The value of apology

As the 10th anniversary of the Gaza disengagement approaches, the media in Israel have naturally started looking back on that event. Last Shabbat, Yedioth Ahronoth featured a photo essay showing once-thriving Jewish communities now used as launching pads at Israel.

The pictures brought me straight back to the anger, frustration and the abiding sadness not only of the summer of 2005, but of the 12-year period leading up to it. To a large degree, 1990s-era politics were defined by two things: stubborn refusal by supporters of the peace process to even acknowledge potential flaws in the Oslo Accords, and by the collective accusation that skeptics of Oslo were enemies to be vanquished. Even before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, opposition to the Oslo process — or even questioning its administration — was enough to render one at best an outcast, and at worst an enemy of Israel.

Disengagement was carried out in that context: The withdrawal from Gaza was a legitimate political decision. The open theft of 1,800 homes and livelihoods by the government bordered on criminal. A decade later, some of Gaza’s Jews continue to live in caravilla mobile homes in “temporary” communities, and many have yet to rebuild their lives. One might use the word refugees.

On a personal level, it is clear that Ariel Sharon planned to “deal” with the West Bank settlers — with me — the same way he’d taken care of his previous allies in Gaza in just four days.

As I simmered again over it all this week, it occurred to me just how far an apology would go. It got me thinking about how much a visit to Efrat by former Meretz MK Yossi Sarid, one of the architects of the “settlers are the enemy” approach, would mean. Not for him to stand down on his left-wing principles, but to apologize for the needless hurt that he, and so many of his colleagues, caused for making me out not to be wrong in our opinions, but to be an enemy.

“I still believe that Israel and the Palestinians must separate into two states for the benefit of Israel,” he could say, “and I think we were right to do what we did during the 1990s, and even that we were right to pull out of Gaza in 2005.

“But we were wrong to have painted you and your community as enemies. Your opposition was principled and legitimate, and I apologize to the people we hurt with our attitude.”

All of which got me thinking about the nature and value of apology between Israel and the Palestinians. I believe the overall picture of the Israel-Palestinian conflict shows a clear moral victory to Israel: The Arabs started wars, Israel defended itself, and usually tried to act morally under difficult circumstances.

But too often, we have hidden behind that fact in order to inure ourselves to Palestinian suffering. Regardless of the justice of Israel’s cause, many Palestinians have gotten hurt as a result. No, Israel need not — must not — apologize for becoming a successful nation, for welcoming and absorbing millions of Jewish refugees from the Arab world, from Russia and elsewhere, and for building a thriving cultural and economic life.

But is our society mature enough at least to identify with Palestinians’ pain over the loss of a culture that was annihilated as a result? Can we recognize the fact that despite our best efforts, we have failed morally on too many occasions?

Furthermore, would a listening ear and true empathy help create space for the children and grandchildren of 1948 refugees to internalize that that war is over and to begin the process of admitting there will be no return to Sheikh Munis, Talbiyeh or Al-Ja’una?

And what about the sins we have committed, such as the 1956 killing of 49 civilians at Kfar Kassem, an Arab town inside Israel’s 1948 border? But we stopped short of apologizing for the killings, perpetrated by IDF border police units. Or the deaths of 13 Israeli civilians protesting IDF tactics at the start of the Second Intifada in October 2000. Or the thousands of Palestinian homes that have been violated — often with just cause, and often without — by IDF troops searching for terror suspects.

The last example is a strong case in point. Of course, we must search for terror suspects, including in private homes. But those searches are a violation, and they necessarily violate the privacy of many innocents. Can we identify with the humiliation, the shame, the rage they must feel?

No, the War of Independence was not
Israel’s fault — had the Arab states not invaded, there would have been no war in 1947-48. Palestinians will say the opposite: Their parents and grandparents became refugees through no fault of their own, but rather because of Zionist “bandits” raging through Palestine.

This sort of argument will lead nowhere. The emotion of competing historical narratives makes discussion of that period, and of so many events since then, impossible. It is critical today to leave history to the historians, and to work together toward a joint future. That process can begin only by agreeing to disagree on historical narratives and concentrating instead on sharing emotions, feelings and a commitment to a joint future. 

Jewish life in the City of Lights

Fortunately I traveled to Paris before Pesach, because missing buttery croissants and oven-fresh French baguettes would have been ruinous to my experience. Indeed, France is most famous for its delicacies — wine, cheese, pastries, foie gras — but it is also home to a vibrant Jewish community; one that has prospered for the better part of 2,000 years, but currently suffers from a malaise of bad press.

Despite the historic turbulence of Jewish French life, current population statistics suggest there are between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews living in the region, the majority of whom reside in the cultural capital of Paris. The figure is surprising, considering frenzied media depictions of French anti-Semitism, recent waves of Jewish French immigration to Israel and also because the population was estimated at 300,000 prior to World War II, which suggests that, even though France is depicted as less than empathetic to the Jewish community, the Jewish population there has actually grown.

However, the aftermath of Nazi occupation in France left the country scarred, with a visibly guilty conscience, which I investigated during my stay in a 16th century walk-up on the Ile St. Louis.

In a bustling student cafe on Rue Saint-Guillaume just across from the elite French university Sciences Po, a young Parisian typed on his laptop before striking up conversation about the thesis he is writing on generational divides. He seemed well informed, so I asked, “Is it true that the French are hostile to their Jews?”

He laughed, and said that too many people argue politics about the Arab-Israeli conflict without knowing the history, essentially implying that if there’s hostility toward the Jews it’s related to Israel. But it also begged the question: Is argumentation or even Palestinian empathy what the world perceives as hostile to French Jews?

The following night, Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai attended a screening of his new film, “Disengagement” at an artsy independent theater in Place Saint Germain. The film, a French-Israeli co-production (and a good sign of comity in the arts), depicts a woman’s search for the daughter she abandoned, set against the backdrop of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. The film was, in short, riveting; and the Q-&-A that followed revealed French cineastes. were provoked by its content.

Dressed in black with a white scarf draped around his neck, Gitai, 58, stood aloof at the front of the room, fielding question from critics and fans, brooding during one man’s rant about the film’s lack of a Palestinian portrayal.

“This is an Israeli story,” Gitai said, explaining that the conflict in the film was not between Palestinians and Israelis, but between Israeli soldiers and the Israeli citizens they were ordered to remove from their homes; a conflict between secular Jews and religious Jews.

Scrubbing aside content and politics, there was still the idea that an Israeli filmmaker — telling an Israeli story — had been invited to screen his film at a distinguished arts venue, in a city ensconced in highbrow cultural snobbery. Perhaps more importantly, a famous and beautiful French actress (Juliette Binoche) figured prominently on the theater’s marquee, wrapped in an Israeli flag.

Whether fueled by guilt or regret or just plain reparation, Jewish culture is pervasive almost anywhere you go in Paris: There’s the sophisticated bookstore, Librairie Gallimard, which contains shelves full of books about the Holocaust, French resistance fighters and Nazi occupation, along with a special section devoted to Israeli literature; there’s the Holocaust Memorial on the Ile de la Cite, just behind the Notre Dame cathedral, certainly one of Paris’ most popular destinations; there’s the Jewish quarter, Rue de Rosiers, undeniably well situated in the trendy Le Marais, with some of the city’s best shopping, and near the historic Place des Vosges, an opulent 17th-century manse built for royalty.

So for the few-thousand French Jews who have made aliyah since 2004, there emerges new hope, like Gitai’s crosscultural storytelling or the Paris-born, Israeli-raised pop singer Yael Naim whose shows sung in Hebrew, French and English sell out among young, bourgeois Parisians.

In the song “Paris,” Naim’s enchanting ode to her beloved birthplace, she best captures the conflicting sentiments Jews feel for the City of Lights: I came here / A bit disenchanted / This beautiful illusion of mine / The country is so good to me here / So why do I cry and get upset?

Well, because it’s hard choosing between Paris and Israel. But still, it’s delightful to have that choice.

Barry Frydlender: from camera obscurity to MOMA

Barry Frydlender greets a reporter at his apartment in southern Tel Aviv with gentility and reticence. In his spacious living room, a sofa set rests on old, cracked, Arab-style tiles that block a studio nook containing a computer set-up. A window overlooks the Tel Aviv beach promenade, where the 52-year-old Israeli photographer meets friends every morning. All around his living space are slices of Israeli life in the form of mural-sized photographs pinned up on the walls.

For his visitor, Frydlender hangs more of his photos on a wall, using old bits of masking tape, and looks at each for a few seconds before speaking.

It becomes clear only on close observation that these mural-sized works are digital assemblages, each created from dozens of photographs. Using the brush of Photoshop, a program he taught himself, Frydlender weaves together images of the same figures, shot in different positions and at different times of day, to create a narrative with layers of interaction, perspective, and communication within what appears to be a single scene.

In “Shirat HaYam,” 2005, he shows a view of the Disengagement — a repeating row of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers — at the beachside settlement of Shirat HaYam in Gush Katif. His technique allows him to develop, as he puts it, “a representation of all the elements involved in the event.” In the foreground, an orange-clad settler holding a baby implores the still soldiers. She reappears, walking away toward the background, where settlers sing on caravan roofs.

Frydlender points to the English on the military uniforms — a hint of the “show” to the foreign media. While he supported the Disengagement, he says, no political statement is evident in the work, and his elaborations are terse.
“I don’t interpret my work,” he says. “You can understand it like this. It’s not a poster.”

He admits his reluctance to elaborate on the works’ meanings,
“I focus on my work,” he says, when asked if his hesitancy reflects his feelings about being interviewed by the press. He adds that he hasn’t yet returned the calls of two Israeli reporters, who have good reason to chase him: “Barry Frydlender: Pictures 1994-2006” opens March 23 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and on May 17, Frydlender will be the first Israeli to be honored with a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He will be in Los Angeles this summer as part of “A Year of Israeli Art — A Decade of The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership.”

“Shirat HaYam,” 2005, is one of Frydlender’s more politically charged pieces, but he also represents other aspects of Israeli society in his works. Within the image of a well-stocked Israel kiosk in “Pitzoziya,” 2002, a blonde Russian clerk works among the Israeli brands of drinks and snacks, while a dark Sephardic woman stands near the nut trays at the entrance — a picture of the diversity within Israeli society.

“The Flood,” 2003, which was acquired by MOMA, shows Israeli teenagers — future soldiers — playfully splashing in a sidewalk puddle and then walking into the entrance of an IDF museum. The assemblage appears to hint at the transition from the carefree life of teens to the rite of passage into Israeli adulthood, but for this work, too, Frydlender doesn’t elaborate much on the message of the work.

