Israelis Search for New Consensus, Vision

By Gal Beckerman

Published July 22, 2005, issue of July 22, 2005.
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TEL AVIV — Two billboards dominate the Israeli street in these final weeks leading up to the disengagement. One, in the ubiquitous construction cone orange that has become the brand of the anti-disengagement forces, reads, “Jews do not expel Jews.” The other, in the patriotic blue and white that the pro-disengagement groups have chosen as their counter-colors, proclaims, “Sharon, the nation is with you. Continue.”

All you need is five minutes on any corner in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and a basic knowledge of Hebrew to understand a critical problem confronting the supporters of the disengagement plan.

Look at the two slogans: The anti-disengagement one is highly dramatic, loaded with Holocaust subtext and the hint of civil war. It captures the moral outrage of the settlement movement, as well as the fear that after Gaza comes the whole West Bank, and after the West Bank, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Next to it, the pro-disengagement sentiment seems limp — an expression of support that is more for Sharon than for his plan. There’s no real passion, no encapsulating vision. It’s easy enough to conclude that one side is against the disengagement while the other is for Sharon.

And yet, according to several polls, a majority of Israelis — about 60% — do support the disengagement. And they support it for the most basic reason — they see any lessening of the occupation as desirable, especially in Gaza, where the settler to Palestinian ratio is 1:180. But, just like the billboard, this support is flat, passive and without conviction.

Much of this has to do with the intifada. Without the prospect of peace on the other end of the equation, it’s hard for Israelis to get excited about the pullout. But that’s not the main problem. The real problem is that from the moment Sharon announced the plan in December 2003, no one in the political establishment has bothered to explain what its objectives are. It has not been placed in a greater context. No larger vision is being articulated. Sharon himself seems confused. Some days the plan is a result of his waking up from the dream of greater Israel, as he frequently repeats to interviewers. Other times it is simply a way of strengthening Israel’s hold on the West Bank or, as Dov Weisglass, his chief adviser, has put it, placing the peace process in “formaldehyde.”

What are the objectives of this withdrawal and the traumatic uprooting that it will leave in its wake? Is the Land of Israel finally being divided? Is this the beginning of a process or the end of one? And if it’s the beginning, what then are the parameters of this new Zionist project? How much can be done unilaterally, without a Palestinian partner? How far does Israel need to pull back? What will the world accept and support? Where will Israel go the day after?

These questions are not being uttered by Sharon, and their answers certainly do not appear on any billboard, but to Ha’aretz journalist Ari Shavit, a journalist at Ha’aretz whose new book,” Dividing the Land,” attempts to provide the missing context and vision, these are the questions that must be asked — and asked now.

Shavit believes that this is a “Ben-Gurionian moment.” In these months, before the disengagement, before international pressure builds for further withdrawal, it is time to get serious and develop a new “Israeli idea,” to figure out a way to divide the land in the absence of peace. To “divide the land so that Israel can live,” he writes.

“A new Israeli idea, solid, consensual, here and now, can have an effect,” he said in a prominent Ma’ariv profile. “Now they will listen to us. Next year, probably not.”

Since its publication in early June, “Dividing the Land” has been the talk of the Tel Aviv intelligentsia, and it’s importance has quickly leaked out into the broader culture.

Shavit, renowned as an interviewer in the Israeli press, talked with 33 prominent Israelis from across the political spectrum about the disengagement and the day after. These conversations make up the bulk of the book, but it’s really the last 40 pages that are provoking discussion. In them, Shavit summarizes what his interviewees told him. He places contradictory views next to each other, tries to find their commonalities and then, in a systematic way, articulates this new consensual idea.

The interviews themselves are full of mixed emotions about the pullout. Most end up supporting the disengagement but surround their support with, at times, almost apocalyptic caveats. So much so that in early June, Ma’ariv, generally though of as right-leaning, was able to pull quotes out of the book by supporters of the disengagement for an article headlined “Look Who’s Criticizing the Disengagement.”

It turns out that everyone is criticizing the disengagement. For example, this quote from former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon, certainly on the left end of the spectrum, was excerpted in the Ma’ariv piece: “The disengagement is worrisome. It is a terrible mistake to leave Nisanit and Elei Sinai [two northern Gaza settlements], it is a terrible mistake…. It is highly probable that shortly after the implementation of the disengagement, the violence will begin anew. The year 2006 is likely to bring an additional cycle of violence.”

But Ma’ariv failed to note that in Shavit’s book, a few comments later, Ayalon said: “I support the disengagement program. I support it because it is an expression of the majority’s will, interested in a process that will lead to the end of occupation.”

With the exception of Yossi Beilin, who stands ready and waiting with his Geneva initiative, and Zev Chever (Zembish) of the Settler’s Council who accepts no retreat, the majority of Shavit’s interviewees sound a lot like Ayalon, believing in unilateral withdrawal and separation but with deep apprehension. Where they vary is in the amount of threat they think a pullout will provoke, how much of the occupied territories should be included within Israel’s borders, when this should happen and what level of cooperation is possible with the Palestinians.

For Shavit, solving the conflict means simultaneously eliminating its two basic elements: both the existential threat to Israelis and the occupation of the Palestinians. Removing the occupation, in principle, is easy, he writes. Israel simply leaves the occupied territories. Removing the threat is not so easy. Peace used to be the quid pro quo, but a final agreement, now, after the Intifada, is impossible.

Still, even without peace, and with the continuance and even amplification of threat, Israel has no choice but to withdraw, Shavit writes. It is simply a question of Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state. What disengagement offers, he thinks, is a mitigation of the threat.

“The disengagement plan was engendered to provide an answer to the trap of occupation or threat,” Shavit writes. “Fundamentally, the answer of disengagement is this: promoting a limited move toward terminating the occupation in which the risks of the threat embodied in the move are also limited.”

But Shavit also believes that this move cannot be the end. Disengagement from the West Bank must be next. If the Palestinians can accept Israel as a state with a Jewish majority, giving up on the right of return, then it’s a pullback to 1967 borders. Since Shavit thinks this Palestinians of this generation is incapable of making such a concession, he suggests Israel create its own border based on its security needs, leaving what he estimates will be 80% to 90 % of the West Bank. If articulated now, he supposes this plan could gain international support. After the Gaza pullout, he is not so sure.

To be clear, Shavit has no illusions that any of this will take place peacefully, that the disengagement will bring any easy salvation. In fact, he writes, “On its way to creating a new, more correct order, the process of ending the occupation is liable to create disorder.” Israelis must be ready for qassams, and to understand why the pullout can be considered a success despite them.

Shavit’s idea is popular because it’s not dreamy. It repudiates the illusions of the right and the left. No peace and no greater Israel. It is the voice of what Shavit himself calls the “third way,” Israelis who are full of disillusionment with the Palestinians yet refuse to continue carrying the moral, political and financial burden of occupation.

These are not ideas that translate easily into slogans. But maybe that’s the point. This is not a time for politicking or emotionalism, Shavit said. “Israel is about to undergo open heart surgery. The historic significance is incredible. If we don’t withdraw, we die. If we withdraw poorly, we will be taking an incredible risk. A situation like this calls for seriousness, it calls for sobriety.”

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