Israel must unite with new purpose

July 12, 2005|By Alan D. Abbey

TEL AVIV - Israel's disengagement from Gaza, officially set to begin Aug. 17, has begun. And Israelis, never the most patient of people, are moving on to the next controversy: What will be given up next, what will be the Palestinians' reactions and will the country survive the internal struggle?

Pressure from the outside is partly to blame. The United States is pushing for the dismantling of unauthorized outposts throughout the West Bank immediately after the Gaza disengagement. But the larger problem is Israel's unwillingness to deal with the disengagement's real implications.

Departing from Gaza breaks a paradigm that has had at least tacit support here for more than a generation - that the entire "land of Israel" should be part of the Jewish state. The internal question is: What will replace that image?

Disengagement opponents are trying to crack the mainstream viewpoint that leaving Gaza is a good move because it may lead to peace. The irony is that their strong-arm tactics - attacking Palestinians, spreading nails and burning tires on highways and hanging mannequins from highway overpasses - are turning away mainstream public support. The latest polls show backing for the settlers is declining after a steady rise in the last two months.

Out of the limelight, those settlers who are not intimidated into silence by their loud leaders and outside agitators are signing up for new homes and the payments that will help them resettle within Israel proper.

The Palestinian Authority leadership, which stems from Yasser Arafat's Fatah political movement, is thrashing about, unable to organize. Feeling the pressure from the right, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the West's fair-haired boy, is playing to his extreme elements.

Mr. Abbas publicly has called for an end to violence and even has suggested that the era of suicide bombers is over. Yet he has done nothing to disarm extremist and terrorist elements within the Palestinian territories.

The recent rocket and mortar attacks on Jewish communities in and near Gaza are the result. The Palestinian extremist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, don't really want Israel to leave Gaza. How could they rail against the occupation without occupiers in their midst? Even Hezbollah, afraid of being left out, has gotten into the act from Lebanon.

Israeli casualties are mounting, but the Israeli army has held back from major retaliatory moves. So far, the terrorists have not overplayed their hand. More action will bring a harsher reaction by Israel, but the terrorists shouldn't count on scuttling the withdrawal process and gaining a victory.

Mr. Abbas, attempting to appease radical Palestinian elements, has been calling for a continued Palestinian right of return to Israel even after the creation of a Palestinian state. Israelis interpret that as code for denying Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

Apparently uncertain of his ability to survive politically, let alone personally, Mr. Abbas canceled the Palestinian National Council elections that had been scheduled for this month, fearing that Hamas would gather enough political strength to work within the system along with its extracurricular activities. His decision has drawn little comment from Israel or the United States, possibly to play down the PA's problems.

But all of this is merely a backdrop to the internal Israeli debate about the settlement enterprise. The loose consensus that backed Israeli expansion into all of "Greater Israel" in the last 30 years has been broken, but nothing has replaced it. Mainstream Israelis are already concerning themselves with the details of what is to come after withdrawal from Gaza, including whether the Gaza settlers' new mobile homes would damage the sand dunes of a southern Israeli beach or how much money each family would get in compensation.

But mainstream Israel has not dealt with the more politicized radical settlers in both the West Bank and Gaza, many of whom, it seems, will be embittered. That group needs to be brought back into the national consensus. Israel is too small to have a rejectionist element. Even if there is no real threat of civil war, the split is profound.

The split today reflects a division that has been a threatening undercurrent in Israeli life since before Israel became a state in 1948. The split generally has been between pragmatists willing to take what realistically could be achieved, particularly since Israel's overwhelming military victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, and a more ideological element that always wanted more territory. The difference today is that the ideological element has transmuted into a religious, even messianic, movement that dangerously mixes faith and practice with political realities.

Mainstream Israelis need to reorient their thinking, too. The Zionist ideal must be repurposed into a new consensus of an inclusive, creative and technologically advanced democracy whose boundaries are unlimited, even as our borders tighten around us. It won't be easy.

Alan D. Abbey is editor of, an English-language news Web site from Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest newspaper.

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