Some 20 years ago, Ehud Olmert — now deputy prime minister of Israel, recently mayor of Jerusalem, back then a rising star in Israel’s right-wing firmament — was among the principal speakers at a United Jewish Appeal event in Silverado, a lovely retreat center in northern California. One day, the two of us took a long walk, during which we discussed and debated the wisdom of Israel’s policies vis a vis its Palestinian neighbors. “What’s your hurry,” Olmert asked. “Time is on our side. Who can say whether conditions in the region won’t make peace on our terms easier 20 or 30 or even 50 years from now?”
These days, Olmert has become the right wing’s most active champion of disengagement from the zones of occupation, of a withdrawal from more than the token four West Bank outposts that Sharon has pledged to abandon some- time next year: “The four settlements we evacuate in Samaria will not be the last. If the process develops, we will evacuate many more — not because we want to, but to reduce our daily altercations with the rest of the world. This is necessary if we want to remain a democratic, Jewish state. The occupation of Palestinian territory is eroding Israel’s international standing…. The United States is virtually our only friend, so we must remember that it, too, supports a withdrawal almost to the borders of 1967.”
A growing number of Israelis have lately and, alas, belatedly, like Olmert, come to understand that if Israel is to remain in any meaningful sense a Jewish and democratic state, it cannot continue to include within its boundaries the more than 3 million Palestinians who live in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel’s options today are even more stark than they were 20 and more years ago: Retain the territories and their inhabitants, and you end up with either an apartheid state or, if you grant all those Palestinians Israeli citizenship, a state with a thin and receding Jewish majority. Or: Let go of the territories. And the questions that now preoccupy not only Israel’s strategic thinkers, but also many of its citizens, is how to get out of Gaza and the West Bank — to let go of the territories — in a way that does not force Israel to withdraw from the larger settlement blocs and cities it has built there and that does not rend Israeli society itself.
It is this last question that now bedevils debate within Israel. For Olmert’s grand mistake in assuming time was on Israel’s side, a mistake in which he was joined by much of Israel’s leadership on both the right and the left, was to assume that Israel’s own actions would not complicate its eventual capacity for compromise.
Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister and father of the putative withdrawal from Gaza, is also midwife to a settlement movement that has deposited nearly a quarter of a million people into the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. Some are there because of the cleaner air, some because of the subsidized housing, but many are there because they believe that is where Jews belong. It is they who constitute the “settlers’ movement.”
And it is they, together with their allies in the national religious movement, who today provide some 30% of the officers’ corps of Israel’s ground forces and 30% of Israel’s front-line troops.
In short, the West Bank from which Olmert wants Israel to withdraw and from which Sharon says, with rather less credibility, he wants to withdraw, is not the same West Bank that existed 20 years ago, and the Israeli military is not the same force it was 20 years ago. If, indeed, the political echelon ever gets its act together and moves from talk of withdrawal to actual withdrawal, it is likely that it will likely face militant organized opposition.
The growing fear within Israel is even more immediate and more sinister. According to Avi Dichter, head of Israel security agencies, there are “between 150 and 200 Jews who actively wish for the death of the prime minister [i.e., Sharon].” They have been encouraged by the bloated and reckless rhetoric of some right-wing politicians and some right-wing rabbis. One can read their comments in a dozen different places on the Web; they are quite shameless in their descriptions of Sharon as a “traitor” and in their invocation of Jewish law as a justification for his assassination.
But even if we are spared that horrific possibility, we are left with a well-armed settler population that will not be removed easily. That, in addition to a lingering emotional ambivalence, is why any serious withdrawal post-Gaza plan is likely to be so massively scaled back as to leave the core dispute intact.
The solution to which Sharon is publicly committed is explicitly an “interim” solution, one intended to enhance Israel’s security and to stave off escalating condemnation of its behavior, including the possibility of sanctions, while circumstances change and a new and perhaps more tractable Palestinian leadership emerges.
But what if, with each passing year, a real resolution of the chronic conflict continues to become more, rather than less, difficult? Settlers more numerous and more adamant, the world more hostile and determined, the threats against a leadership that moves toward moderation even more immediate than now; can anyone — save, perhaps, for the militant settlers — plausibly claim that time is on Israel’s side? On both sides, new generations come of age, suckled on new poisons — against which neither time nor fences are adequate antidotes. In short, when circumstances change, they do not always change in the direction you prefer.
Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).