Michael Totten and I spent the day driving around the West Bank with Dror Etkes. Michael is in Israel for a month, collecting stuff to write about, so if you aren't a regular reader of his already, I suggest you make a point of following him now, and see what he has to tell.
Who's Dror Etkes, you ask? Well, that depends whom you ask. The Magnes Zionist says Dror is a hero of his. Yisrael Medad, from the opposite end of Israel's political spectrum, recently wrote about the Dror Etkes he doesn't like. The fact is that Dror, who set up and for many years ran the settlement monitor project at Peace Now before going on to Yesh Din, is a more complex person than most people think. Yes, he's one of the fiercest adversaries of the settler movement, and he likes to give the appearance of a profound skeptic of the Zionist project, but me, I don't buy it. Regular readers will know that I'm not a fan of our radical left, but Dror - whom I've known off and on for 25 years - doesn't fit into their pigeon holes. A Hebrew-speaking Jew who knows every inch of the Biblical heartland like the back of his hand, who cris-crosses it constantly even at times of high security tension; who does his best to know the intricacies of Israel's corridors of power and law so as to insist they live up to their own standards, and who explains his motivation by citing Leviticus 19 verse 16: "neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour; I am the LORD" - that's not someone I'd thoughtlessly brush aside. Spend the day with him and you'll learn that he knows more about the settlers and the many gradations of identity and motivation among them, and is generally much fairer about them, than any of the journalists he's shown around over the years. He'll also describe the Palestinians in plausible, non-starry-eyed terms.
I'm not going to try to describe the tour - maybe Michael will - but here are various observations I had during the day.
Set aside Dror's affectation of using the terminology of the Post-Colonial-gang - a patina which adds nothing to explain what's happening on the West Bank - and it's surprising how much his positions and mine overlap.
1. We agree that the conflict with the Palestinians isn't about the borders of 1967, it's about 1947, meaning Israel's existence as a Jewish state.
2. Neither of us thinks removing the settlements will bring peace, though Dror does see this as a necessary condition, and I tend to agree.
3. Both of us mostly agree on which settlements won't ever be removed (Dror may be more expansionist than I, since he sees them all the time).
4. We broadly agree about the motivations of the various strands among the settlers, including that most of them - the Haredis in Modi'im Illit, say, the Russian immigrants in Ariel or the regular folks from Jerusalem who live in Maaleh Edomim - are not primarily ideological. They aren't there to colonize Palestinian territories.
5. While Dror is more stern about it than I - because of what he does and knows - I agree with his analysis of the hard core of settlers who mostly live in the ideological settlements along the top of the hills: they are there to ensure Jewish control of the Biblical heartland.
6. We agree that a large majority of Israelis don't support the settler's project; Dror is persuasive, however, in demonstrating that the majority fears a clash with them more than letting them have their way.
7. We disagree - but not vehemently - about the responsibility the Palestinians bear for the situation. For example, Dror sees a roadblock which has been emptied of IDF troops as a threat to Palestinian freedom of movement that can be re-created at short notice; I see it as a roadblock that will never be manned again if the Palestinian violence doesn't return. We both tend to agree the violence may well return.
8. I agree with Dror that the majority of Israelis neither knows nor cares what goes on on the West Bank. This wasn't always to, but it has been for at least 20 years. Non-settler Israeli civilians never go to the West Bank; even I, who do every now and then, am not aware of most of the details of the story. This means that Israelis sincerely don't understand the extent to which Palestinians regard the settler project as the Israeli project, and distrust us for it.
9. Dror agreed with me that since the Palestinians - effectively all of them - no longer go to Israel, they've lost touch with our reality at least as much as we no longer see theirs. The fact that a solid majority of Israelis wishes to be rid of the occupation, has no interest in the Palestinian areas, and yearns to partition the land and move on to other things, is probably not recognized at all on the Palestinian side.
10. This cognitive disconnect, we both agreed, is a result of the misnamed peace process.
Finally, a point we didn't discuss, and may or may not agree on: It is the Biblical heartland, the West Bank is. I've been advocating an Israeli departure from it since the 1970s - a long time ago. Yet it's the place we come from. You wander its hills and read the Bible, and each hill is in there; each story is on one of them. We've been reading the stories and commenting about them, uninterrupted, since before the Athenians quarreled with the Spartans, a thousand years before the Roman Empire, two thousand years before the major cities of Europe began growing out of unimportant villages. They're not as dramatically beautiful as Norway or Montana, but if you've been participating in the Jewish discussion for the past few thousand years, they're home. You can't roam them and remain unmoved.