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Israeli settlers defy stereotype amid peace talks

Sunday - 8/18/2013, 3:58am  ET

In this Sunday, Aug. 11, 2013, photo, Micha Drori and his wife, Ora, watch their children play in the garden of their house at the settlement of Barkan in the West Bank. The fate of Jewish settlements took center stage in mid-August 2013 with the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks aimed at establishing a Palestinian state. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

ARON HELLER
Associated Press

BARKAN, West Bank (AP) -- Micha Drori is living the Israeli dream: a house, a yard, a wife and three kids. The 42-year-old businessman has found an affordable alternative to Israel's booming real estate market in a quiet community he loves, with a commute of less than half an hour to his job near Tel Aviv.

What's the catch? He's a West Bank settler.

The fate of Jewish settlements took center stage this week with the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks aimed at establishing a Palestinian state. In contrast to the prevailing image of settlers as gun-toting religious zealots, the majority are in fact middle-of-the-road pragmatists seeking quality of life. Many shun the settler ideology and say they will uproot quietly, if needed, for the sake of peace.

"We will not sit here and burn tires if the government will tell us to leave. We will just leave," Drori said in his quiet garden, smack in the middle of the West Bank. "When the proper solution will be found I don't believe that something will stop it like settlements. Houses can be moved ... I don't think the settlements are a problem."

For the Palestinians, though, the settlements are a huge problem. They seek a state that includes the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. The Palestinians, and most of the international community, consider any settlements built beyond the 1967 borders to be illegal land grabs.

For five years, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused to engage in talks while settlement construction continued. As talks finally got under way this week, the Palestinians threatened to walk away again after Israel announced plans to build more than 3,000 new apartments.

In all, Israel has built dozens of settlements since 1967 that are now home to about 550,000 Israelis. Settlements dot the West Bank, the heartland of a future Palestine, and ring east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' hoped-for capital, making it ever more difficult to partition the land between two states. Jews now make up 17.5 percent of the population in both areas.

While religious Jews, attracted to the West Bank because of its biblical significance, pioneered the settler movement four decades ago, the settlements today have expanded into a more accurate reflection of Israeli society. The profile of a settler can vary from a suburban Jerusalemite to a non-partisan ultra-Orthodox seminary student to a commuting high-tech executive to a socialist farmer in the Jordan Valley.

Drori, for instance, is secular and never imagined living outside central Israel. But he has found a home in Barkan, an upscale settlement of nearly 400 families with red-tiled rooftops and a vibrant community center. From his backyard Drori has a clear view of the Mediterranean coast.

"The air is nice, the weather is good, the view is wonderful. I think this is most of the reason that people come here," he said.

About a third of all West Bank settlers could be defined as "ideological," according to Yariv Oppenheimer, director of the anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now. He said these settlers, the driving force behind the settlement enterprise, are politically active and tend to live in the more outlying areas, often closer to Palestinian villages and ancient Jewish religious sites.

"The irony is that the believers are the ones who are more likely to be ultimately removed," he said.

The rest are "economic" settlers who take advantage of the benefits available to live a higher quality of life than they could have afforded in Israel proper. While these settlers tend to still hold hawkish political positions, they are not as hard-core over territorial compromise. Some, particularly those in and around Jerusalem, don't even realize they are settlers.

In fact, the two largest settlements, Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit, were established as a housing option for ultra-Orthodox Jews, the poorest segment of Israeli society. Some of the ultra-Orthodox may even have no other choice but to live in the settlements, Peace Now acknowledges.

Oppenheimer said the economic settlers were less combative and rejectionist, but because of their sheer growth posed an obstacle.

"If everyone behaves like them and settlements continue to expand, there will be no place for a Palestinian state, even if they are not ideological," he said.

Many of these settlers would evacuate quietly in return for fair compensation, but likely won't have to because they are within the major blocs Israel would probably keep in a land deal. In previous rounds of negotiations, the Palestinians agreed to swap some West Bank land for Israeli territory to allow Israel to annex the largest settlement blocs adjacent to its border.

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