Territorial Indigestion

By Leonard Fein

Published June 10, 2005, issue of June 10, 2005.
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A reader writes, asking how it is that I have not written about Israel in many weeks. Reasonable question. It’s not because there’s been so much else going on here at home, although there has been; I am quite used to dividing my time and my attention. Nor is it that there’s been no news out of Israel these last weeks; if anything, there’s been more than the already substantial usual. But news, as such, is quite generally available; the increasingly complex challenge is interpreting the news.

Item: Ma’ariv reports that the latest public opinion poll shows a continuing erosion of support for Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement plan. From a high in the 60%-plus range, endorsement of the disengagement has slid to its current 50%, with 38% opposed.

Item: After the latest round of enrollment in the Labor Party, the proportion of kibbutz party members has declined to 10% from 16%, and the proportion of Arab members has risen to 22% from 13% — an increase of 47% since 2002. Israeli Arabs are now the single largest constituency within the Labor Party.

Item: Israel is just now being rocked by what is generally described as the worst business scandal in its history, a massive industrial espionage operation involving some of Israel’s largest and most prestigious corporations.

And then, of course, the usual: a surge in violent crime; former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that he will now vote against implementation of the disengagement; protest rallies and civil disobedience connected with the disengagement, and a halachic ruling by former Sephardic chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu against eating tehina — and halvah, as well — since they are made with toasted sesame seeds in factories owned by non-Jews. Above all, a brooding sense — again, still — of dislocation.

What is one to say about these things? The great contribution of Ariel Sharon is that he has, for the moment, provided a direction, a way away from the sterile status quo. Implicit in his recognition that the occupation, at least in Gaza, is a disaster, is the understanding that for all Israel’s military might, it cannot solve the problem of how to live with its neighbors by force. Force has not worked in Spain or in Sri Lanka, not in Chechnya nor even in Ireland. There is no reason, not even a wall 25 feet high, to assume that it can work in Israel and Palestine.

The Palestinians, some of them, appear to have come to a similar conclusion, so many suicide bombings later. (It may not be a coincidence that all of us, everywhere, are learning nearly daily in Iraq that the supply of suicide bombers is, for all practical purposes, infinite.) That is what makes the present moment pregnant.

But the prospects of a miscarriage remain high, very high. Peace — a negotiated resolution of the conflict — may be, surely is, the only plausible solution to the conflict, but the notion that plausibility is sufficient to drive angry people into the conference room defies experience. In the case of Israel and Palestine, the prospect of a serious peace, a real peace, is seen by very many of the peoples affected as a mirage.

Peace will put an end to terrorism? Peace will put an end to maximalist claims? Listen to Moshe Ya’alon, outgoing chief of staff of the Israeli military, who, in his departure interview with Ha’aretz, warned that the establishment of a Palestinian state will lead to war “at some stage.” The idea that a Palestinian state can be established by 2008, and will then produce stability, is “divorced from reality.” A two-state solution is simply “not relevant.”

Were Sharon a drum major for peace, Ya’alon would likely be proved wrong. But as far as we know, Sharon is merely the embattled “Withdrawer From Gaza.” For that, you don’t even get a statue, let alone a Nobel Prize for Peace. For all the sturm und drang, Gaza is merely the sugary frosting; the West Bank is the cake, and unless Israel is ready, in concert with the Palestinians, to vomit up the cake that has caused it such radical indigestion over the years — you think only toasted sesame seeds are bad for Jews? — Ya’alon’s ominous vision may be the one that prevails.

Improbably, it is Ehud Olmert, the deputy prime minister, who has lately seen the light and has not only become a bold advocate of disengagement but also an insistent advocate of peace, who has dared to speak of the time after Gaza when exceedingly difficult decisions await Israel. Gaza? A convulsion. The West Bank? A nearly impenetrable miasma. And Olmert’s remains a lonely voice within Likud.

Well, that is for the day after tomorrow; for now, it is the frosting that is causing bitter cramps. And none can say even how this chapter will end.

That, roughly, is why I have not written about Israel in recent weeks. Nor will I again until, just three weeks from now, I leave for a visit to Israel, from which I hope to return with at least some good reasons for hope.

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