psagot, west bank | Inside the cool of a cavernous wine cellar stacked high with oak barrels of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, the tensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem to fade away even at this Jewish settlement in the heart of the West Bank.
This is precisely the message a stop at the Psagot Boutique Winery is meant to convey.
It’s part of a new strategy by settler leaders to “rebrand” settlements, offering tours of settlement communities in a bid to win over an Israeli public they fear may have abandoned them either through apathy or outright hostility.
“Most people don’t realize how regular our lives here are. People wake up in the morning, go to work and are not engaged in the world of politics,” said Yigal Dilmoni, who directs the newly created information office for the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella organization, which is organizing the tours.
The tours are meant to strike a stark contrast to what Dilmoni described as the common media image of settlers as violent radicals on the prowl for brawls with neighboring Palestinians.
For the Yesha Council, the significance of not having the Israeli public behind the settlement project hit home in wake of the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, when some 8,000 Jewish settlers were evacuated, some forcibly. It was a traumatic episode for the settler movement — not only because of the evacuation, but also because there was no broad Israeli uproar against it.
It was a lesson, too, in the important role played by opinion makers — journalists, media personalities and business leaders — in shaping Israeli society’s views, settler leaders said.
Avri Gilad, a well-known Israel media personality, told listeners on a radio show the day after he returned from such a tour that it dramatically changed his view of the settlements.
“I went on a tour that revolutionized my awareness of settlements in Samaria,” he said on the show. “I visited places I was raised to detest … I was surprised to meet people with whom I had a lot to talk about, with great warmth and intimacy.”
About 320,000 Israeli Jews live in the West Bank. They believe the land is their biblical birthright, and successive Israeli governments have supported that notion. But the land also is territory that Palestinians claim as their future state.
The settlements are viewed as illegal by much of the international community and a threat to the country’s long-term survival by critics inside Israel. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recent pulled out of relaunched peace talks when Israel did not extend a 10-month freeze on construction in settlements that expired Sept. 26.
In the past, when settlers gave tours the focus was on security and the role of their homes as strategic buffers because they sit on the mountain range overlooking the Mediterranean coastal strip to the west and Jordan to the east.
Now a “softer,” more human-interest spotlight has been purposefully chosen, one in which visitors can do a wine tasting at the winery in Psagot, part of a new multimillion-dollar visitors’ center for the Binyamin region that was scheduled to open last month.
The itinerary for the settlement tours also includes home visits. At the edge of the settlement of Eli, home to 700 families, a woman named Eliana Passentin, 36, stands in her backyard overlooking an expanse of sloping terraced hillsides and speaks of her passion for living alongside the history of the Bible.
Passentin describes how her home, located in a neighborhood the Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled was built illegally and has ordered to be razed, was built with the area’s history in mind.
“The dining room windows look out onto Shiloh,” she said, “and from the living room we can see the site of Judah Maccabee’s first and then final battle.”