SAMARIA – I am in Samaria, the northern half of the West Bank, inside a cement shed in a drab industrial park loaded with high-tech equipment, hearing a harangue by a fiftyish fellow wearing a knit skullcap , a torn t-shirt, shorts and sandals. His name is Amichai Lourie, and he points to a slim glass container holding an ominous-looking amber liquid.
“I’ll never do it again,” sighs Lourie. “I had to sleep in the vineyard and tell the growers exactly when to harvest every bunch of grapes. But I ended up with 8% residual sugar. Chardonnay is a tough grape for a late harvest wine. Getting the sugar is one thing, but it’s especially hard to get the right balance of fruit acid.” Clearly this man is a dangerous fanatic.
Lourie is referring to a late harvest Chardonnay dessert wine wrung out of the Samarian hills, one of wine-making’s trickiest products in a region that has made wine for less than a generation, in the present millennium, that is. His specialty is Merlot.
“It’s an unforgiving grape. With Cabernet, you can make a mistake or two and still get a decent wine, but Merlot requires perfection from harvest to fermenting to aging.” Anything easier wouldn’t interest the Pennsylvania-born vintner, who won’t be deprived of the chance to be part of a miracle.
Wine might seem a distraction as the Oslo accords disintegrate. Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is threatening to annual the 20-year-old foundation for the “peace process.” Now that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi has embraced Hamas – the Brotherhood’s Palestinian wing – over the protests of the Palestine Authority,  the Fatah-led PA has lost its main Arab supporter. Earlier this month, West Bank Palestinians rioted against the PA over economic grievances.
In vino veritas, though not in the way the proverb is usually understood. Wine has geopolitical significance on the West Bank. Samaria’s wine boutiques help explain why the Jewish presence in ancient Judea and Samaria has become a permanent fact of life in the region. Like Mr. Lourie, the winemakers of Samaria are on a mission from God. The region is in ferment, but not the way you might think.
When the first settlers reclaimed the wasteland in what now is known as the West Bank late in the 19th century, they wondered whether grapes had ever grown in the region. Perhaps the beverage to which the Bible referred was something other than wine? In fact, the combination of seasonal rainfall captured in limestone rock, cold nights and hot days works wonders. The settlers plant the usual varietals. They haven’t isolated enough DNA from ancient grape pits to recreate biblical vines, yet.
Lourie’s Shiloh winery took the top prizes at Israel’s main wine competition, but he’s one of several settler-vintners who set out to turn what the international media call the Occupied West Bank into Israel’s Napa Valley. Next door to his winery, ancient Israel kept the Ark of the Covenant for the 400 years preceding King David’s conquest of Jerusalem in BCE 1000. Judah Maccabee routed his first Greek column. Beth-El, where Jacob dreamed of angels going to and from heaven is on the next hill.
Ten minutes from Shiloh is the Psagot Winery, already equipped with a tasting cellar and historical sound and light shows. It offers different grades; all are workmanlike, but the artisanal single-vineyard Cabernet is brilliant.
The beaten track of tourism hasn’t made it to Samaria yet, but that is about to change. Add a few visitors’ centers with slick archaeological shows, and a couple of restaurants attached to the wineries with celebrity kosher chefs, and the contest region will blossom into a cross between Napa Valley and a biblical theme park.
There are lots of ways to expel armies, but no-one has yet discovered a way to keep away tourists. Samaria attracted a trickle of 40,000 tourists last year, and except for the Psagot facility, there were few places for them to spend money. The mix of biblical history and high-end winemaking, though, might prove irresistible. Shiloh, ancient Israel’s capital during the four centuries before David’s conquest of Jerusalem, will have its first multimedia visitor’s center next year. In a year or two, some of the wineries will have Napa-style restaurants. One can almost hear the distant thunder of tour buses roaring up Route 60.
The improbable growth of what began as religious settlements – in the face of the universal opprobrium of enlightened opinion – is one of the stranger stories in modern politics. Except for the unobtrusive but tight security, the West Bank towns that house 360,000 Jewish residents have the staid air of long-established suburbs. Home prices in the settlements are rising and converging on comparable properties west of the Green Line, and some towns have a long waiting list of prospective residents.
To the casual observer, only their elevation distinguishes the so-called settlements from ordinary suburbs. The Palestinian Arabs who comprise just 5% of the population in the Oslo Accord’s Area C, where virtually all Jews east of the Green Line reside, build in the valleys. Overlooking Shiloh and the ongoing grape harvest is the township of Eli, a group of interconnecting villages. “We build on the hilltops, the Arabs live in the valleys. That’s because we have to worry about defending ourselves, and know they don’t” explains Eli’s security officer, a reservist in the Golani Brigade.
