Peace talks come and go, but a Jewish settlement grows
By MATTI FRIEDMAN
The Associated Press
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 12:51 PM
REVAVA, West Bank -- The American president was pushing hard for a
Mideast peace agreement when six Jewish families arrived on this West
Bank hilltop early one morning with cribs, refrigerators, Israeli flags
and flatbed trucks carrying mobile homes.
White House condemnation came quickly: "Settlements are an obstacle to
peace and their continuation does not contribute to the development of
a peace process which we have all been working toward."
It was April 16, 1991.
Since then peace talks have started, stopped, restarted, and now it's
President Barack Obama's turn to feel frustrated. Last week Israel
ended its temporary settlement slowdown, Palestinians threatened to
quit the talks Obama has brokered, and settlers were celebrating in
Revava, where those first trailers have been replaced by red-roofed
suburban homes and six families have become 250.
The story is the same across the West Bank, where settlements have
evolved from tenuous Jewish footholds into a massive presence across
the hilly country which Israel captured in the 1967 war and which
Palestinians want for their own state.
They have grown steadily through years of international condemnation,
diplomacy, periods of violence and negotiations. They have often
expanded as a direct protest against negotiations and the possibility
that an Israeli government might uproot them.
In 1991, when the first Bush administration was coaxing Israelis and
Palestinians to the negotiating table, 90,300 Israelis lived in
settlements across the West Bank. Today there are 300,000 - and their
population is growing by 5 percent a year, more than 2 1/2 times the
growth rate inside Israel.
The settlements themselves, ranging from small cities to isolated
enclaves, take up just one percent of the area of the West Bank,
according to government maps analyzed by Israeli human rights
campaigners. But their impact is much greater than that number would
suggest; the settlements and their access roads form a web of Israeli
control that Palestinians say rules out any chance of viable statehood.
Nowhere is the expansion - and its interplay with the politics of
peacemaking - more apparent than at Revava.
When those first families arrived on this rocky hill next to the
Palestinian village of Kifl Hares, President George H. W. Bush's
secretary of state, James Baker, was en route to Israel on a round of
One settler leader, Daniella Weiss, told The Associated Press at the
time that they had "hurried the decision" on Revava to undermine
Government permits had been issued and the land, settlers said, had
been quietly purchased from local Palestinians.
The Israeli government was led - as it is now - by the Likud Party,
historically a champion of West Bank settlement, claiming the territory
as part of the biblical Land of Israel promised by God and as
indispensable to Israel's security.
Some ministers in the government of then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir
reacted sourly to Revava's establishment; the government was trying to
mollify the U.S. and appear receptive to peace while simultaneously
settling Jews in the West Bank according to its own master plan. But
the balancing act was becoming increasingly precarious.
Israeli doves were furious about Revava. Lawmaker Yossi Sarid likened
it to "planting a bomb aboard (Baker's) plane in order to blow up his
The settlers were young couples raised in observant Jewish homes.
Gideon and Miri Goldis arrived with boxes of possessions and three
children under age 3. They came looking for "a new place to start,"
Miri Goldis told an AP reporter on the scene that morning.
Nineteen years later, the couple lives in a neat stucco home and has
"I had the good fortune to come to a rocky, empty hilltop and start a
Zionist settlement enterprise that my grandfather could only dream of.
Suddenly there was another ZIP code in the post office and another
place on the map," Gideon Goldis said last week.
"I don't know what Baker wanted, or what Obama wants now, or any other
leader - these are secondary," he said. "What comes first is my people,
their birthright and their security."
Since the Goldises arrived, six Israeli prime ministers have held peace
talks with the Palestinians. Some have officially restricted settlement
construction. Through all of this, Revava has kept growing.
Settlements sometimes went up with the intention of forestalling
concessions and in response to international pressure, said Israeli
writer Gershom Gorenberg, who has documented the history of the
"The red-tiled houses on the hilltops remain as monuments to the fallen
peace initiatives of the past," he said in an interview.
Unlike the Likud leaders of two decades ago, Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu says he accepts Palestinian statehood in at least part of the
West Bank. But the Palestinian leadership sees settlement construction
as the true litmus test of Israeli intentions, and insists the slowdown
must be maintained.
The settlers see themselves as the aggrieved party, at odds with the
Palestinians, the White House, and often their own government. At
Revava's celebrations last week, a sign with Obama's picture referenced
the controversy over the planned Islamic center near Ground Zero in
Manhattan, saying: "If Islam can build anywhere, why can't I?"
Gideon Goldis' father, Avraham, was a metallurgical engineer in
Philadelphia before he immigrated to Israel. In 2000 he followed his
son to Revava.
Beyond ideology, he said, he found a close-knit community 10 minutes'
drive from central Israel. A house in Revava costs about $270,000, he
said - a fraction of the price in Israel's center.
"The Americans said, 'you're torpedoing our efforts,'" said Goldis, 73.
"We say, 'we're coming to live in Israel, why can't we live wherever we
Two decades after Baker's trip, with a new push under way for a peace
agreement that would require Israel to cede most or all of the West
Bank, is Goldis concerned about Revava's future?
"I'm not worried at all," he said.
Associated Press writer Marcus Eliason, who was AP's Jerusalem chief of
bureau from 1990 to 1993, contributed to this report from New York.