A Long, Hot Summer

I caught up with the journalist Yossi Klein Halevi at the home of David and Marsha Nimmer in Beverly Hills, where he was addressing a small group of mostly entertainment industry professionals about the imminent Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

We sat outside, Halevi’s back to the shimmering swimming pool, a couple of friendly dogs weaving themselves through our legs, and I was struck by the gulf between the deliberateness and comfort of our lives here and the urgency and drama of life over there.

Halevi’s is one of many voices trying to focus American Jewish attention on what promises to be a historic, momentous season in the life of Israel.

“For Israel, withdrawal represents one of the biggest tests the democracy has faced since its establishment,” writes David Makovsky in his new monograph, “Engagement Through Disengagement.” The title may sound like a man’s guide to marriage, but refers to Israel’s plan to unilaterally withdraw its settlements from the Gaza Strip in August. “If political moderates fail to deliver a better future through disengagement, extremists on both sides will be emboldened, making a resumption of violence likely.”

“This is not easy,” said Israel’s Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at an Israel Policy Forum banquet in New York last Thursday. “It is perhaps the most serious internal crisis that the State of Israel [has gone] through from the very beginning of our national life in 1948. There never was such a confrontation that evolves on the very basic fundamental principles that have shaped the Zionist efforts for so many years.”

In short, a summer of hope could give way to a fall and winter of bloodshed.

For moderates like Halevi, disengagement itself is no guarantee of peace or anything like it. He has come down in favor of it — to cut to the bottom line — but not without serious reservations and caveats.

What the left fails to appreciate, he said, is that “unilateral disengagement” is unilateral. That is, the collapse of the Oslo accords helped lead Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to dismiss the prospect of a negotiated end to hostilities with the Palestinians.

Halevi doesn’t see much hope for an accommodation. Throughout Palestinian society, he said, there is an abiding belief in a Palestinian right of return, which Halevi said should more aptly be called, “the demand of return,” and an irredentist claim to all of Jerusalem. Underlying these specifics is a fundamental rejection of Israel’s legitimacy, which makes a negotiated settlement seem hopelessly unreachable.

The cease-fire in Gaza, although a welcome break from bloodshed, also has given Palestinian factions time to regroup and re-arm; Palestinian moderates are simply not doing enough to confront their extremists, who will no doubt see the withdrawal as Israeli surrender and press their further demands with more violence.

But for all that, withdrawal, Halevi said, is “the best option,” if only because Israel cannot bear the political, economic and moral costs of occupation.

The Israeli right, Halevi said, fails to appreciate that “unilateral disengagement” means “withdrawal.” The occupation of Gaza cannot continue to drain Israel of resources, manpower and international political capital, while at the same time posing a ticking demographic threat to the Jewish state.

The right, Halevi said, has won the argument over the true nature of Palestinian society, but the left has won the argument over the disaster of occupation.

Israel is entering a summer of potentially wrenching social upheaval — even now the poll numbers favoring the withdrawal plan are dropping. Halevi’s salve is simple, if slightly messianic: The left and right “have to listen to the warnings of each other.”

“The twin teachings of our past are ‘Beware of Amelek’ — those who are out to destroy the nation of Israel — and ‘Remember you were once strangers,'” Halevi said. The ideas that we have real enemies and that we must treat others justly are on the surface contradictory, yet it is that paradox our history and tradition forces us to wrestle with. “The left focused on the latter [dictate], and the right on the former, and neither heard the lessons of the other,” Halevi said.

There is little room for moderates in Israeli society, he added, but their voices will be critical in identifying what is valid in the arguments of the left and right.

The same goes for American Jews. As the summer showdown heats up, each of us will have to choose from among difficult choices.

Supporting an ultimate two-state solution “is going to require a large number of American people to speak out and say this is in our national interest,” former Defense Secretary William Cohen said in a telephone press conference last week, hosted, in part, by the Israel Policy Forum.

Cohen has helped to launch a Web site, www.Mideastcalm.org, that will collect distinguished signatories supporting the Bush administration’s continued focus on the withdrawal and President Bush’s “road map” peace process.

Of course, those who oppose the withdrawal have their own Web sites, protests and advertisements.

In short, don’t expect this summer to be just another day by the pool.