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Continued settler attacks on soldiers could gravely undermine the future of the settlement project. The settlers have always struggled to win the hearts of most Israelis, and images of youngsters confronting troops are hardly helping the cause.

On Thursday, an arsonist set a Border Police tent near the settlement of Yitzhar on fire before fleeing the scene. Earlier, settlers stoned an army jeep and threatened a senior Israel Defense Forces commander. Settler leaders were quick to condemn the violence, but could do little to mitigate the damage.

While many Israelis appreciate the tenacity exhibited by Jewish residents of the West Bank, others see the settlements as detached from the rest of the country. This disconnect can quickly turn to anger when violent settlers take over the news cycle.

Moreover, the IDF may be the most sacred institution in a country sharply divided on a host of issues. Settler attacks on soldiers are therefore particularly upsetting for many and certain to elicit a negative emotional reaction.   

Settlers Face Uphill Battle

The settlers are fighting an uphill battle even without the bad PR. Journalist Shmuel Rosner on Friday honed in on their predicament by highlighting some poll numbers. While 88% of respondents to one survey said that soldiers make a very positive contribution to Israel, only 38% said the same about the settlers.

“Whoever clashes with soldiers automatically loses the battle for public opinion,” Rosner wrote in daily newspaper Ma’ariv. This is especially true for a cause that is controversial to begin with, he added.

While negative publicity may have limited immediate consequences, it could prove disastrous for the settlers in the long run. As the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip proved, many Israelis are willing to support the eviction of settlements if they expect diplomatic or security dividends.

Meanwhile, the rocket attacks that followed the pullout reduced the popular appetite for further withdrawals. But the option of more unilateral moves could be firmly on the table sooner than expected. After all, any potential for a diplomatic resolution of the Palestinian issue has largely evaporated for now.

In a future referendum on settlement evacuation, bitterness over settler violence could push Israelis to vote Yes, or simply to stay home. Ultimately, a radical minority of settlers could end up playing a significant role in shaping Israel’s future in unintended ways.