Perhaps his apparent indifference to publicity explains why he is not well-known among mainstream audiences. That, and the fact that his work is rarely seen in his native country.

Frydlender hasn’t had a solo show in Israel for more than two decades, to which his comment is, simply, “I don’t know, that’s how it happened.”

His work has also never been shown in private galleries in Israel. Which is not to say that he hasn’t had his fair share of honors. At 28, he mounted his first solo exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem — a photographic series on Café Kassit, which was the center of Israel’s bohemian culture in the 1980s. His works have appeared in museums and galleries in the United States and Europe, but he has remained, as Haaretz art critic Smadar Sheffi put it, “an artist’s artist.”

Andrea Meislin, who worked as an associate curator of photography at the Israel Museum from 2000 to 2002, was instrumental in bringing Frydlender’s works to light.

“I saw someone working at a great level,” Meislin said, speaking from her epynomous gallery in New York, “not only on a technological level, but there was great substance, and the visual was very impressive.”

Meislin invited Frydlender to participate in ARTIS 2004, an exhibition of Israeli photography sponsored by Sotheby’s, which garnered an enthusiastic response. When she launched her own New York gallery dedicated to Israeli photography, her first show was of Frydlender’s work. The exhibit attracted the notice of MOMA’s Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at MOMA, who is responsible for bringing the artist’s work to the museum.

Regarding the significance of an Israeli exhibiting solo for the first time at the MOMA, Sheffi said, “People are very excited about it. He defeated a kind of glass ceiling.”

Frydlender grins, with a glimmer of pride and self-satisfaction, when asked if he ever imagined he’d reach the coveted venue: “I think I had a moment, about 10 years ago, when I thought I would, but I forgot about it.”

Frydlender will be artist-in-residence in Los Angeles this summer as part of “A Year of Israeli Art — A Decade of The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership.”

IFF: Engaging in disengagement — five horrible days in Gaza

One of the first news stories I covered in Jerusalem 10 years ago was the excavation of holy artifacts by the city. Ultra-Orthodox Jews were protesting the excavations, because they said they were disturbing ancient Jewish graves upon which the entire city was built. It was a common problem and even an old news story in Israel, but it was the first time I witnessed it.

Pairs of police officers picked up Chasidim lying down in front of the bulldozers, carrying each bearded, black-coated man by the shoulders and feet to a waiting van. As the men were carted past me — struggling, kicking, shouting, even calling me names — tears came to my eyes. I tried to mask them, furiously writing notes.

“Is this your first time here?” the head of the Israel Antiquities Authority said, more as a statement than a question. He offered me a tissue.

“It’s hard to watch,” he said.

It was true. The sight of men in uniform dragging religious Jews away provokes a visceral reaction in any Jew: nausea, cramps, tears. It evokes the images of the Holocaust, no matter how dissimilar the situation may be.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so heart-wrenching to watch the handful of new documentaries covering “the disengagement,” as the unilateral evacuation of 8,500 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip was called, when men and women in uniform marched in to confront, corral and drag away the (mostly religious) settlers. No matter that the uniformed people were Jews, and they weren’t taking the settlers to their death but busing them to within Israeli territory. Still the shadows of the Holocaust haunt.

Especially from the perspective of the settlers, who primarily believe their mission — to settle the Land of Israel and serve as a buffer zone to protect the rest of Israel from destruction — is a direct response to the horrors of the Holocaust. That is why they are not willing to leave — or be forced from their homes, and that is why, for many, it is worse that the people in uniform are Jews.

“If you’re a Jew, you can’t do this!” one of the settlers screams at the police in “Storm of Emotions,” one of the two new disengagement documentaries showing at the 22nd Israel Film Festival.

“You look like Nazis!” a woman shouts.

“You obey orders fanatically. You think we’re fanatics. You’re order fanatics,” another says, again evoking the famous German soldier’s defense of, “We were just following orders.”

But following government orders is what the police and soldiers are doing in Gush Katif, the bloc of 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. Some police don’t believe in the evacuation, some don’t want to be the ones to evacuate the settlers. Even for those who believe it is the right thing to do — because they are tired of risking their lives for such a small percentage of the population, or because they think it will bring about peace, or because they don’t want Gaza to be part of Israel — the actual evacuation is a horrible experience.

“Storm of Emotions” is a small picture — insider, even — portraying the evacuation from the perspective of the police, who helped the Israel Defense Forces implement the disengagement. The film zeroes in on a few officers (the most interesting is a kippah-wearing Modern Orthodox officer who believes he can ameliorate the situation of his co-religionists but suffers the most slings and arrows of the settlers) and attempts to portray their plight: how they tried to be as gentle as possible, tried to prevent eruptions of violence and tried to evacuate Gush Katif peaceably.

The vérité, television-like “Storm,” which was short-listed in the Oscar’s documentary feature category, offers a narrow window on the disengagement that sometimes lacks wider context.

“Withdrawal From Gaza,” however, presents a fuller picture with broader historical overview. “Withdrawal,” also showing at the Israel Film Festival and starting March 23 at the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino, is a more polished, feature-like documentary that tells the poignant stories of the settlers — a doctor, zookeeper, terror victim’s widow, American amputee — shows the stunning and idyllic beauty of Gush Katif beachfront, in addition to providing numbers and facts.

Fact: It was pre-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who decided to settle Gaza in 1967, but as prime minister ordered its evacuation.

Fact: Many of the residents of Gush Katif came from Yamit, the seaport settlement in the southern Gaza Strip that was evacuated in 1982, when Israel gave the Sinai back to Egypt.

Fact: By 2005 8,500 settlers lived in Gush Katif, and half left before the evacuation, but another 4,000 came down to support settlers, enacting civil disobedience that led to what might be called the five worst days in Israel’s history.

In the hindsight of 18 months, it may seem that the disengagement was always a fait accompli from the moment it was decreed, but what these new disengagement documentaries show is that history is not so simple. (In addition to “Storm” and “Withdrawal,” two others Gaza docs received international attention: “Five Days” was boycotted at Edinburgh’s festival last summer, because of the war in Lebanon, and “Unsettled,” a slick, MTV-like documentary following 20-somethings on both sides, won this year’s jury prize at Sundance.)

The documentaries remind us — even such a short while later — that despite the results, in the beginning nothing was cut and dried.

For one thing, the settlers did not believe for a moment they would ever have to leave.

“It’s my hope that we’ll stay here,” the religious zookeeper says in “Withdrawal.” “We’re still waiting for a last-minute miracle.”

All the films have the requisite shots of the man in the tallit and tefillin praying on the hills; the women in kerchiefs with their eyes closed, swaying; the groups of teens dancing and singing. It’s an awesome — some might say foolish — collective faith that the edict would never come to pass.

The settlers believed they could prevent evacuation. Even without a miracle from God — one which they prayed for vehemently — they believed in their physical powers: They held sit-ins at synagogues, stood behind barbed-wire on rooftops and linked hands to become human chains in the streets. Together with West Bank settlers clad in orange (color for opposing disengagement), many stood their ground until the end, refusing to walk on the bus, forcing soldiers to drag them there.

Public Reactions Are Strong to A Personal Journey

Los Angeles photographer Naomi Solomon capped off her informal summer presentation series “Settlers: A Photographic Journey of the Life and Disengagement of the Jews Living in Gaza” at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills last week, drawing more than 150 people.

Her evocative slide-show was a culmination of her personal explorations of life in Judea, Samaria and Gaza that began with her initial visit in 2002 to the mixed secular-religious Judean outpost, Ma’aleh Rechavam, and continued through the Gaza disengagement of August 2005.

After months of post-production since her return to Los Angeles, Solomon created a show of 100 select photos, which she has presented largely to Orthodox synagogues in the L.A. area. However, she says her mission to portray the diversity, humanity and culture of settlers and settlement life through her photographs is far from complete.

“My focus now is to branch out of local synagogues,” Solomon told the Jewish Journal in a telephone interview.

Predicting a particularly strong anti-Zionist sentiment on campuses this year, she plans to secure speaking engagements at universities, as well as at Reform and Conservative synagogues. Synagogues of all streams, however, have sometimes been reluctant to host her, as they fear that her presentation is too “political,” a fear that Solomon attributes, in part, to her provocative title.

While in her presentation Solomon makes clear her stance against unilateral withdrawals, she asserts that her aim is to “share her experience” rather than her political opinions.

“My goal is to unravel a human story within a political tornado,” she said.
Her photographs range from romantic scenes of settlers building homes, tilling land, playing guitar and surfing on the Gaza coast, to the more emotion-packed scenes of settlers protesting and soldiers evacuating settlers and demolishing their homes.

Solomon cannot say with any certainty that the recent war in Lebanon has drawn more interest in her work, although she believes her presentation is already changing perceptions. At the end of the recent show at Nessah, which climaxed with the image of the gates of Gaza closing, many congregants were tearful and the hall was silent. She related that on several occasions audience members came up to her afterward and retracted their support for the disengagement.

Wandering Jew – Blue ‘Oranges’

Last year at the Israel Independence Day Festival in Woodley Park, anti-disengagement activist Shifra Hastings of Los Angeles was clad all over in orange, the color of protest, right down to her painted fingernails. She tirelessly handed out free orange ribbons, bracelets and T-shirts — even orange soda — to passersby at her booth, speaking to them about the dangers of Israel’s planned, unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria.

Many festivalgoers were more than glad to take orange ribbons and free orange T-shirts, until there were unmistakable ripples of orange among the sea of people. She believed that she was helping to turn the tide; that people at the festival were influenced by her viewpoints, and that their responsiveness was more than just a desire for free giveaways. She was certain that the disengagement would never actualize.

This year Hastings has no booth. The disengagement happened on schedule in August. Now there’s an expectation of another “disengagement,” sometimes referred to as “convergence,” this time from portions of Judea and Samaria. But while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made this plan an integral part of his platform, nothing official has been announced, and the protest fervor here and in Israel has not yet fully recharged.

This year for the festival, Hastings is wearing three orange bracelets. She also found some orange ribbons on a “caution” sign, which she removed and tied to her purse. She wouldn’t have attended this year at all if not for some friends she wants to see.

“I feel different than I did a year ago. [Then] I felt hopeful,” says Hastings on the lawn at Woodley Park. “I really didn’t believe it would happen.”

Hastings’ anger is palpable: “The bottom line is that there are two things: There is the land of Israel and government of Israel. The government is garbage that is rotting and festering and needs to be thrown out. I love the land with all my soul.”

