Those of us who watch the Middle East anxiously from afar may suppose that the latest explosion of violence is just another round in a never-ending cycle of rage and slaughter. Israelis and Arabs have been killing each other for generations, and we assume they will carry on killing for generations to come, until one side or the other becomes — depending on your point of view — exhausted, or more aware of the other’s humanity, or more civilized. In the meantime, we tell ourselves, Israelis will stand united, determined to survive in a world that offers no solutions. Life in the Middle East goes on, harsh and unchanging as the desert. So it appears from afar.
A visitor to Israel this summer finds no such measured imperturbability. There is a sense of urgency in Israel today, a sense — on all sides of the deeply divided spectrum — that things are coming to a head. Israel must make choices, and soon.
The choices are ones Israelis have been loath to take up till now because they would entail confronting the zealots in their midst and abandoning one or another of Israel’s most sacred myths. And so they have chosen not to choose, seeking instead to maintain the status quo and hope for the best. But the status quo is no longer tenable, as Avraham Burg argues in his Page 1 opinion essay this week.
The reasons for the urgency are twofold. One is demographic: the fact that within 10 years from now, 20 at most, the areas now under Israeli sovereignty or control, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, will have an Arab majority. At that point, if Israel has not withdrawn from the territories it captured in 1967, it will have to choose whether to grant the Palestinians in the territories the vote and become a binational state, or to continue its military rule and allow itself to become an apartheid state. Either of those options will, as Burg writes, spell the end of Zionism.
The second reason for the sense of urgency is the growing violence of the conflict. Three years of horrific Palestinian terrorism have convinced most Israelis that they have no partner for peace on the other side. Despairing of a negotiated end to the conflict, Israelis have looked to Prime Minister Sharon to end the terror by military means. But three years of iron-fisted military measures have not made Israelis more secure. On the contrary, military measures have only fueled the rage that produces the terrorism. The result is more bombings, prompting more crackdowns, leading to more rage, more murder and so on.
Israel has other choices. It can separate itself from its foes by withdrawing from the territories — with or without an agreement — and barricading itself behind a stout wall. That’s the approach favored by close to four-fifths of Israelis in poll after poll. It’s opposed mainly by the settlers and their allies on the right, who still hope to keep the entire biblical land of Israel under Israeli rule. They have come in increasing numbers to advocate another form of separation: mass expulsion of the Palestinians. That will turn Israel and Israelis into moral pariahs for a century and perhaps touch off an Islamic holy war on a scale previously unimagined. Transfer advocates know this, but they think it is worth it. Their hope is that if they can stall a withdrawal long enough, their scenario will become inevitable.
Those who want to leave the territories — Israelis and international supporters alike — have been watching the bloodshed and drift with a growing sense of helplessness and anger over the past three years. They know that Israel’s government could have taken steps — beginning with a fence — to reduce the bloodshed and move Israel toward separation. But they have been reluctant to speak out. They know that the blame for murder properly rests with the murderers. Those who fail to prevent murder bear a different and lesser responsibility. While the blood was fresh and the killers remained active, few wanted to point fingers at the incompetence of the defenders.
That is what has changed this summer. In growing numbers, Israelis are speaking out now. Moments after last week’s grisly bus bombing in Jerusalem, Israeli television news interviewed the founding director of Israel’s national security council, Major General Uzi Dayan, who declared through clenched teeth that the women and children whose blood was fresh on the street would not have died if Israel’s government had completed the long-stalled separation fence. Israel’s leaders did not set off the bomb, but they could have stopped it and did not.
Readers may be startled by the vehemence of Avraham Burg’s cri de coeur on Page 1 and may wonder at the Forward’s decision to publish it. But Burg is no extremist. His anger and frustration over the impasse and drift are shared by a vast and growing number of Israelis. Israel’s friends in this country may not choose to join them, but they need to hear them.