In the past, West Bank settlers marketed their presence as of vital importance to national security and strategy. But these threats failed to conquer their audience, and two years ago, Yossi Dagan, assistant to the Samaria Regional Council head and chief of its strategy department, decided to change the tune. He came to the conclusion that the average Israeli preferred to sample fine wine than hear about rockets falling on Tel Aviv, and set himself a goal: to bring as many media personalities and opinion-makers as possible on tours of the West Bank.
The tours are neatly tailored to suit the character of each group. Most of them begin at Bruchin, where guests are told that while the settlement was established in the wake of a government decision and had received most of the required permits, it was still termed an (illegal ) "outpost" by the official report authored by Talia Sasson. Visitors continue to a tasting at the Tura Winery in Rechalim, where they receive a bottle as a gift, intended to show them the high quality of life on the other side of the Green Line. From there they go to the Giv'ot Olam (Hills of Eternity ) organic farm of Avri Ran.
In the past, Ran's farm was synonymous with violence against Palestinians and hostility toward journalists. These days, visitors are invited to sit with Ran's children, drink homemade yogurt and eat omelets made from organic eggs and bread baked on site, while listening to tales of local agriculture and settlement. Dagan has managed to attract many government ministers, as well as media personality Avri Gilad, poet/columnist Menachem Benn and the former head of the Israel Bar Association, Shlomo Cohen.
Following his visit, Benn moved to the Nofim settlement, where he pays NIS 2,800 a month to rent a seven-room house. Gilad, a radio presenter for 25 years, suddenly discovered the West Bank. The day after his visit, he said on Army Radio: "I went on a tour that revolutionized my awareness of settlements in Samaria. I visited places I was raised to detest. I returned in a state of confusion: confused about the injustice done to citizens who were called on by the state to settle, given building permits and then frozen out. I was surprised to meet people with whom I had a lot to talk about, with great warmth and intimacy. Most of the discussion [about settlers] on the left is hatred. What really surprised me was the proximity - 23 minutes and you are deep into the area."
The success of the tours encouraged other groups to launch similar ventures. Boaz Haetzni, a member of the Kiryat Arba branch of the Likud party and son of Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements of Judea, Samaria and Gaza member Elyakim Haetzni, recently began organizing trips to the South Hebron Hills. Yesha Council chairman Danny Dayan has thrown his weight behind the enterprise and established an information center to deal with the topic. Yigal Dilmoni heads this office, which two weeks ago hired a full-time tour guide.
So far the Yesha Council has brought actor Chaim Topol and former finance minister Avraham Shochat (Labor ) on tours, and is working hard on the rocker Aviv Geffen. The office says that Geffen has agreed in principle and they are looking for a suitable date.
Yesha Council director Naftali Bennett told Haaretz: "We don't expect a person with a leftist point of view to come and join a settler youth group. The main goal is to connect to people, to places. In practice, the things that surprise most [visitors] are the type of people who live in Judea and Samaria and the strength of the settlements, which is greater than they imagined. They see the university in Ariel and [the extent of] Gush Etzion, and understand that we are not talking about isolated settlements. Another thing that surprises them is the absence of road blocks on Route 60. And the beauty surprises them, the lack of crowding. People think of a refugee camp, and then they see empty hills. There is enough room for Jews and Arabs for generations to come."
"I think these tours could bring about a strategic change," says Bennet. "The main goal is that the guys sitting in Rishon Letzion and Tel Aviv conducting an argument should know what they are talking about. Judea and Samaria have been the main topic on the agenda for 30 years now, and I want people to know what they are talking about."
Journalist Meron Rapoport participated in a tour two weeks ago, and was treated to wine and cheese. "In some of the places, Yitzhar or Itamar, secular journalists are not received with open arms or can run into violence," Rapoport said. "This was almost the only way I could go there and hear what these people have to say."
"On the other hand, it seemed to me that the other side also wanted to listen, not [necessarily] to be convinced. Part of the trip was a visit to [the illegal outpost] Givat Hayovel, and in one home they said, 'From here you can see [the] Azrieli [towers in Tel Aviv].' I told them there may not be a single home in the settlement from which you can't see Azrieli, but from there - they don't see you. The moral of the story is that while there is a certain amount of admiration for settlers, they don't really interest Israelis. In Eli there is an obsession with what people in the Azrieli towers think, but in Azrieli, it doesn't really matter. That's the lesson of this story."
In order to deal with the large numbers of people they plan to bring, a workshop was held at the Binyamin Regional Council last week, to train council workers to guide tours. Council spokeswoman Tamar Asraf says that "of course many tours have been taking place and will take place. There are large groups, Likud party branches and even synagogue groups. We are making sure that a representative of the council will be on each bus, to represent the inhabitants: not someone with the knowledge of a field school guide, but someone who can give information, the extra that a guide cannot impart. I call it breaking stereotypes: what people do for a living, social statistics, stories about people and places. In Shilo, for example, the tour guide offers an historic survey. I want guides who tell stories about what is happening today."
Samaria Regional Council head Gershon Masika adds that "Following the expulsion from Gush Katif, I came to a few conclusions. The first is that the fate of the country is decided in the fields of politics and media. And so we are making a huge effort in these areas, in order to end the intolerable situation in which settlements are hounded. Settlement's biggest enemy is ignorance. That's the place where prejudice takes hold, fertile ground for hatred and blood libels against us. We can change this situation through these tours. No one remains unchanged by such a visit."