This year, one is hard-pressed to find festivalgoers wearing orange T-shirts and orange ribbons. It’s almost as if the disengagement has been forgotten, and Southland Jews and Israelis are celebrating Israel Independence Day as they always have. There is no booth officially representing disengagement evacuees or pro-settler causes, and speeches hardly mention the trauma experienced by evacuees and those in threatened Jewish settlements.

Among festivalgoers who wear orange, and there are a few sprinkled about, it is difficult to tell without asking whether the color was symbolic.

This first postdisengagement Independence Day is filled with mixed emotion among “orange” enthusiasts. Many ponder their relationship to the State of Israel and the unquestioned support they once felt. Many feel that by enforcing a policy of removing Israelis from their homes, destroying their communities and giving over land to a people compromised by terror, the Israeli government has abandoned its mandate to safeguard Jewish communities and the lives of Israeli citizens.

“This year, Yom Ha’Atzmaut is difficult to celebrate fully in the heart, as well as in action,” says Daryl Temkin, recently appointed director of the West Coast branch of the Zionist Organization of America, whose organization is staffing a booth at the festival. Last summer, Temkin, as a private citizen, protested against the disengagement and organized an airlift of goods to assist evacuees after the withdrawal. “Yom Ha’atzmaut has been a contemplative time to focus on what Israel’s future is going to be, given the conditions of the changing face of Israel politics and Israel security.”

Jon Hambourger, founder of the now defunct, a grass-roots protest movement with adherents across the United States and Canada, is more forgiving toward the Israeli government but no less worried about the future.

“We can’t afford to be pessimistic,” he says. “It’s a battle every day not to be cynical, but unlike a lot of other ‘crazy’ right-wingers, I don’t see conspiracy theories. I believe everyone is acting in their [perceived] best interest for Israel. I don’t see anything evil about the government.”

Israel Independence Day hits a sour note with him because he questions how independently Israel acts.

“We see over and over again, irrespective of the administration, that when push came to shove, it’s always a matter of how a policy will play out in London or Washington. That has always been a litmus test,” he says.

Aliza Wells, a Los Angeles resident who took part in the protests in Gaza, retains a core of optimism, despite her disgust with the government: “I still believe that the state can be salvaged and turned into a real democracy. It’s an elected dictatorship now.”

She attends the Woodley Park Festival feeling “detached” from the celebratory scene but more committed than ever to move to Israel.

“I’m making aliyah because of what happened,” she says. “We need more Jews who care about Israel living there — who understand that if you want to live in another country, then you can live in another country. But if you live there, then know that it’s going to be Jewish.”

She isn’t too impressed with the festival, which seems to her more “secular” than last year’s, a reflection of the secular turn she believes the State of Israel has taken.

Joshua Spiegelman is among the festivalgoers wearing an orange ribbon in uncompromised celebration of Israel’s birthday. He defends the State of Israel, saying that although he believes the government is misguided, the state remains profoundly important to securing a strong Jewish future.

“My heart is very touched to be here,” he says. “Where else can American Jews be around thousands of Israelis and still feel at home? It’s a moving experience to be around so many Israelis and to see people relaxing, enjoying themselves, and to know that everyone is here for Yom Ha’atzmaut.”

He adds: “I wish I saw more orange.”

The Changed Man

In May of 1998, a wealthy Israeli-born businessman called our offices and suggested I go to the Peninsula Hotel to interview his friend, Ariel Sharon.

I said no.

At the time, Sharon was 70. He was minister of infrastructure in the government of the Likud Party’s youthful new leader Benjamin Netanyahu. By all accounts the former general and war hero had been irreparably damaged by his past, then eclipsed by a younger generation. He was just another minister, and I had other appointments.

The businessman, Uri Harkham, wouldn’t relent.

“This is a real hero!” he said.

So I went. It was a Saturday morning. Sharon, a bull of a man in a dark blazer and open-collared shirt, was sitting alone at a round table in the sun-drenched dining room of the Beverly Hills hotel, sipping from a china coffee cup painted with delicate pink roses. Nearby stood a knot of Israeli security guards.

Harkham sat at another table, working over a self-storage-unit magnate for a contribution to Sharon’s political future.

The idea that Sharon had a chance of usurping the telegenic, popular Netanyahu and becoming a mainstream Israeli politician struck me as ludicrous.

Sharon welcomed me and insisted I order something. We spoke for the better part of an hour — the man was in no rush. I believed I was talking to a has-been, a military hero with a U-Haul of baggage, whose role in Israeli life was purely historical.

Now, as I look back on 5765, I think of that breakfast, because the Jewish year that was belonged to Ariel Sharon.

Today there is almost no way to overstate the impact of his policy to disengage from the Gaza strip and parts of the West Bank.

The disengagement was swept from the front pages in part by the hurricanes and other news, but also due to its own success. Predictions of civil war proved to be hype, or wishful thinking. A nation changed course bravely and bloodlessly.

Nothing Sharon said to me that morning, nothing in his past, would have foreshadowed these events.

“This isn’t the stock market,” he admonished me when I asked why he refused to accede to a 13 percent pullout from the West Bank. “Every percent is meaningful.”

By that he meant it was important to hold on to every precious percent of land. And he derided the Americans for thinking they understood Israel’s security needs.

“They don’t even know what’s happening in the next state,” he said.

His supporters, Sharon said, knew he could be trusted not to give away the store — or even, apparently, a percent of the store. Everyone, even the Palestinians, he boasted, “knows exactly where I stand.”

Sharon’s past left little room for doubt.

As defense minister in the 1970s and ’80s, he spearheaded the development of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. He pushed Israel’s army into Lebanon.

That decision cost hundreds of Israeli lives, and led to his political exile after the Kahan Commission investigated Israel’s culpability for the Sabra and Shatilla massacres.

He reclaimed center stage in 1999, after Netanyahu’s election defeat, winning 62 percent of the vote. Netanyahu’s compromises with Clinton had weakened him on the right, and Sharon’s no-nonsense reputation reassured terrorized Israelis: You knew where he stood.

Then, suddenly, you didn’t.

The man who writer Amos Oz prophesied would “deepen the oppression, deepen the occupation,” made the boldest step yet to lessen both.

His religious and nationalist supporters accused him of duplicity, even treason. His enemies, even his supporters, predicted everything short of the apocalypse.

But Sharon held fast. Israel’s pragmatism has always been more dramatic than its heroism. Founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion compromised Israel’s very dimensions to establish the state. The late Yitzhak Rabin gave his life to take a risk for peace. Sharon has joined their ranks.

To this day, no one has offered a definitive explanation for his decision. Months before, he had dismissed the very idea. Some believe disengagement was Sharon’s last chance to enter history as a peacemaker, though there’s scant evidence such things matter to him. Some say his hand was forced by his good friend, President George W. Bush. Some say his interests have always been Israel’s strategic security, and relinquishing Gaza made strategic sense.

If the reasons are murky, the immediate outcome is clearer. The disengagement reengaged Israel on the international stage.

“There is a real change in the attitude of the world to the State of Israel, and we see it even in our relations with Arab neighbors,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said during a visit to Los Angeles last month.

Disengagement placed the onus for responsible government on the Palestinians. It lessened the human and economic costs of occupation. It strengthened Israel’s relationship with the United States — no small things.

Seven years ago, my breakfast with Sharon ended with me thinking the old man would never change. He did. I’d like to believe it happened as a result of a thoughtful stock-taking — a political and practical heshbon nefesh that resulted in a clear-eyed view of where the occupation of Gaza would lead Israel.

The change brought forth progress, which shook loose a debilitating status quo. It brought victory for new beginnings over old patterns, and presented Israel a chance to renew itself and its promise.

At this time of personal stock-taking, teshuvah and renewal, I’m pretty sure there’s a lesson there for us all.

Post-Gaza: A Time for Israelis to Reunite

The disengagement or expulsion has ended. But is this also the end of religious Zionism? Are there lessons we can and must learn that may enable us to emerge stronger from this most difficult period?

The first lesson we learned is that we are indeed one nation. There was no real violence, and there was even majestic fortitude and an exaltation of spirit displayed by many Gush Katif settlers and leaders.

On the other side of the barricades, only a small number of soldiers refused to carry out military evacuation orders, despite the charge to do so from major rabbinic voices; the soldiers and police behaved with incredible sensitivity and restraint.

It was heart wrenching but uplifting, a period in which I was both tear-filled and pride-filled to be an Israeli Jew.

Is this the end of religious Zionism? Only if the definition of religious Zionism is greater Israel, and only if “we want the Messiah now” has become not merely a future wish but the description of our present historical reality.

Remember that Maimonides developed a position of “normative messianism,” teaching “no one ought imagine that the normal course of events will be transformed during the messianic era, or that there will be a change in the order of creation; the world will continue in its normal course….”

From this perspective, no one had the right to declare, for example, that God would never allow Gush Katif to be dismantled, as some religious leaders did. Or that if we all prayed together at the Western Wall, our prayers would have to be answered. The only guarantees the Torah gives is that the Jewish people will never be completely destroyed, and that there will eventually be world peace emanating from Jerusalem.

As far as everything else is concerned, pray and work to achieve the best, but prepare for and be ready to accept the worst. The Talmud teaches “even when a sword dangles at your throat, you must not despair of Divine mercy.” But, our sages declare, “It is forbidden to rely on miracles.”

Achieving the best means living a life of dialogue and engagement with our secular brothers and sisters.

It also may mean returning to the understanding of religious Zionism that predominated until the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. This Zionism was based on compromise regarding land, on our acceptance of a partition plan, which required our withdrawal from Sinai in 1956.

We held the modest belief that our era was merely “the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption,” which would be a lengthy process fraught with advances and regressions, achievements and setbacks. It was this attitude of compromise that prevented us from a no-exit collision course with Palestinian fundamentalists screaming “not one grain of sand” on one side and our nationalists insisting “not one inch” on the other.

This spirit of compromise has fostered our constant presence in the government, even at times in rabidly secular governments, as an expression of our willingness to continue dialogue, even when we may vehemently disagree about issues of state. Only such a spirit of compromise will enable us to live together in a democratic state, and prevent our self-destruction in a fire of internal enmity, which destroyed the Second Commonwealth, even before the Romans touched the holy Temple.

It was after the agonizingly belated victory in the Yom Kippur War that car stickers began advertising “Israel has confidence in God.” At that point, a significant portion of religious Israel began to feel that the Messianic Age had already arrived, that greater Israel was an unstoppable phenomenon and that we must build settlements throughout Judea, Samaria and Gaza. It was as though the Almighty entered into a covenant with our generation: We were to build the settlements, and God would guarantee their permanence.

