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Election of Olmert another blow to the dream of Greater Israel

TEKOA, West Bank—In this Jewish settlement of 300 families on the rocky hills southeast of Jerusalem, the Israeli election that brought Ehud Olmert to power promising to withdraw from West Bank land claimed by Palestinians is another in a growing number of blows to the dream of a Greater Israel.

"I think the main outcome of the election is that all of the proponents of Greater Israel were hit and hit hard," said Israeli political analyst Reuven Hazan.

For religious Zionists driven by the biblical imperative to reclaim the ancestral land that includes the West Bank, the victory of Olmert's Kadima Party was a shocking reality check.

"I have nothing to say about this prime minister," said Rina Ayyouki, owner of Tekoa's grocery store and a 15-year resident of the settlement founded three decades ago. "How would he feel if the people moved him and his children out of his house? ... I have invested my whole life here."

Olmert is conceding that passionate dream, he says, to secure an Israel with a Jewish majority, separated clearly from any future Palestinian state.

Promising to set Israel's permanent borders by 2010, Olmert pledged to complete the 450-mile separation barrier now rising between Israel and the West Bank while keeping control over the largest settlements.

The rest, including Tekoa, lying east of the barrier, would be evacuated, displacing more than 60,000 settlers living in scores of Jewish communities throughout the predominantly Palestinian West Bank, which religious Zionists call by the biblical names, Judea and Samaria.

Olmert has said he will try to negotiate with the Palestinians, but if there's no agreement he will establish Israel's borders unilaterally.

"The leftwing dream of a partner to negotiate with is over," evidenced by the rise of Hamas, which now controls the Palestinian Authority, said Annette Freeman, also of Tekoa, who grew up in Philadelphia, but moved permanently to Israel in 1979.

"The right-wing dream of Greater Israel? ... It is in our hearts. It is in our souls. But it is possible in today's world that it might not be realistic," Freeman said.

When she speaks of Greater Israel, Freeman speaks of Jews' historical claim to the West Bank, which modern Israel captured from Jordan in 1967. "You can go to ancient synagogues (here) from before the time of Muhammad. Give it back? What do you mean? We are back!" she said.

Freeman, who moved to Tekoa in 1980, has endured a variety of threats over the years: Palestinian snipers on the roads leading to Tekoa; the existential threat to Israel's continuing support for the settlements posed by the land-for-peace logic of the Oslo Accords; and the Gaza withdrawal, which showed how easily settlers could be removed and their houses bulldozed.

"I packed the bag so many times in my head," she said.

Many here believe the wrenching scenes of the Gaza withdrawal will look like a walk in the park compared to what would happen when Israel shuts down West Bank settlements.

Gaza had virtually no biblical significance, whereas the stony hills of the West Bank are rich in the ancient story of the Jewish people.

One such place is Shilo, about 30 miles north of Tekoa. Batya Medad, who moved to Shilo with her husband in the settlement's early days, believes that evacuating West Bank settlements will divide Israel.

Like the more combative settlers who fought the Gaza Strip pullout, Medad uses a charged German term from the Nazi era that means "cleansed of Jews" to describe plans for the West Bank.

"If this (territory) is, God forbid, made Judenrein, then the entire country is in major danger," she said. "The entire country is going to collapse."

To the settlers living here, Shilo is a non-negotiable part of Jewish history. It is the place they believe was a central gathering point for Jews historically and home of the portable temple known as the tabernacle that was eventually incorporated into the Jewish temple in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago.

"The settlements in the West Bank have a stronger ideological value for settlers, and even non-settlers, for that matter, than those in the Gaza Strip," said Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher. "The election was clearly a setback for the settlers. But I don't think they are going to lie down and play dead. They still have some considerable ability to resist."


(Matza reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Dion Nissenbaum contributed to this report.)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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