Tel Aviv

Given the scenes we’ve been witnessing coming out of Gaza, can anyone imagine that back in 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day War, then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan gave an order not to occupy the Gaza Strip, and that a half-year earlier, the heads of the Mossad and Israeli military intelligence agreed that if the opportunity arose, Israel should not occupy the West Bank? They all knew that occupation of so many Palestinians would cause a tremendous amount of trouble.

Of course, the mystical euphoria produced by the overwhelming victory in 1967 caused the Israeli government to ignore that wise advice. And the three no’s that emanated soon afterward from the Arab League conference in Khartoum–no to talks, negotiations and peace with the Israelis–didn’t help matters.

Still, until the 1973 Yom Kippur War, only a few thousand settlers had moved into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It was the shock of the sudden surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, and the sense of vulnerability it produced, that led to the establishment of the religious Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) settlers’ movement in 1974. Inspired by Orthodox Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook’s belief that the victory in the Six-Day War was divinely inspired and the beginning of salvation, the young founders of Gush Emunim concluded that the establishment of settlements throughout the occupied territories was the only way to maintain control over “Greater Israel.” They felt they were in a race against time, and one of their primary allies at the government level was Ariel Sharon, who served at various times as security adviser to Prime Minister Rabin (in the 1970s), agricultural minister, defense minister and infrastructure minister.

And now, in one of the great ironies of history, Prime Minister Sharon, the “father of the settlement project,” has been cast in the role of being the leader who takes the first step toward a return to sanity in Israeli politics.

This is no small matter. All of the previous prime ministers who could have done this didn’t. Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir lost the 1992 elections because he refused to listen to one of his own ministers who recommended that he declare his readiness to leave Gaza. When settler Baruch Goldstein, a follower of Meir Kahane, tried to derail the peace process by murdering twenty-nine Palestinians in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin didn’t use the opportunity to evacuate the extremist Jewish settler community from the heart of Hebron. And Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was ready to give the Palestinians all of Gaza and, by many accounts, around 90 percent of the West Bank at Camp David II in the summer of 2000, wasn’t ready to remove a single settler until after an agreement was signed.

Sharon was the founder of the Likud combination of parties back in 1977. It was his initiative that enabled the right to wrest control of the government from the Labor movement for the first time in Israeli history. However, the totally secular Sharon was not nurtured on messianic visions, or on the traditional Jabotinsky-Revisionist belief that “both sides of the Jordan” were part of “Greater Israel.” Born on a moshav, a collective-agricultural settlement, he was raised in the pragmatic Labor tradition of settling for what the state can get, while insuring a maximum amount of security. It’s not coincidental that in the midst of what will probably become his defining moment in history, he refers back to Laborites David Ben-Gurion and Dayan, and not to the right-wing ideologue Vladimir Jabotinsky.

Whatever his motives, Sharon’s act will have historic repercussions.

The settlers are claiming that his act is a betrayal of the Zionist enterprise, of their God-given right to all of the “Land of Israel.” On the contrary–the founders of modern Zionism rebelled against the traditional religious belief that the Messiah would take care of everything. They believed that in an age of national self-determination, the persecuted Jews should take their fate into their own hands. The idea was to reconstitute Jewish nationhood in the historical homeland. But God, the Messiah and biblical commandments had nothing to do with it. As the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence states: “The Land of Israel/Palestine was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.” There is also no mention of God in the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva” (The Hope), only a 2,000-year-old longing “to be a free nation…in the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” And true freedom means that one does not deprive another nation of its freedom.

The settlers and their rabbinical patrons are living in a world of delusion, like fundamentalists everywhere, whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. In the past few months, when it became clear that Sharon was serious about the disengagement plan, the political and rabbinical leaders of the settlers’ movement repeated over and over again, from every pulpit and media platform, that “it won’t happen,” “divine intervention will prevent it,” etc. Thus half of the 8,000 settlers made no preparations for the inevitable, insuring that they and their children would experience serious trauma. And when divine intervention was slow in coming, some individuals tried to help it along. Born-again settler and AWOL soldier Eden Natan Zada murdered four Israeli Arab citizens in the Israeli Arab city Shfaram, and settler Asher Weissgan murdered four Palestinian co-workers in the settlement of Shiloh. Both hoped that the Palestinians would overreact and that the evacuation would be stopped. And in a macabre echo of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin Yigal Amir, Weissgan even shouted out that he hopes “someone will take the initiative to kill Sharon.”