And so we did. But in the process, we left the rest of the nation behind. Most of our settlements had screening committees — mainly religious conditions. During the last three decades, more and more national religionists have chosen to live in separatist communities apart from their secular siblings. Two nations were beginning to emerge — two nations that rarely interacted.

We also created magnificent schools, from day care centers for 6-month-olds to different strokes for different folks-type yeshiva high schools — running the gamut from Talmud intensive to music and art intensive. But these schools were all religious and inward reflecting in orientation. We did not take seriously many social problems plaguing Israeli society: forced prostitution, exorbitant bank interest rates, corruption in the highest places and the ever-climbing poverty graph. And although we were deeply involved in our own education, we seemed totally disinterested in secular educational institutions.

This disconnect was not all of our own making. Even though some of our founding fathers enjoyed bacon and eggs for breakfast, they were a far cry from Yossi Beilin, who wrote that his grandfather made a mistake for preferring Israel to Uganda in the Zionist Congress. And there’s Shimon Peres, who would have us join the Arab League and treat Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Couples as unimportant pieces of real estate.

No wonder we have drifted so far apart.

The main lessons of this disengagement must be our return to normative messianism, and the critical necessity of establishing a common language between the religious and secular based on Jewish culture — for the entire populace. One that must permeate our music, art and theater; our matnasim (Jewish centers) and our schools; our TV and radio.

And there must be more mixed neighborhoods and opportunities for interpersonal dialogue. We must resurrect the initial flag of religious Zionism, our tripod ideals of land, Torah culture and people. We must never again forget the majority of our people in our enthusiasm for land and Torah.

By so doing, we will learn to respect each other. And we may even create the kind of shared culture and values that will transform our state from a mini-New York to a light unto the nations, from a mirror of a decadent Western society to a model for a world of peace and mutual respect.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of the settlement of Efrat in Gush Etzion, Israel, and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, an educational network serving students from all religious backgrounds. He will be the scholar-in-residence at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills the Shabbat of Sept. 10. For more information, call (310) 278-1911.


Israel – Tourists Unfazed by Gaza Pullout

For visitors to Israel this summer, the disengagement from the Gaza Strip proved hard to ignore.

“Everybody’s orange,” said Rebecca Kaminski, from Berlin, with a laugh, referring to the color adopted by the anti-disengagement activists. “I’m on the blue side, I guess.”

Sitting on the beach in Netanya, the 22-year-old was working on her already impressive tan with a group of girlfriends, all students at a six-week summer ulpan, or Hebrew-language immersion course, in Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon.

They have not been deterred from visiting Israel during its exit from the Gaza settlements and parts of the West Bank.

In fact, Kaminski is thrilled to be here right now.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a country that the whole world is watching. It’s historic.”

Her friend Sharon Asscher, 20, from Amsterdam, was not about to let the idea of trouble thwart her visit here.

“I haven’t come to Israel for five years because of the intifada and I missed it,” she said.

Alona Van t’Hoog, 25, from The Hague in Holland, is also a firm supporter of disengagement.

“I knew that, of course, it was going to be a hard time, but I have faith in the State of Israel and the army so I thought it would be OK,” Van t’Hoog said.

Sitting next to them on the sand, Melis Taragano, from Turkey, was less enthusiastic.

“It’s going to be bad for the Israeli people, I think, because here it’s going to be one big terror,” the 18-year-old said.

Tourism in Israel has yet to return to pre-intifada levels, with native Israelis still the dominant presence on beaches and boardwalks. But visitors are slowly returning as the threat of repeated suicide bombings fades. And with terror on the rise around the world, some vacationers reckon they may as well take their chances in Israel as anywhere else.

“They thought New York City was safe in 2001, and terrorists are blowing up London now, so is anywhere safe?” asks 30-year-old Marquis Cross from Baton Rouge, La., biting into a huge hamburger alongside his cousin James Yage at the Tel Aviv pub Mike’s Place, itself the site of a 2002 suicide bombing that killed three people.

Non-Jewish tourists, the pair have visited Jerusalem and taken in the Tel Aviv beaches, with the Dead Sea still to come.

“These are nice people. This is a fun city,” said Yage, 35, shaking more ketchup onto his fries.

And as for the political situation, “they’ve been going through these problems for years, and it seems pretty calm now,” he added in his Southern drawl.

“It’s pretty interesting, but I don’t have much of a view so I just turn on the sports,” Cross admitted sheepishly.

Dramatic television scenes of orange-clad settlers battling Israeli police and soldiers were ignored by retirees Samuel and Jutta Rosenblat, from Boca Raton, Fla. They were visiting the resort town of Herzliya, along with numerous members of their extended family, as they have for many years. Undeterred by terror in the past, they saw no reason why the disengagement — which they both support — should put them off this year.

“A lot of people in Florida are afraid to come every year because of the suicide bombings,” 82-year-old Jutta said. “It’s important to show that we’re not afraid and we have to support Israel.”

Her 83-year-old husband, a Holocaust survivor who was in five different concentration camps, agreed that showing faith in the Jewish state is vital.

“If we had had Israel before the war, then not so many Jews would have been killed,” he said. “We would have had somewhere to go.”

The disengagement has also provided an unexpected bonus to the tourism industry, especially in the southern parts of the country. Although most Israelis may be avoiding vacationing in the coastal region around Gaza, with the military imposing many restrictions on travel, journalists have flocked to the area.

Thousands of foreign journalists and TV crews snapped up every room in the vicinity, and kibbutzim close to Gaza rented out not only their bed-and-breakfast accommodations but all available spaces in their dining rooms, schools and community centers.


A Palestinian Verdict: Terror Worked

The question on the Palestinian street now is who will successfully claim credit for expelling Israel from Gaza and northern Samaria – Hamas, an organization that carries out terrorist attacks, or Fatah, the official Palestinian ruling party?

Whatever the answer turns out to be, one thing is certain. Both factions are presenting Israel’s withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza and the northern West Bank as a Palestinian military victory.

The Arabic word indihar is being used these days by Palestinians who view the pullout as a victory for the al-Aksa intifada, which erupted in September 2000. And there appears to be a growing number of Palestinians who are convinced that the withdrawal is nothing but an Israeli retreat achieved through the blood of thousands of shahids, or martyrs.

Still, many also consider the disengagement strategy of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a conspiracy designed to tighten Israel’s grip on the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The “Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic” translates indihar as “banishment and defeat.” Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in the Gaza Strip were the first to refer to the disengagement as a “fruit of the resistance attacks” against Israel over the past few years. In recent days, even senior Palestinian officials, who are likely to play a role in peace negotiations, have begun labeling the pullout as an Israeli defeat.

On the streets of Ramallah and other West Bank cities, Palestinians across the political spectrum were unanimous this week in defining the disengagement as a retreat in the face of rocket and suicide attacks. Only a few said they regarded the move as a direct result of the peace process and international pressure on Israel.

“Of course this is a victory for the blessed intifada,” said Samir Tahayneh, a 22-year-old university student who describes himself as a Fatah supporter. “Had it not been for the Kassam rockets and suicide bombings, Israel would never have thought of running away from our lands. The disengagement proves that the only way to liberate our lands is through the resistance, and not at the negotiating table.”

Scores of people interviewed over the past week in various parts of the West Bank echoed those sentiments.

“We have always said that the only language the Jews understand is force,” commented Ala Abu Jbarra, a 30-year-old shopkeeper. “The Oslo process did not give us as much as the second intifada. By God’s will, we will pursue the struggle until we liberate the rest of our lands.”

A survey conducted by the Hamas-affiliated Palestine Information Center Web site reported that more than 94 percent of Palestinians see the Israeli indihar in the Gaza Strip as an “achievement for the Palestinian resistance.”

Less than 6 percent of the 2,551 respondents said they viewed the withdrawal as a result of political negotiations and international pressure.

It follows that the political battle on the Palestinian street is over who gets credit. The faction that prevails in this propaganda contest will get an edge in its bid for power. Both Hamas and the ruling Fatah party are separately preparing mass celebrations in the “liberated” areas with the hope that each can claim responsibility for driving Israel out of the Palestinian territories.

In an attempt to circumvent Hamas, Fatah leaders earlier this week kicked off celebrations by holding two mass rallies in the Gaza Strip. The message was that the disengagement is the result of the “sacrifices” made by Fatah fighters during the intifada. At another rally in Ramallah, organized by the Palestinian Authority’s Political Guidance Commission, Palestinian leaders hailed the disengagement as a significant victory for the “resistance.”

Col. Ribhi Mahmoud, acting director of the Political Guidance Commission, welcomed the Israeli indihar as a first step toward liberating Jerusalem. He and several spokesmen who addressed the rally drew parallels between the disengagement and the Israel Defense Forces “retreat” from Lebanon in May 2000.

“Palestinian blood has defeated the mighty sword of Israeli occupation,” declared Sheikh Hassan Youssef, the de facto Hamas leader in the West Bank. “Our blood has forced Israel to abandon its strategy of occupation, just as the Lebanese did.”

Qais Abdel Karim, a top leader of the Marxist-Leninist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told the crowd that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was forced to take the decision to leave the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank because of stiff Palestinian resistance.

“Sharon was forced to announce the so-called disengagement under the pressure of Palestinian steadfastness and resistance,” he said, drawing thunderous applause. “This is the first time that Israel is forced to dismantle Jewish settlements established on Palestinian lands.”

Abdullah al-Ifranji, a senior Fatah activist in the Gaza Strip, said the majority of Palestinians view the withdrawal as a “fruit of four years of the second intifada.” But, he added, the disengagement is also seen as the result of “tremendous political efforts” made by Yasser Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas.

Ifranji admitted that his party was engaged in a competition with Hamas over post-disengagement celebrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“In the past six months, Hamas has prepared 40,000 military uniforms, 70,000 green flags and 100,000 hats,” he said. “They have also bought dozens of jeeps and painted them in Hamas’ color — green. They want to appear as if they were the ones who liberated the Gaza Strip.”

On the other hand, Fatah has prepared only Palestinian flags that will be distributed to Palestinians celebrating the disengagement. However, various Fatah members in the Gaza Strip have already announced that they will hold paramilitary marches in the settlements after they are evacuated.

Hamas officials claim that the Palestinian Authority has allocated millions of dollars for the Fatah-orchestrated celebrations, with most of the money coming from European donors. According to a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, the European Union has decided to finance the Fatah celebrations with the hope that the message to the Palestinian public would be that the disengagement is a victory for the peace process, not terrorism.

