2 Israeli Candidates Struggle With Nation's Uncertain Future : Parallels The women, running for the Israeli parliament, share little beyond that concern. One sees a two-state solution as hopeless and supports West Bank settlers. The other sees them as an obstacle to peace.

2 Israeli Candidates Struggle With Nation's Uncertain Future

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An Israeli lawmaker is challenging the cost of Israeli settlements. She's questioning towns that Israel built in Palestinian areas. These West Bank settlements are at the heart of a conflict over land which our colleague, Steve Inskeep, has been exploring.


The Israeli lawmaker's name is Stav Shaffir. At age 29, she's among the leading candidates of Israel's Labor Party. A coalition including that Party is challenging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's leadership in next week's election. We asked to meet Stav Shaffir, and she sent word to wait for her on a corner in the coastal city of Tel Aviv.

We're at a coffee shop. It's outdoors in this booth. You sit outdoors on the sidewalk on Ben-Gurion Street. I'm looking at this row of palm trees in the median, looking down towards some glassy towers down the way. It's a strikingly modern city, Tel Aviv. A pedestrian path runs down the street median. And when Stav Shaffir appeared on that path, she was pushing a three-speed bike. She was easy to spot with her curly red hair. We sat at a shaded table near the coffee shop, in sight of a mural declaring, open your mind.

What kind of a neighborhood is this?

STAV SHAFFIR: It's a really nice and calm place, mainly young people and young families, a very old neighborhood. I mean, I - my house is older than Israel and behaves (laughter) like - exactly like that. It's kind of broken.

INSKEEP: Shaffir's coastal city is miles from the West Bank hilltops where Israeli settlers have moved in among Palestinians. Yet, Stav Shaffir sees an economic link between the one place and the other. She says the settlements cost Israel money it could have spent elsewhere. And that matters because of the economic struggles of her own neighborhood.

SHAFFIR: Most people here are on rent, don't own their own houses. It's extremely expensive. It's impossible for our generation. And this is part of the reasons that three and a half years ago, we went to the streets to live in tents.

INSKEEP: Living in tents. In 2011, Shaffir was not a politician but one of a group of activists. They dramatized housing costs by living in a tent city in a street median. It was the year of the Arab Spring and the year of Occupy Wall Street. The Israeli protests spread, demanding change in everything from housing policy to education. In the end, she feels not much happened.

SHAFFIR: It took me personally about a year to understand that the only way to make public's demands into real policy is to get into politics and change things.

INSKEEP: To get involved in the system you didn't like.

SHAFFIR: I felt that we have to take control over our destiny. And to do that, the streets are just not enough.

INSKEEP: So you won election in 2013, right?


INSKEEP: And you were on the Finance Committee.


INSKEEP: So (laughter) you're rolling your eyes...

SHAFFIR: The most interesting part in parliament.

INSKEEP: (Laughter). Why is that? Or are you joking?

SHAFFIR: No, I'm serious. It's really the most interesting part.

INSKEEP: Shaffir contends that her work on the Finance Committee revealed something. She says Israel spends a disproportionate share of its budget to support the 3 or 4 percent of Israelis who live in West Bank settlements. Much of that spending is obvious, just go to a settlement and you see the roads and schools and military protection. But Shaffir said the actual cost is greatly understated. And she recruited volunteers on Facebook to help investigate hidden subsidies. She contends the money is supporting both settlers and right-wing political organizations. Though, she admits she has yet to prove her darkest suspicions. She has made the settlements part of Israel's election debate.

SHAFFIR: The government, for many years now, has an interest to develop the settlements as a place where the cost of living is lower and it's more possible to buy a house and live a normal life, some - in economical terms. That provides a kind of temptation for the non-ideological settlers to move and live there.

INSKEEP: Many settlers would move regardless. They insist that God meant the West Bank to belong to the Jews. Shaffir suspects that government support encourages less committed settlers. Israel has backed the settlements since the 1970s despite U.N. Security Council declarations that the developments have, quote, "no legal validity and are an obstacle to peace." Even today, the settlements carry deep, emotional resonance with Israeli voters. Israel itself was founded, after all, by Jews who came from elsewhere to settle. And even Stav Shaffir speaks of West Bank settlements carefully. She objects less directly to the settlements than she does to their cost.

SHAFFIR: The fact that our budget is being divided in such an unequal way.

INSKEEP: Consuming money she would rather direct to jobs or public transportation or housing within Israel proper. When questioned though, she does see a deeper problem in Israel's possession of the West Bank.

Are you concerned at all about the long-term future of this country?

SHAFFIR: Of course I'm concerned about that. Are we heading into a future of peace and security and securing our future here, which means that we have to separate from the Palestinians and which means that we have to reach an agreement and end the conflict? Or are we going into a future of separation from the international community, a future of keeping the territory no matter what, but losing the Jewish majority in Israel in the long-term future?

INSKEEP: Losing the Jewish majority. If Israel were to formally annex Palestinian lands, Israel might in time be a majority Palestinian state. As we spoke with Stav Shaffir last week in her sunny Tel Aviv neighborhood, something happened that illustrated what's at stake. A sound in the background began to distract us just as she was talking about transforming Israel's politics.

SHAFFIR: More young people who enter the system...


SHAFFIR: More young people get involved...


INSKEEP: What on earth is that?

We were interrupted by the sound of music. A colorfully-dressed woman was playing the music as she pushed a crib on wheels. Six babies rode inside.

SHAFFIR: It's Purim.

INSKEEP: Its Purim, Shaffir explained, a Jewish holiday. Jews annually celebrate their survival from a near catastrophe in ancient times. They do it by playing music or donning Halloween-type costumes or, in some cases, drinking until they can barely stand. Israelis have created a distinct and exuberant culture on the shores of the Mediterranean. Many are now asking how much longer they can sustain it.


GREENE: We're reporting on the struggle for land in the Middle East.

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