, and continuous narrative characterized by cause and effect descriptions. It is only with hindsight regarding these developments that it is possible to accurately distinguish what was or was not an actual cause of a change in strategy or in tactics.

This paper, then, is an observation from within the Yesha Council, and through it, an examination of the Israeli political system and of its complexity, its dynamic nature, its uncertainty and the challenges which it presents. I hope the this detailed study will enable readers to look behind the scenes of Israeli politics during one of the most significant periods in its history and to try to understand the Yesha Council's hesitations, its changing estimations of the situation and the challenges it faced during its attempt to deal with and adjust itself to a continually changing reality.