“Of course the Palestinian people are not naive and no one will buy this argument,” said the Hamas official. “Even Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] knows deep inside that the withdrawal is the result of the resistance operations, but he can’t say this in public.”

Many Palestinians are worried that the presence of thousands of Hamas and Fatah gunmen in the emptied settlements after the disengagement, along with some 20,000 Palestinian policemen, will lead to violent clashes. Hence Abbas’ repeated calls to the Palestinians over the past few days for calm during and after the pullout.

Aware that the Palestinian security forces would not be able to stop Hamas supporters from reaching the Gaza settlements, Abbas met this week with the Islamic movement’s leaders and implored them to restrain their men. The two sides agreed to set up joint committees to oversee the celebrations and avoid internecine fighting.

Yet Abbas, like many Palestinians, has to know that a confrontation of some sort with Hamas is almost inevitable.

His agreement to form joint committees with Hamas is seen as capitulation to demands set by the movement. Until last week, Abbas had adamantly refused even to talk about such coordination with Hamas.

“We in Fatah are not seeking a clash with Hamas,” said Ifranji, the Fatah leader from the Gaza Strip. “We are saying that Palestinian blood is a red line that should not be crossed. On the other hand, we won’t accept a situation where Hamas would try to harm or undermine the Palestinian Authority.”

The fact that so many Palestinians see disengagement as a reward for violence and as indihar has many Palestinian officials in Ramallah and Gaza City extremely worried.

“I’m afraid that the disengagement, which is not being carried out as a result of peace talks, will weaken the moderate camp among the Palestinians,” a top Abbas aide said. “That’s why we need to work together with Israel and the international community to make this move appear as if it were part of the peace process.”

Khaled Abu Toameh, an Israeli Arab, is the West Bank and Gaza correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and U.S. News and World Report.


First Person – Torn in Two

To the Jews of the Diaspora:

I recently returned from a monthlong vacation to the United States. Since I’ve gotten back home to Israel,

however, it seems as though “reality” has smacked me upside the head. I say this because of such a severe contrast between daily life in the United States and Israel.

Every minute of television, radio and Internet coverage is dedicated to the disengagement currently taking place. I feel so torn. It is just as hard to see people being booted out of their homes, as it is to see the soldiers unwillingly carrying out their orders because they have no choice in the matter. When the TV is filled with images of a kippah-clad settler crying and dancing arm in arm with a kippah-clad solider, one the evictor and one the evictee, how can a Jew not be profoundly moved to tears?

The disengagement is not solving any problems — it just creates many smaller ones. Where are these people supposed to move? The government has not planned sufficiently for this. People are living in tents.

A mother holds her child up and says, “Look, sweetie, this is who evicted you from your home … remember….” Is this the kind of image we want our Israeli/Jewish youth to have of our own Israel Defense Forces (IDF)? Is that how people will see me when I don an IDF uniform in a month, when I am to be drafted? Why should soldiers be forced to carry out these orders? They do not deserve this type of bad reputation.

How on earth is this “good for the State of Israel,” as Ariel Sharon claims over and over? Will the terror stop? Will the imams stop chanting and preaching “Allah is great and kill the Jews?” Will they stop educating their kids to do the same and will suicide bombers’ parents stop being proud of their children who “died for the cause?” Does Sharon not see and hear on Al Jazeera how the Arabs are dancing on the rooftops at the Israeli retreat? Does he not hear their preachers saying, “This is only the beginning?” What are Israelis receiving from the Palestinians in return for our bending over backward for them?

How can a Jew not cry when he sees four crying female soldiers trying to console one another while at the same time forcefully carrying out a crying woman from her home or shul?

How can a Jew not tear his garments when he sees crying rabbis and yeshiva heads abandoning their shuls and batei midrash where they spent days and nights sanctifying God’s name and learning Torah? They lead somber processions of their students, Torah scrolls in hand. They stand together in a circle with soldiers singing “Hatikva,” their voices cracking. Seeing these images and hearing their souls singing and their “Shema Yisroels” resonating is equally as mind boggling, disturbing, moving and awe-inspiring as thinking of how Jews throughout our history have done everything possible to make Kiddushei Hashem in the face of the worst situations imaginable.

I cannot just go on with daily life and not be affected. I feel like I have so much more to say. The simplest questions of “How are you? How was your day today?” take 2,000 words to answer. What if it was me being evicted? What if one day I’m going to be commanded to evict some of my neighbors? How can I ever raise children in this country when this is what they might have to face? The State of Israel and all of its people are in a state of mourning. I feel so lonely. I feel like there’s nothing I can do, completely helpless to reverse this awful direction my country is taking. It makes me want to run away, back to the States. I ask myself so often now, “Why am I here? Am I crazy?”

A planeload of 250 immigrants from Canada and the United States arrived in Israel last week. Former mayor of Jerusalem and current Finance Minister Ehud Olmert greeted them. Immediately upon arrival, they engaged in heckling him and the government’s “crazy” policies. He shouted back at them, “Well, if a million of you would’ve come a long time ago, maybe things wouldn’t be this way.”

Is this the kind of greeting new ideological immigrants to Israel, who give up “the good life” in the States are supposed to have from a government minister? Is Olmert right, though? Hopefully reading what I’ve had to say has made you just stop and think for a minute or two. I just wish you were here with me.

Robert Strazynski is a former resident of Los Angeles who has been living in Israel for the past seven years. He resides in the West Bank settlement of Ginot Shomron.

Show Gaza Sympathies to the Other

The disengagement from Gaza has exposed raw emotions and wrenching scenes of families being uprooted from their homes of decades.

Many in the Jewish community, while believing that the disengagement was necessary and even overdue, have felt the pain of the settlers. Some have even found a measure of truth in the settler slogan that “a Jew does not expel a Jew.”

We all empathize with those who have had to leave their homes, especially the children born and raised in the settlements of Gaza. But their pain — and our hand-wringing over it — must be placed in perspective. The settlers were given months of notice that the elected government of the State of Israel planned to remove them from Gaza — a decision supported by a solid majority of Israeli citizens. They were offered attractive compensation packages of up to $400,000. In addition, we cannot forget that they were living on land that most of the world, including the United States, regarded as illegally occupied.

Our sympathy then must be tempered, especially when the settlers and their supporters have the temerity to compare their plight to that of Jewish victims of Nazism. The government of Israel and the entire Jewish world have treated the Gaza settlers with a degree of respect and generosity that few groups of protesters have ever received, in Israel or elsewhere. Why don’t we conjure up the same sympathy for the Israeli soldiers who demonstrated tremendous restraint in the face of taunts and threats from recalcitrant settlers who refused warnings to vacate?

And why we don’t conjure up the same sympathy for the 1.5 million people, including every third child, who live below the poverty line in Israel, good and decent folks in Jerusalem and Yerucham, Be’er Shevah and Bat Yam, who struggle to make ends meet and never receive anything remotely resembling $400,000 government grants? For far too long, settlers have received lush government benefits to support a high standard of living while the underprivileged in Israel’s cities and developments towns have gone hungry. Why does their fate escape our attention?

And while we empathize with the small number of Jews uprooted from their homes in Gaza, do we ever dare to consider the fate of Arab citizens of Israel? Do we ever think of the Palestinians whose houses are demolished without reason in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem? Even more unlikely, do we allow ourselves to think of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were dispossessed during and after the 1948 War?

It is not just that they left their homes and were not permitted back. Nor is it that hundreds of their villages were destroyed and millions of dunams of their land expropriated in the State’s first years. It is that almost every trace of their previous existence has been erased from the Israeli national landscape — from road-signs, maps, and other place-markers.

These claims are deeply discomfiting to us, but we cannot dismiss them as mendacious anti-Zionist propaganda. (One need only consult the exacting and painful account of former Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meron Benvenisti in “Sacred Landscape.”)

The point of this self-reckoning is not to insist on the repatriation of the 1948 refugees nor to delegitimate the State of Israel. The right of Jews to national self-determination in their homeland is clearly established in international law; likewise, the right of Jews to a peaceful and secure existence cannot be subject to debate. But still we must ask, in the best tradition of Jewish asking: Why does the fate of the Other escape our attention? Why do we turn off our well-tuned humanitarian sensors when it comes to Arabs (or underprivileged Israeli Jews, for that matter)?

Why are we so selective in our compassion, caring only for our own, and even then, only a precious few among us?

As we approach the New Year in the spirit of teshuvah, we should certainly recall the settlers who have lost their homes. But we should also recall the teaching of the late French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who devoted much of his career to exploring the ethical responsibilities toward the Other. Levinas taught that the face-to-face meeting with the Other is an essential ethical act of humanization. We may never come to know the Other fully, but the encounter reminds us that we do not dwell alone in our own autonomous universe. Rather, we must share the world with all of God’s creatures, including and especially those who are foreign to us.

Some may see Levinas’ teaching as naive and weak-kneed universalism in a world of hardened tribalism. But we can also choose to see it as the very essence of our Jewish identity, resonant with the biblical injunction to “love thy neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18) no less than with the modern value of tolerance that we hold so precious. If we do follow this alternative path, then perhaps we will come to see that the circle of misfortune and dispossession extends far beyond Neve Dekalim.

David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history at UCLA.


We Must Show Unified Pullout Support

Four years ago, on July 22, 2001, with the goal of coming together as a unified Jewish community, we stood with 10,000 others on a closed-off section of Wilshire Boulevard for a solidarity Rally in support of the people of Israel. At a time of shattered hopes and violence, Jewish community leaders and supporters of Israel from many religious affiliations and political perspectives gathered in unity with the people of Israel to convey our support and deep concern for the pain, anguish and sense of isolation they were experiencing.

Today, we believe that it is equally important to make clear our support for the Jewish state as its leaders forge ahead with new initiatives for peace. There are new hopes and uncertainties before us. As the government of Israel prepares to take an unprecedented and courageous step in its history by implementing the disengagement plan and to evacuate from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, it is imperative that our Jewish community leadership, and all supporters of Israel, not lose sight of the same unity and support for Israel that was demonstrated four years ago.

The disengagement plan set forth by the government of Israel will evacuate and relocate (with compensation) all Israeli residents living in settlements in the Gaza Strip and from four small communities in the northern West Bank to homes within the pre-1967 borders of Israel. We recognize the pain these 8,000 or so people will experience, and have great compassion for those Israelis who must relocate their homes and disband their communities for the sake of their country.

Most Israelis — some of whom are experiencing deep anguish related to disengagement, and all of whom are personally affected by the ongoing violent conflict — recognize that from this disengagement can arise some relief and hope for a peaceful future. We agree with them and join our prayers to theirs for a just and lasting peace.

