ELON MOREH, West Bank (AP) — Israel's democracy has long been a point of pride for its citizens — setting the country apart in a region of autocratic governments. But veteran settler leader Benny Katzover says democracy is getting in the way of what he believes is a higher purpose.
Katzover has been at the forefront of a religiously inspired movement to take over the West Bank, hilltop by hilltop, helping build a network of settlements over four decades that are now home to hundreds of thousands of Israelis.
Today he argues that democratic principles, such as equality before the law, have become an obstacle to deepening Jewish control over all of the biblical Land of Israel — though he stops short of calling for dismantling Israel's democratic institutions. They are disintegrating on their own, he says, and losing legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
"We didn't come here to establish a democratic state," Katzover said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We came here to return the Jewish people to their land."
Katzover's comments appear to reflect a growing radicalization among some right-wing religious groups. They come at a time of a rise in attacks on Palestinians by vigilante settlers and an increase in complaints by liberal Israelis that the country's right-wing parliament and government have launched an unprecedented attack on the pillars of democracy. Israel has preserved its democratic system through decades of turmoil, though it never extended it to Palestinians in occupied lands.
Katzover, 64, led the first group of settlers into the northern West Bank in the 1970s and helped establish the settlement of Elon Moreh in 1980. Like other prominent settlers, he has been a confidant and informal adviser to a string of prime ministers over the years.
Katzover remains influential among hardcore activists and heads the Committee of Samaria Settlers, a group that tries to block government attempts to raze any of the about 100 unauthorized settlement outposts or uproot settlers as part of a future — and for now very remote — partition deal with the Palestinians.
"Across the country, these ideas, that democracy needs dramatic change, if not dismantling then at least dramatic change, these ideas are very widespread," he said in his modest home in Elon Moreh, a settlement of 2,000 people with a sweeping view of the West Bank hills the Palestinians want as the core of their future state.
The mainstream settlers' umbrella group, the Yesha Council, distanced itself from Katzover's comments, first made in a small ultra-Orthodox publication and picked up by Israel's liberal Haaretz daily earlier this month. The Yesha Council is firmly committed to democratic principles, said its chairman, Dani Dayan. But Katzover claims he's expressing publicly what many others, including more mainstream settler leaders, think privately.
Yair Sheleg of the Israel Democracy Institute said the radicalization of hardline settlers accelerated after Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Israel uprooted nearly two dozen settlements, including four in the northern West Bank, and the operation was deeply traumatic for the settler movement.
Sheleg said he was surprised by Katzover's tough tone, if not the content of his remarks.
"We should be very worried," he said. "Benny Katzover was considered to be historically one of the mainstream leaders of the settler movement, and this really illustrates the way, the very far way, those mainstream settler leaders went."
The trend has been accompanied by a sharp rise in settler attacks on Palestinians and their property since 2009, including the torching of mosques, setting fire to fields, cutting down orchards and stoning cars. According to new U.N. figures, there were 412 attacks on property and people in 2011, compared to 168 in 2009.
The attacks are part of a tactic called "price tag." They are carried out in response to attempts by the Israeli military to raze even parts of settlement outposts set up since the 1990s to prevent a partition deal. Perpetrators are rarely caught or punished, though recent price tag vandalism at an Israeli army base prompted government pledges to be tougher.
The price tag assailants are usually portrayed as young hotheads, or the most radical among the so-called "hilltop youths" that have been setting up the outposts.
The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, citing internal documents, alleged last week that Katzover's group is a key force promoting the price tag policy. Katzover denied any involvement, saying he opposes "price tag" attacks as damaging to the settlement cause.
But he refused to denounce the practice, arguing he wants to keep an open line to the most radical in hopes of having a moderating influence.
Katzover is a founder of Gush Emunim, the spearhead of the Jewish settlement movement that sprang up in the 1970s and over the years garnered considerable political clout.
Gush Emunim followers believed even then in the supreme importance of settling the land, including the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and sought by the Palestinians for their state.
Gush Emunim's original vision of hundreds of thousands of Israelis settling in the West Bank has largely come true, mainly because of massive backing by successive Israeli governments.
Katzover says the accomplishments of the movement, including the establishment of 150 government-sanctioned settlements, "shaped the map" of Israel by preventing a withdrawal to the pre-1967 war frontiers.
Establishment of a Palestinian state, seen by the international community as a cornerstone of Mideast peace, would require the removal of a majority of the settlements or their incorporation into Palestine. As the settler population continues to grow, partition is pushed further out of reach.
There's now a critical mass to prevent a withdrawal from the West Bank heartland as well, he said. "I don't believe there is a government that will take upon itself the responsibility to mark 100,000 people for expulsion," he said.