The settlers hoped that even if they lost, their tears would sear their trauma into the consciousness of Israeli society, preventing future evacuations. They expected mass refusal on the part of right-wing soldiers, hundreds of thousands of protesters who would prevent the evacuation from taking place. None of this happened. As Sima Kadmon wrote on the front page of the mass-circulation daily Yediot Ahronot: “I’m sorry, residents of Gaza, but I’m out of tears. For thirty-eight years about half the Israeli society bent itself before your conditions. We sent our children to defend your homes against our beliefs. Now it’s your turn.” With 1.5 million Israelis, more than 20 percent of the population, living below the poverty line, it’s hard to cry for 8,000 settlers who are moving to new homes under deluxe conditions. The rolling disengagement, the greatest real-time reality show available on TV, lost out in the ratings to the Israeli version of American Idol. In Tel Aviv the beaches, cafes, restaurants and centers of entertainment and culture are full. Life goes on. On a brief trip to receive family members at the ultra-modern Ben-Gurion 2000 airport, I didn’t see a single anti-disengagement orange ribbon. Any Israeli connected to the outside world wants normalcy and sanity to reign in this troubled land, and couldn’t possibly be inspired by messianic delusions.

So what will be?

The best-case scenario is that the disengagement will lead to a resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians toward a final-status agreement. The Palestinians are calling for this, but it’s highly unlikely that Sharon will be ready to respond. The Israeli body politic is in turmoil. The Israeli right, including members of his own party, are accusing Sharon of “crimes against humanity” (not because of the Lebanon War, but because he dared to remove Jewish settlers from Gaza!), and they vow to send him to the dustbin of history. The center-left, which represents the majority Israeli position according to the polls and is in favor of major territorial compromise and a two-state solution, is disorganized. Israel is headed toward elections in the foreseeable future, and the focus will be on a mix of political and socioeconomic questions.

The Palestinians are also headed toward elections, to be held in January 2006. If they demonstrate that they can make a success out of Gaza, and can continue the constructive unity they demonstrated during the course of the disengagement process, the Palestinians could have a significant impact on the outcome of the Israeli elections.

The Palestinians are afraid that Sharon has made a trade of Gaza in exchange for a maximum amount of settlements and land in the West Bank, which would undermine the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. It is a given that if they don’t see hope for a resumption of the political process on the horizon, and concrete confidence-building steps such as the removal of “illegal outposts,” the freezing of settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, greater freedom of movement and a major release of prisoners, the Palestinians will return to what they call armed struggle and the Israelis call terrorism.

The other factor in the equation is the international community, first and foremost the United States. Given the Bush Administration’s record and philosophy, it’s hard to imagine it playing the role of constructive facilitator along the lines of Jimmy Carter at Camp David I in 1978, the Bush (Sr.)-Baker role in convening the Madrid Conference in 1991 and the Clinton Administration’s attempt at Camp David II in the summer of 2000. But that is exactly what is needed, since Europe doesn’t have the clout to go it alone. The international community, led by the United States, has to signal to both the Israelis and the Palestinians that the Gaza disengagement must be the first step toward a resumption of a meaningful political process. The infrastructure for progress is there, in the form of the Oslo Accords and the international Middle East road map. All that’s needed is the political will to use them.

Otherwise, we will begin the steep decline toward another bloody round of Israeli-Palestinian warfare, with thousands of unnecessary casualties on both sides. In the worst-case scenario, this might be accompanied by apocalyptic visions of a Palestinian “mega-terror” attack, which would produce a brutal Israeli response, or an extremist Israeli attack against the Muslim holy sites on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, which could create an Armageddon-like war between the Islamic world, Israel and the West.