The Israeli government is taking this step, originally devised as a unilateral measure but now with bilateral and multilateral cooperation, in recognition that the status quo is untenable for Israel’s security and its future as a Jewish and democratic state. Disengagement will not necessarily provide a short-term peace dividend, nor should one be expected.

The situation is volatile and may remain so for some time. Much needs to be done by the Palestinian leadership and other stakeholders to better ensure a favorable and lasting outcome.

However, if one were to work backward from the ultimate goal of a two-state solution that would secure Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with defensible borders and Palestine as a viable and peace-seeking neighbor, this disengagement plan is an obvious and necessary first step in that direction.

As always, our community is unified in our goal for a secure Israel at peace with her neighbors. We are unified in our recognition of the ongoing challenges facing Israelis and their government in its aspirations to fulfill that goal. And we understand that on behalf of her people, the democratically elected Israeli government must determine the direction and take the steps necessary to serve the best interests of the state.

The disengagement plan is the direction the government has decided upon, and we support that decision. We fully understand the potential obstacles ahead, yet also understand the consequences of failure, and realize that it must not be an option.

For those good reasons, we signal our confidence in Israel moving forward with the disengagement plan, and in its ability to do so with positive creativity until success is achieved.

We recognize that while a majority of Israel’s supporters in America are aligned with this position, not all are unified. However, the decision to go forward with disengagement has been made and is on the verge of implementation.

As occurred four years ago, we call upon the Jewish community of Southern California and its friends to stand together above and beyond religious affiliation or political perspective to ensure that our message of support for the people of Israel is heard above all.

Rabbi Harvey J. Fields is rabbi emeritus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple; David Pine is West Coast regional director of Americans for Peace Now.


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.


There’s No Place for Ugly Words on Gaza

The withdrawal of Israeli settlements and settlers from the Gaza Strip will dominate the Jewish summer.

Now, you can think that’s a good idea or a bad one, be for it or against it. All that’s fine and in the best tradition of Judaism. What is not fine and what is desecrating Judaism is how some of those opposed to the disengagement are seeing it, what they are saying about it.

What we are seeing and hearing are allusions to the Nazis, to the Holocaust. Somehow, when Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) compares treatment of soldiers at Guantanamo to the Nazis, Jews go nuts, find that outrageous.

And yet, too many Jews are using Nazi allusions, making Holocaust comparisons when describing the intention of the democratically elected government of Israel to do what it believes is in the best interest of the State of Israel — which is exactly what governments are elected to do.

It might be nice if all those Jewish right-wingers so desirous of seeing democracy come to Iraq would show some respect for democracy in Israel. But they do not. Even worse, much worse, they play the Nazi card in talking about the government of Israel.

It started when a large number of settlers in Gaza and the West Bank began wearing orange stars, reminiscent of the yellow stars the Nazis forced the Jews of Eastern Europe to wear during the Holocaust — orange stars being worn in the State of Israel to make a point about the action of the government of Israel.

Seeing Nazi behavior in the disengagement is not only as nuts as seeing anti-Semitism in the shuttle disasters, but is far more obscene, way beyond the pale.

The Holocaust is a sacred memory in the life of the Jewish people. Six million of our people, babies and grandfathers, whole families, whole towns were systematically murdered in the most barbaric of ways, in an atrocity unique in human history.

And so for Jews to wheel it out to make some political point about a political decision of an Israeli government is to act in as shameful a way as a Jew can act.

After a while, even the settlers recognized that, and so they stopped wearing the orange star. Which seemed to signal that they had learned something.

But evidently not. For just this past week, several Gaza settlers wrote their Israeli identification number on their arms in an attempt to evoke the memory of the tattoos the Nazis put on the arms of Jews in the concentration camps. How disgusting. What a desecration of the memory of the 6 million.

How can Jews in 2005, living in the State of Israel, dare to compare the decision by the Israeli government to leave Gaza to the decision by the Nazi government to identify every single Jew for the purpose of murdering every Jewish man, woman and child in Europe?

Nothing, nothing, shows how lost we are as a people, how far we have fallen, than this.

That so many Jews put on the orange star, while tattooing their arms is bad enough. Even worse is how many Jews, how many American Jews support that.

And how many American Jews are using ugly words? One press release that just crossed my desk comes from a group sponsoring a prayer vigil against the Gaza disengagement. Nothing wrong with that. What is wrong, what is disgraceful, is that in describing what they are opposing they say it is “Sharon’s edict of deporting Jews from Gaza.”

Edict. Deporting. Words that are loaded with the weight of Jewish history, Jewish suffering. Words that have no place in the debate over Gaza.

Sharon is not issuing an edict. He was elected by the people to be prime minister. He has put the Gaza issue to a vote several times before his Cabinet, and each time the Cabinet has authorized the pullout. He has then put the issue several times before Israel’s democratically elected parliament, the Knesset, and it, too, has voted for the pullout each and every time. This is a democratic decision made by a democratically elected government.

And no one is being deported. The government of Israel has made a decision as to what is in the best interest of the people and the State of Israel. A decision as to what would best ensure the security and improve the future of the state and people of Israel. And that decision involves having some people move.

That is no different than the concept of eminent domain in this country, where a city or state can require that the people of a neighborhood move so that an airport or a new highway or such can be built for the greater good of all.

While such decisions always involve some personal discomfort for some, they are routinely made. No one says those who had to move so that the new ballpark could be built were “deported.” And none of the settlers in Gaza are being deported.

The press release from this group also notes that “Jewish people have never been expelled from Israel since the modern state was created in 1948.”

Oh, where to begin. For starters — and this is also directed to those who mindlessly babble the mantra, “Jews do not evict Jews,” — ever hear of the evacuation of Sinai after the peace with Egypt?

But such ignorance pales in comparison with the ugliness of using the word “expelled.” And never mind, of course, that no one is being expelled from Israel. The use of such ignorant arguments, and of such inflammatory and despicable language, shows just how weak the case is of those who oppose the pullout.

The next month will be a key one in the life of the Jewish people and in the democracy of the State of Israel. Which is why pullout opponents must immediately stop using such symbols as stars and tattoos and such pornographic terms as edict and deportation and ghetto and expulsion when discussing the disengagement from Gaza.

And why senior rabbis in the State of Israel must immediately stop urging Israeli soldiers to disobey orders, and why they must immediately stop making speeches full of halachic references that strongly imply it would be a mitzvah to assassinate the prime minister of Israel.

Two things that have always been unifying forces for the Jewish people have been holding sacred the memory of the Holocaust and respecting the nonpolitical role of the Israeli army.

By doing what they are doing, saying what they are saying, too many opposed to the Gaza pullout are recklessly endangering those unifying values, and in so doing are endangering the Jewish people.

Joseph Aaron is the editor of the Chicago Jewish News.


Q & A With Daniel Ayalon

The mid-August Israeli pullout from Gaza is fraught with risks and unknowns, but the Israeli government remains committed to “unilateral disengagement,” says Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Ayalon spoke with The Journal about the reasons for disengagement, a policy he characterized as virtually inevitable and worth the sacrifice of the Israeli settlers who will have to leave their homes.

Ayalon, age 49, has served as Israel’s top diplomat in the United States since July, 2002. He played a leading role in negotiating the blueprint for a two-state solution known as the “Roadmap for Peace.” Prior to his U.S. posting, Ayalon was chief foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. From 1997 to 2001, he was deputy foreign policy adviser to former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Jewish Journal: To what extent was the government prepared for the protests and resistance to the pullout from Gaza?

Daniel Ayalon: The government has been prepared and, I think, is prepared. It wasn’t something that we did very cheerfully. We did foresee objections. We do empathize with the people. We’re talking about three generations, 8,000 people who made their lives there. It is very difficult to uproot.

But the prime minister had to make the decision because he knew this was the best course of action to take and the best way to strengthen Israel — politically, securitywise, economically and I also would say socially. And understanding that Gaza is not an asset but a liability.

JJ: What do you mean when you speak of Gaza as a liability?

DA: Everybody realizes that there was no future for a Jewish presence in Gaza. You have 1 million or 1.2 million Palestinians and 8,000 Jews. The numbers talk here. And from a historical or biblical point of view, I’m not sure that Gaza was part of our land in the past.

JJ: What history are you talking about? History covers a long time in this part of the world.

DA: The past of the Jewish people. Gaza as I recall was Philistine land. Back in March 1979, during the negotiation of the second Camp David accord between President Carter, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, at that time Begin offered Gaza to Sadat and Egypt together with the rest of the Sinai peninsula.

So there was no great attachment to the Gaza, ever.

JJ: But there was a Jewish presence.

DA: Right, although strategically you cannot compare Gaza to Jerusalem, the Judean Hills, the Jordan River valley and all these areas.

JJ: Yet the Israeli government did allow and encourage these settlers to go to Gaza.

DA: Totally. They were sent by successive Israeli governments.

The first settlements there were built before the peace treaty with Egypt. So on the southern front we still had all these threats when Egypt was still the enemy. Egypt is no longer an enemy and the demography is also a factor. After all these years we have 8,000 people surrounded by these 1 million Palestinians.

[Years ago] you couldn’t really foresee the [future] developments. I can guarantee you: Had we had 1 million Israeli settlers in Gaza, we wouldn’t have left Gaza. If we had 500,000 Israelis, we wouldn’t have left Gaza.

JJ: How much does it cost Israel to protect the settlement region, Gush Katif, on an annual basis?

DA: Well, listen we had to keep there a division, about 20,000 troops. I would say it was quite costly. But the cost is not the factor. Protecting other areas is very costly as well. Strategically there is just no merit in staying there.

JJ: Of course, you could allow the settlers to stay, but inform them that they may soon become citizens of a Palestinian state.

DA: This is not realistic. No one was even contemplating this.

JJ: So you’re saying the settlements are a dead-end vestige of policies that, in the past, seemed to make sense. That doesn’t exactly make things easier for the settlers.

DA: We are very proud of the settlers’ achievements. I believe that their effort, their endeavors, were not in vain. And we applaud the achievements of the settlers over there. We do understand their pain.

It is incumbent on us, the government, to make sure the people who are losing what they’ve spent all their lives building will feel the least pain possible. And for that there are packages of compensation and other services that will be rendered and offered to the population there, from economic help to professional advice and placement, to psychological treatment as well. We try to prepare all of this.

JJ: You’re saying that all this upheaval is justified for the greater good of Israel.

DA: By doing the disengagement, by leaving Gaza, we have much strengthened our position in Judea and Samaria. Sometimes you come to a juncture when you have to make a choice and you have to look ahead. And you have to think of the global picture.

