The settlement movement is not about to take over AIPAC or the U.S. pro-Israel community any time soon. But it did manage to seize control of a couple hours of Policy Conference, at least for some tiny but vocal minority of the confab’s participants. On Monday afternoon, the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization representing Jewish communities in the West Bank, held an event at a rented space on F Street, about a half-mile away from the convention center. It wasn’t really counter-programming—none of the half-dozen speakers that I stayed for criticized AIPAC in their talks. But it was at least concurrent programming. About half the attendees wore Policy Conference lanyards, with a few red Congress Club ribbons scattered among the crowd. Views of the lobby itself tended to be mixed. For some, AIPAC isn’t pro-settlement enough. Marc Provisor, a Policy Conference attendee and activist from the West Bank settlement of Shiloh, said he is “proud of AIPAC,” but still thinks it’s less accepting of the settlers’ perspectives than it should be. “AIPAC has to be open to all sides of Israel rather than being limited,” he said. What’s needed in discussions of Israel, he said, is “informed opinion, rather than manipulated opinion.” Others were less generous. “My sense is that AIPAC wants to do what’s good for the two-state solution…and the two-state solution is the property of people who say Israel is an occupier,” one attendee told me me. Although he didn’t mention AIPAC by name, Yishai Fleisher, a spokesperson for Hebron’s Jewish community, implied that the Yesha Council event was carrying out the kind of messaging work that other groups were either unwilling or unable to do. “You can’t answer ‘You stole someone’s land’ with ‘We invented a cell phone.’ The answer is, ‘It’s our ancestral homeland and we’re going to hold onto it’” he told me—a line he then repeated almost verbatim for a packed room a few moments later, while introducing the afternoon’s speakers.
The event drew about 1oo people, meaning the vast majority of Policy Conference’s 18,000 participants were somewhere else at the time. But the speaking lineup included prominent Israeli political figures: Housing minister Yoav Gallant, New York consul general Dani Dayan, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan, and regional cooperation minister Tzachi Hanegbi all spoke, giving the gathering a higher-powered roster than all but a few of the actual AIPAC breakouts happening during the same time period. Policy conference largely deals within areas of broad agreement—at the plenary sessions, Israeli policy in the West Bank is usually discussed indirectly or in passing. At the Yesha event, with its promises of like-minded people and free kosher sushi, supporters of the settlement movement didn’t have to hide behind the requirements of maintaining shalom bayit within the broader pro-Israel movement. The Israeli speakers spoke a little more freely than they might have in front of a more diverse or more skeptical English-speaking audience: “We’re at half a million now. We need to get to one million settlers,” Hotovely said. Dayan boasted that the settler population increased by 40 percent during his six years as head of the Yesha Council. “If that’s not my entrance ticket to Gan Eden,” he quipped, “I don’t know what is.” Gallant, a retired IDF general, called his settlement advocacy “a correction” after a career partly dedicated to destroying things in battle.
Official Policy Conference events can have a dour, perfunctory feel to them at times, partly because of the inevitably dulling and anonymizing effect of any long and crowded event, and partly because of the speakers’ finely honed instinct for staying within the AIPAC consensus. The Yesha meetup was far outside of that consensus, giving the proceedings a freer and slightly raucous feel. “Let’s give it up for Judea and Samaria!” Fleisher happily bellowed before introducing Gallant. Fleisher was in a buoyant mood—the settlement movement had gotten its point across, asserting its presence during the biggest pro-Israel event of the year. “Our people could have only dreamed about eating Sushi at a Yesha event in DC 2,000 years ago,” he said between speakers. “And it was good sushi! Maybe we’ll eat sushi at the third temple. Korban sushi.”
American born, my wife and I moved to Israel in 1970. We have lived at Shiloh together with our family since 1981. I was in the Betar youth movement in the US and UK. I have worked as a political aide to Members of Knesset and a Minister during 1981-1994, lectured at the Academy for National Studies 1977-1994, was director of Israel's Media Watch 1995-2000 and currently, I work at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. I was a guest media columnist on media affairs for The Jerusalem Post, op-ed contributor to various journals and for six years had a weekly media show on Arutz 7 radio. I serve as an unofficial spokesperson for the Jewish Communities in Judea & Samaria.