Center Court

At the Mercedes-Benz Cup doubles final last Sunday at UCLA, the clumps of Israelis in the grandstands waved their blue-and-white flags between points and yelled out encouragement in Hebrew. They were cheering on the team of Yoni Erlich and Andy Ram, who had reached the finals by defeating the top-seeded team in the world, Americans Bob and Mike Bryan.

At one point a woman began chanting, “Yisrael! Yisrael!” and a few others joined in, but mostly people just clapped and smiled, thrilled that their country could put such a team on center court.

Given the news from Israel this week, the tournament setting — a spirited but genteel competition on a quiet, sunny day — was all the more incongruous. The country faces one of the watershed moments in its history. Make no mistake: When Israel begins its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza — the slated date is Aug. 16 — a new chapter of history books will be written. It is a huge event in the life of the country, and in the saga of the Jews.

Much of this issue is devoted to the pros, the cons, the risks and the rewards of the withdrawal. “Disengagement” is a plan that has the support of the majority of Jews in Israel and America, but thoughtful and caring critics also have raised their voices.

Indeed, the plan promoted by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull Israeli citizens and soldiers out of land Israel has controlled since 1967 has shattered long-standing political categories and created a confusing political realignment.

Are left-wing supporters of the Sharon’s Likud government now de facto right-wingers? Is Sharon, once the nation’s fiercest hawk, now its most effective dove? What of right-wingers who championed Sharon two years ago? Where do they turn for political leadership? And what of Sharon’s long-standing left-wing critics? Is it strategically wise for them to put forward a left-wing critique of Sharon at this critical moment, when the prime minister has embraced a major tenet of the left-wing agenda? What are the nuances of and divisions within the new left and the new right?

“I’m for getting out of Gaza,” one left-wing Israeli diplomat told me last week. “But I’m against unilateral withdrawal.” Sharon, he said, has gone about it all wrong: using anti-democratic means to ensure a demographic result that he hopes will strengthen Israeli democracy. The diplomat would have preferred more coordination with the Palestinians, including more concessions from Palestinians.

The diplomat also said that there’s a very good chance the withdrawal will be seen by Palestinians as a victory for terrorism, even though such a conclusion would be yet another catastrophic mistake on their part.

Leaders like Natan Sharansky have voiced similar warnings from the right, or the new right, and Sharon has successfully squelched their influence for now.

“Oh, it’s going to happen,” the diplomat told me, when I asked if opponents and threats of civil war would deter Sharon. “There is going to be a withdrawal.”

And so, no one knows what will happen.

Viewed from this side of the ocean, Israel should be reaping praise for all its pain. The American churches that have supported total or partial divestment from Israel need to reconsider their foolish untimely punishment in light of Israel’s unprecedented step. Sadly, some critics on the left can’t bring themselves to credit Sharon and the Bush administration for pursuing a risky step toward de-occupation; these naysayers most likely will never be satisfied with anything short of Israel’s demise.

As for the choices available to Sharon, the real world offered him a messy set of options, and he chose the one he believes will make his country safer.

Trying to understand Sharon’s position, I thought again of the tennis match. Never mind that the doubles team, in the end, lost. Anybody with even a cursory understanding of Jewish history will tell you there was something miraculous in their being there at all. Throughout Jewish history, normalcy has never been a given.

Israel remains a small country of great promise, great achievement and great peril. Ideally it would be a bigger country, but the dream of modern Zionism has always been to sustain a normal life in a normal country.

What Sharon has done is seize an opportunity to come closer to the Zionist dream, by sacrificing the Zionist ideal. Let’s pray he’s made the right call.