There is a sizeable contingent of secular Jews in Samaria who came for the mountain air and manageable costs, but most adhere to the Dati Leumi, or national-religious movement. Two out of five Israeli army officers come from this movement, and each town has a yeshiva that prepares prospective officers and provides continuing Jewish education. Thirty of these academies recruit and prepare religious youth for officer training.
The national-religious contingent has a love affair with the land and a deep sense of its sanctity. They put the same passion into cultivation, with striking results. The best Samaria wines have more in common with great European wines than with the consistent, pleasant products of California: they have a unique terroir, or earthiness, the idiosyncratic complexity that comes from a special combination of soil and climate. The vintners want the biblical earth to bear witness to its special blessing. That’s what keeps Shiloh’s Lourie up all night in the vineyards during harvest.
From the back yard of her hilltop home in Eli, Tamar Asraf points to green vineyards below the hill of Shiloh. “That’s where the girls danced in the vineyards at harvest time,” she says, citing Judges 21. The Bible reports winemaking two and a half millennia ago. When the first Jewish settlers came to the area late in the 19th century, no grape had grown there for nearly two thousand years. Archaeologists in the meantime have discovered hundreds of wine presses in Samaria.
“It’s a pleasure to be at the center of all the evil in the world,” I greet the diminutive woman, who is the public affairs officer for the Eli township. In the idiom of modern diplomacy, the 360,000 Jews in Samaria are responsible for all the violence in the region. The search terms “settlements” and “obstacle to peace” yield nearly a million Google hits. Boycotts of West Bank products are promulgated at diplomatic meetings and campus gatherings around the world. But standing in Ms. Asraf’s back yard on a 1,000-meter hilltop, the narrative seems insane.
She points west. “There’s Tel Aviv,” an easy half-hour commute from the Samaria settlements. She pivots and indicates the east. “There’s Amman.” The distances are negligible. It’s as if Buda occupied Pest, or Minneapolis occupied St. Paul. The idea that the world’s problems hinge on a small number of people clustered in a tiny space is either prima facie proof of epidemic dementia, or a way of changing the subject.
Ms. Asraf wants to talk about the economic prospects for the region. Israel has supported the settlements as a bulwark against hostile encroachment on its core territory. Artillery on a few West Bank hills could hit anything in Tel Aviv as well as the country’s main airport.
Few Israelis still think that conceding territory to the Palestinians will bring peace. Even those who favor land for peace are inclined to argue that less peace merits less land. When then-Prime Minister Sharon withdrew Israeli forces from Gaza unilaterally in 2005, a former aide explained, he expected the enclave to turn into a terrorist haven shooting rockets into Israel – and foresaw that the Gaza disaster would persuade the Israeli public to hold onto the West Bank at all costs. I don’t oppose a two-state solution as a matter of principle, but the point is long since moot.
A bone of contention in Israeli politics, though, has been the cost of supporting the settlers. According to a recent study by the left-center newspaper Ha’aretz,  civilian costs (excluding the military presence) amount to about US$2,500 per settler. Whether that estimate is accurate, it’s a lot.
“We have to focus on economics,” Ms. Asraf states, and the greatest potential is in tourism. This is the biblical heartland, just half an hour by bus from Jerusalem. It is arresting hill country, with historic associations at every turn in the road. The Christian pilgrims who pack Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorosa well might take an afternoon on the Road of the Patriarchs, with a wine-tasting from biblical vineyards. For someone who takes Hebrew Scripture in earnest, like this writer, the mixture of taste, sight and memory is heady stuff.
Once there are service industry jobs, the local Arabs will start to benefit.That benefit is already visible at Ariel University, located in Samaria’s largest city. The campus would look like a modest branch of an American state university, except for the large number of girls in Muslim headscarves. West Bank Arabs, I calculated in 2009, had double the per capita income of Egyptians. After the civil war in Syria and the collapse of Egypt’s economy, the West Bank will stand out as an oasis of Arab prosperity. Nothing will entirely assuage the humiliation Arabs feel at the Israeli presence, but economic benefits help make it bearable. A biblical version of Napa Valley could feed the Israeli treasury rather than drain it.
What about all the people who are looking to the settlements for a solution to the world’s problems?, I asked Ms. Asraf. “Sometimes you have to live without a solution,” she replies. In a way, the settlers are a last redoubt of realism. The local situation is hopeless, but not serious, and the region’s future belongs to those who dig in and get on with life.
1. Hamas’ Relations With Egypt Change with Morsi’s Leadership, AL Monitor, Aug 26, 2012.
2. Settlements cost NIS 2.5B. a year in non-military outlays, Ha’aretz, Sep 23, 2012.
3. This has been amended from an earlier version.