When direct talks begin next week between Israelis and Palestinians, the fate of Jewish settlers in the West Bank – tens of thousands of them – will be a major issue in the negotiations. But the settlers themselves won’t be part of the discussion. Nor have American officials involved in the talks been willing to meet with them.

You’ve probably heard that the settlers are an obstacle to peace. That’s not exactly true. Their absentee role in the peace process is different. They’re opposed to an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that would uproot a large number of settlers from their homes or would leave Israel with inadequate security, at least from their viewpoint.

Obstacles or not, they’ve become “the most stereotyped and demonized people in the world,” says Dani Dayyan, the leader of the Yesha settler council for the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza. Yet the settlers have a case. It’s neither incoherent nor unreasonable, but it’s politically unacceptable and thus off the table in the new talks.

The settlers insist, for starters, that their settlements aren’t located on “occupied” Palestinian territory. Rather, they live on “disputed” territory, claimed as a homeland by both Palestinians and Jews (some of whom don’t consider themselves Israelis). “This is my homeland,” Dayyan says. “How can you ‘occupy’ your homeland?”

And Israel has a “morally flawless” claim to the West Bank and other land it captured in the Six Day War in 1967, according to Dayyan. “We took what we thought was ours in a defensive war” against Arab countries, he says. “The rule that winner takes all was set by the Palestinians,” since they were prepared to claim any land seized in the war.

The settlers also point to the ancient past. “Jewish civilization and history come from Judea and Samaria,” Dayyan says. “Everything Jewish was born” in the West Bank. King David never visited Tel Aviv, but “his first capital was Hebron” in the West Bank. Today, a Jewish settlement has been established in the heart of Hebron.

There’s an overriding concern. Israel’s security would be jeopardized without settlers in the West Bank, Dayyan insists. “We are the guarantee of Israel’s security. Israel is indefensible without Judea and Samaria.” At one point, Israel is 9 miles wide. The Ben Gurion Airport is “geographically controlled by the hills of Samaria.” Thus, he says, Hamas or al Qaeda terrorists with shoulder-fired rockets could attack the airport and “paralyze” the country.

The worst fear of the settlers is that the West Bank, were it to become a Palestinian state, might fall under the control of Hamas, which favors terrorism as a tactic and the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state. When Israel withdrew from Gaza, it was “ethnically cleansed of a Jewish presence,” Dayyan says. Hamas now controls Gaza.

“It’s naïve to think something different would happen if the West Bank is separated from Israel,” he says. “It would be completely impossible to defend Israel without Judea and Samaria.” Besides, Hamas and “Islamic fundamentalist groups won’t recognize an agreement” that provides for Israel’s security.

Dayyan concedes that “crazies” are about 1 percent to 2 percent of the settler population. In 1994, a settler named Baruch Goldstein invaded a mosque in Hebron, killed 29 Muslims and wounded 150.

The total number of settlers is a bit fuzzy. But roughly 180,000 live in East Jerusalem or nearby, essentially in suburban communities. In an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, they would presumably be included inside the boundaries of Israel. But settlements farther from Jerusalem, with 100,000 or more people, would not. And Palestinians would almost certainly demand they be removed.

The new round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is aimed at producing a “two-state solution” – that is, Israel as a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state. Dayyan, as spokesman for the settlers, favors a one-state solution, “wholly in Israeli hands.” That’s the “only chance for security to prevail,” he says.

A Palestinian state? Dayyan, with whom I talked during a trip to Israel sponsored by the Kairos Foundation, raises the long-discarded idea that Jordan might become that state. Though its population is predominantly Palestinian, Jordan is a Hashemite kingdom.

But if Hashemite rule were ended, “that would open a new horizon of possible solutions that don’t exist today,” Dayyan says. “That’s a thought for the future.” But not one that’s on the table in the Israeli-Palestinian talks to begin next week.

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