Disengagement is a very timely thing to do, the right thing to do for the people of Israel, and I hope for the region.

One more thing: This pullout did not follow an agreement with the Palestinians, but it followed something which is much more important, an agreement with the United States. Disengagement has to be viewed in the context of Israel-United States relations. It was enthusiastically endorsed by President Bush, and most in the international community are also accepting and endorsing it. Disengagement is something that creates a common agenda between us and the United States.

In support of disengagement, President Bush wrote a letter to Prime Minister Sharon reiterating his commitment to Israel’s security, and his commitment to strengthening Israel’s defense and deterrence capability. And President Bush went to an extent that no other president did talking about Israel living in recognized and defensible borders.

Not to mention that the American government now supports the realities on the ground. They do not expect us to return to the 1967 or 1949 lines, which is also a great asset. They don’t expect the Palestinian refugees to ever go back to Israel. That also is a great benefit that we have received because of the disengagement.

And we have received the political reassurance that the only road ahead is the roadmap to peace. The United States will not accept any other initiatives that are undesirable from any other quarter of the world. And there’s also a commitment to strengthening the Israeli economy. So all these factors are also very important in the decision to pull out from Gaza. Israel will be much stronger after the disengagement.

JJ: To what extent does the success of the pullout depend on the Palestinians?

DA: We would expect two things. First of all, during the disengagement, we would like to see that they make sure that terror doesn’t erupt. Toward that goal we have allowed them to move 5,000 security troops of the Palestinian Authority from the West Bank to Gaza. And we would expect they would create a perimeter or a buffer for our own troops, who would mostly be engaged with our own population, dealing with them and pulling them out — something that is not only excruciatingly painful but also very complicated.

If we encounter enemy fire and terror we will have to respond. And we will have to respond in a very decisive way because we will not allow them to pursue us as we move out. We will not allow even the perception of terror winning.

Secondly, we would expect the Palestinians to coordinate with us all the economic and civil affairs. For instance, we intend to leave most of infrastructure intact for the Palestinians to use, to create value for the Palestinian economy. For instance, there are greenhouses that could employ 8,000 to 10,000 people, which could sustain 100,000 or more Palestinians, about 10 percent of the population of Gaza.

After the disengagement, they will have to dismantle the terror infrastructure. They will have to disarm Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror organizations. They will have to arrest the fugitives and the known terrorists, break their cells and do it on a sustainable basis, so they can really come with us and negotiate on the roadmap. But the ticking bomb of Hamas is re-arming, re-grouping, recruiting new terrorists on a daily basis, and nothing is being done about it. The Palestinian Authority will have to take it head on if they want to be a viable partner for the future.

JJ: Isn’t there an argument for leaving intact the houses once occupied by Israeli settlers? Or at least letting the Palestinians make that decision?

DA: They have conveyed to us that they would prefer for those houses to be demolished because they are not suitable for Palestinian living because they are very expensive on land consumption. With the density of the population in Gaza, I think they would prefer high rises. Instead of 8,000 Israelis, they can inhabit this same area with tens of thousands of Palestinians.

We would like to see Palestinian refugees settled over there. It’s very unfortunate that throughout all these years, and certainly since the Palestinian Authority was created with Arafat in 1993, that they have not done anything to help their own refugees. Certainly they can move those refugees out of very miserable and inhumane conditions to new housing. Also by creating this housing, by building new housing, it can give a lot of immediate employment to the citizens of Gaza.

JJ: So how will the demolition be handled?

DA: The houses will be demolished by Israel. And the debris will be taken out by the Palestinians, who would not have to bear the costs for it. Israel is willing to participate in that cost. The international community should as well.

JJ: Some critics characterize disengagement as a defeat, as a retreat that will just encourage more violence and bring enemies who will never accept Israel’s existence closer to Israel’s doorsteps.

DA: I don’t think this is the case. We are leaving Gaza quite triumphant. Hamas was on the run. If you recall, we have taken on all its leaders, including Abdel Aziz Rantisi and Sheik Yassin. [Israel forces killed Rantisi and Yassin.] We really demolished all the infrastructure.

The reason the Palestinians have voted in a massive way for Abu Mazen is because he offered them a strategy of quiet and of doing away with terror. He has not really performed yet, but the terrorism did not further the Palestinians’ national interest. They have lost militarily. They have lost economically. They have lost in international legitimacy. And they have not done what they wanted to do, which is break the Israeli spirit.

Will terror spring out of Gaza? I doubt it. If it does, we will have all the legitimacy to respond in a very decisive way. And the Palestinians would want to see Gaza as a showcase. If they can govern Gaza in a responsible way, without terror, then they may have a case to start the roadmap and talk about other areas. If not, then nothing will be moving ahead.

JJ: Critics on the left say that even while Israel is withdrawing from Gaza, it is entrenching itself elsewhere in the territories and even expanding areas of control.

DA: Everything always depends on the performance of the Palestinians. If they will make good on their obligations in the roadmap: to dismantle the terror organizations, to complete their reforms, to create a viable entity with one rule of law and a monopoly over the military and the guns — then we can negotiate in good faith.

We cannot move forward to the second stage before the first stage is completed.

JJ: Is anything nonnegotiable, such as the status of Jerusalem, for instance?

DA: I repeat to you what Prime Minister Sharon said: Jerusalem is the one indivisible, united, eternal capital of Israel forever and ever.

JJ: Do you have a particular message for the Jewish community of Southern California?

DA: There is great compatibility between the American economy and Israel. In Israel, we’re talking about a very developed high-tech economy with a very well trained labor force that is also excelling in areas like entrepreneurship. We are proud to be the United States’ largest trading partner in the Middle East.

There are many American companies that are represented in Israel. And we would like to see more. I would like to see them look into business opportunities for joint ventures and investments. Now is the time to invest. Equity is still cheap in Israel. The growth is up and tourists are back. The economy is moving in the right direction. We are deregulating, changing the tax code, privatizing — so I think now is a good time to invest in Israel.

Also in your area I have met with many leaders in the entertainment industry. I have invited many of them to Israel and many of them did come. I would take this opportunity to [invite] actors and actresses to come to Israel, to discover Israel, and also to promote it.

JJ: Is there anything that could derail or postpone the pullout?

DA: I hope not. We are prepared to do it. And we are going to do it. We understand the demonstrations. We are a democratic country and they have the right to do it. But Israel also is a country with the rule of law. D-day will be Aug. 16, and we would expect the settlers to leave voluntarily. I hope most of them will. And those who will not, we will have to deal with them, very compassionately and with great patience. And just bring them back one by one.

Disengagement Now — No Way to Peace

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for an Israeli pullout from Gaza and a few more settlements in the Shomron has found extensive initial approval among Jews in the Diaspora.

At first glance, this is understandable. The absence of a credible Palestinian negotiating partner, combined with Israel’s vigorous desire to create a more peaceful atmosphere in the Middle East, has made a partial segregation from the Palestinian Arabs appear to be a step in the right direction.

But before we leap, let’s look. Let’s pay attention to the serious voices of dissent.

Avi Dichter, outgoing head of Israeli intelligence, declared a few months ago, in front of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, that the evacuation of the northern Shomron (Samaria) would reproduce at Israel’s southern border the dilemma of constant mortar shelling that used to afflict the northern border. It required the intervention of Israeli ground forces to stop cross-border shelling from Lebanon.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Schlomo Ben Ami, a member of the Labor Party, as well as Shabtai Shavit, former head of intelligence, stated in near unison that the unilateral abandonment of the Gaza Strip under prevailing conditions would destabilize the region.

“The plan does not create the necessary minimum of balance that would enable long-term co-existence,” Shavit said.

Many in Israel and abroad see Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, as representing a basic change in the strategic goals of the Palestinians. However, his past as a close confidant of the late Yasser Arafat and his alarmingly militant statements about the future status of Jerusalem and the “right of return” raise doubts.

“Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] is not Arafat,” Zalman Shoval, Israel’s previous ambassador in Washington, stated last month. “But his objectives — not only according to intelligence assessments, but according to his own statements, as well — are no different from those of this predecessor.”

The Gaza pullout offers an appropriate opportunity to verify Abbas’ support for peace, and to test his influence for pursuing peace within the Palestinian Authority. This giant endeavor — the compulsory evacuation of some 10,000 Israeli citizens — could be set up in complete coordination with the Palestinian authorities. Lacking such agreement, the disengagement may cause devastating aftermaths:

In the absence of clear-cut accords with Abbas, the security situation in Israel could decisively degrade. Outgoing Chief of General Staff Moshe Yaalon said recently that in addition to Sderot, many other places are likely to be surprised with missiles from the Gaza Strip.

Terrorist groups would proclaim Israel’s unilateral step as their own victory, and this would likely aggravate future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. As former General Security Chief Ami Ayalon stated: “Retreat without getting anything in return is liable to be interpreted by some as surrender, and likely to strengthen extremist forces.”

The political situation could become much more complicated, and the pressure on Israel to continue making unilateral steps could also, according to Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, be enormously intensified. The pullout from Gaza now is considered as a step within the “road map” (peace plan) and no longer as a unilateral act in the absence of a Palestinian interlocutor. After the withdrawal, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States will probably force Israel to make additional, far-reaching concessions.

The inner discord in Israel could become huge and almost unbridgeable, especially as Israelis are getting nothing from Palestinians in return. We should not forget that the large majority of Israelis who supported Sharon and Likud voted for a party that was strictly against any unilateral abandonment of territories — which is exactly the policy Sharon advocates now. He defied the will of his party that opposed the Gaza pullout, and refused to conduct a referendum — even though the Israelis of Gaza asserted that they would have accepted the results of a referendum.

The Jewish ethos would be strongly tarnished. Dozens of synagogues and Torah centers, built with the full backing of the Israeli government, are slated to be violently destroyed by the IDF. The pictures of these holy houses, destroyed by Jews themselves, will be satellite-transmitted all over the world.

What a terrible negative impression such devastating pictures would leave with all viewers, Jews and non-Jews alike. It is and remains incomprehensible that such a traumatic action should happen without a binding accord with the Palestinians.

Finally, the Zionist ethos would be substantially enfeebled by a unilateral pullout. A impressive settlement in the desert, explicitly subsidized by the government, in which barren land was made miraculously fertile in the Zionist pioneering spirit, is on the verge of being devastated by Israel itself. A large swath of land that had been settled by Jews in the days before the 1948 War of Independence now shall become “free of Jews,” without any quid pro quo. By contrast, an orderly turnover of the Gaza Strip would allow many practical problems to be solved, such as the fate of the Israeli houses, farms and orchards in the Gaza Strip. On the condition that the Palestinians deliver real tradeoffs, the disengagement could become a meaningful step toward co-existence between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors.

A relinquishing of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians is not to be rejected principally. An abandonment of the Gaza Strip — if done in the scope of a bilateral peace process involving Abbas — would certainly weaken the strong opposition against disengagement. The settlers’ great sacrifice then would make more sense.

However, one-sided concessions are dangerously counterproductive. In this, former Israeli minister Natan Sharansky stands by his political credo consistently, unflinchingly. Sharansky’s thesis is that democracies do not war with each other, and that a peace with the Palestinians, therefore, can only be achieved in partnership with a democratic Palestinian authority. According to him, Israel gives up far too much when it pulls out from Gaza before the Palestinian government has fulfilled its promises for democratization and other reforms, which must include forswearing all future terrorism.

It is not surprising that the backing for Sharon’s disengagement program has fluctuated greatly, dipping below 50 percent at times.

People fail to understand why Israel does not require from the new Palestinian leader a meaningful bilateral negotiations for peace, especially as Israel prepares to do something so remarkable and unprecedented for the sake of peace.

Arthur Cohn is the Academy Award-winning producer of numerous films, including “The Garden of Finzi-Continis” and “One Day in September.” He lives in Basel, Switzerland.



The Gaza Fight

Imagine a person’s agony when the doctors tell him that in order to save his life, he must amputate a limb. (“The Battle Over Gaza in America,” June 17). Imagine the increased agony when a second group of doctors tells him that not only will amputation not help his condition, it will actually worsen it.

I think this is an apt analogy when thinking of the imminent withdrawal from Gaza.

Regardless of a one’s political and/or religious sentiments, every Jew should feel a great sense of agony over what is occurring to our brethren in Gush Katif. Necessary or unnecessary, it is nothing less than an amputation of our people from their land.

That is why I appreciated your fairly written cover story on Jon Hambourger and Hambourger is a level-headed, pragmatic person, who respects and loves all Jews regardless of their political and religious affiliation. Despite the fact that his political views may not exactly coincide with yours or mine, he has earned my respect as a Jew who will not stand by silently amidst his brothers’ and sisters’ pain.

We stand together with Hambourger and, and pray on behalf of our troubled brethren in Israel.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin
Kehillat Yavneh
Los Angeles

In February of this year, I traveled with my sister to Gush Katif. My life changed. My main mission became how I could help save this precious place. In the Gush (Kfar Darom) I saw schools, shuls, factories and, most important, a people who are dedicated in their belief in God, surrounded by a murderous enemy who will stop at nothing to destroy them. Please all God-fearing Jews and non-Jews, help save the Gush and Shomron. Without them, there goes Israel!

Mimi Matasar
Via e-mail

I just don’t understand what drives people like Jon Hambourger and his anti-Gaza disengagement group. They use two lines of argument to base their insistence on retaining Gaza: 1) Eretz Israel, including Gaza, was given to the Jews by God, and 2) Gaza is needed for Israel’s security. The first argument is weak, and the second is incorrect.

How good is a biblical claim from more than 3,000 years ago in the modern world, especially considering that the claim was not maintained for most of those 3,000 years. It is true there have been Jewish residents of Jerusalem, Hebron and the Galilee continuously since before the Babylonian exile, but except for about 100 years during the first century B.C.E. Hasmonean (Maccabee) Kingdom (which did include Gaza), there has not been Jewish control of the land until the U.N. partition in 1948. The land was controlled by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabians, Christian Crusaders, Ottoman Turks and the British.

Israel’s right to exist comes from the U.N. separation, and the fact that for almost 60 years, millions of Jews have lived on the land and built a democratic, economically successful nation. But we must not forget that Palestinians have lived in the region for far longer, and they, too, have earned rights to the land. And that brings us to the security question.

Israel’s security ultimately relies on Israel being a democratic society. Sure a strong military can maintain control in the short term of an Israel that includes the West Bank and Gaza. But a Palestinian population that is treated as second-class citizens and feels dispossessed will be a continual security threat. To control that population, the Israel government will continue to get less democratic. The Palestinian population will develop into the majority over the few years, which brings up the very worrisome demographic problem.

Surely the demographic problem is one of the reasons that pushed Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to back Gaza disengagement. It puts off the demographic problem for about 15 years.

So why do anti-Gaza pullout people like Jon Hambourger want to retain Gaza? It will surely make them feel good. But, as a Jewish American, I worry that if they are successful, it will result in a weakened Israel and will end Israel’s being a Jewish homeland.

Jeff Warner
La Habra Heights

The Real Brains?

After reading this article in the June 10 edition of your newspaper, I was hard-pressed not to think it was racist (“Rare Ailment Occurs More in Ashkenazis”). Yet, in a strange way, I was also flattered, as my husband and I are both Tay-Sachs carriers, and I can only think that some other “sphingolipid-storage”- challenged researchers came up with the tests to determine if a fetus has the disease. Thanks to them, we have three healthy, intelligent kids.

Amy Schneider

The question of Ashkenazi intelligence has previously been discussed by Max Dimont in his book, “Jews, God and History,” where he connects it to genetics and social values, coupled with natural selection and Darwinian evolution. If finches in the Galapagos can evolve into different species within generations, then Jewish intelligence can be linked to the tradition that sends the first-born son to the Yeshiva and marries him to the daughter of a rich father who can support him and his family while he devotes his life to study. All of which is in contrast to the Catholic tradition of giving the first-born son to the church and a life of celibacy without issue.

E Richard Cohen


In “Israeli Artist Paints a Path to Healing” (June 17) Rhea Carmi’s age should have been listed as 63. Her relative who died in the Yom Kippur War was her brother-in-law.

Merchant Mistake

I read your article in an April 1 issue titled, “Zucky’s Counter Culture,” where you quote Zucky Altman as saying that in 1954, “Santa Monica had one Jewish merchant, a dress shop.”

Altman’s memory is incorrect. I can remember at least four Jewish merchants in Santa Monica in 1954, and I believe there were a number of additional ones:

1. My mother (Rose Gold) and uncle (William Shalat), who had a ladies’ clothing store at 1431-1433 Third Street (I count these as “one merchant”).

2. Adolph Braun (my godfather), who owned Braun’s Men’s Wear next door to my mother’s store.

3. Marty Goodfriend, who owned Goodfriend’s Jewelers.

4. The Jewish owner of another ladies’ clothing store across Third Street from my mother’s store. I cannot remember that person’s name.

Arnold H. Gold
Studio City

Chabad Necessity?

I wish I could agree with Jacob Neusner’s praise of Chabad in your June 17 article (“Why Reform, Chabad Are Necessary”). I find them to be a bigoted, self-servicing religious body best described as a cult with lots of chutzpah, and whose pockets are lined with lots of money, and no lay board to govern them. Nor do we need ghetto living in America.

Hyman H. Haves
Pacific Palisades

As I read Jacob Neusner’s column I was reminded of the old adage, “Those who know, do; those who don’t know, teach). It is a shame that one who teaches Judaic studies apparently knows so little about Orthodox Judaism. I am a member of both a Conservative and a Chabad shul and have attended a Reform synagogue a few times in order to say Kaddish and as a bar mitzvah invitee. Contrary to Neusner’s assertion that the Reform movement is “willing to cope with problems that Orthodox reading of halacha treat as cut and dried, and which they botch completely,” and that “there is a human dimension to take into account,” which Reform takes into account completely misstates the Orthodox and especially the Chabad movement. The non-Jewish woman he cited who raised “three Jewish children” and could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery did not raise Jewish children. She gave three children, born of a Jewish father, a Jewish education for which Hashem should bless her. She had the chance to become Jewish by converting prior to her death but, for whatever reason, she did not do so and therefore cannot be buried in a halachically Jewish cemetery. It is not a matter of being heartless but of observing Torah Judaism. If you want to be buried with your spouse in a Jewish cemetery you should marry a Jew. It is one of the things that people intermarrying should discuss beforehand but probably never do.

Morton Resnick


U.S. Acts Cautiously on Mideast Issues

It may be the most ideological presidency in recent memory, but on at least one issue, the Bush administration is pure pragmatism.

As Israel gets set for its summer of disengagement discontent, the administration has responded with a cautious, practical approach that has angered ideologues on both sides of the Mideast debate.

That could be the best strategy in a situation rife with potential for nasty surprises. But it could also be a dangerous dead end if the administration’s caution is just a cover for something else — a desire to avoid messy Mideast matters.

The recent Washington visit of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas triggered a new burst of speculation about what could come next, after Israel has left all of Gaza and part of the West Bank in August.

The administration continues to send out mixed signals — not a surprise, given its goal of helping both Abbas and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon deal with strong domestic opposition. At a joint news conference with Abbas, the president seemed to back away from his April 2004 promise that this country doesn’t expect Israel to abandon every inch of the West Bank, an acknowledgment of tacit understandings between Israel and the Palestinians about the big settlement blocs.

In fact, there was no change in U.S. policy — the administration has always said final borders need to be negotiated — but that didn’t prevent shudders of anxiety among pro-Israel leaders.

At the same time, the administration refused to do what Abbas wanted and ratchet up the pressure on Israel on the always-explosive issue of Jewish settlements.

The reason for both actions was the same: the Bush administration, taking things one step at a time, does not want to do anything to jeopardize either the upcoming Gaza disengagement or Abbas’ efforts to start moving the Palestinian Authority down the road of peace and democracy, key first steps in reviving any active peace process, the administration believes.

To do all that, officials here are willing to cut Sharon some slack as he faces declining support for the Gaza plan at home, and overlook the fact that Abbas has been less than aggressive in confronting terror groups.

The administration appears determined to keep its focus glued to immediate, practical priorities, instead of what could come next, despite strong pressure from some quarters to start talking more about the next steps in a revived peace process.

Administration Mideast strategists want the road map for Palestinian statehood to move to the center of the diplomatic game board after disengagement, and they hope the pullout will create conditions that will jump-start that plan, but there is a realistic awareness that there are too many unknowns to plan much beyond the present.

Those unknowns include the possibility new Palestinian terrorism or violence by Jewish extremists could delay or derail the plan.

Once implemented, the pullout could result in an orderly transfer of power to the Palestinians and a strong effort by Abbas to pacify the region — or it could turn Gaza into the launching pad for new terror attacks.

There is also the Palestinian elections, which have been postponed until November, in which Hamas expects to do well. Just how well and how successful Abbas is in turning the terror group into responsible players in his government are big unknowns.

Then there’s the question of Sharon. Does he plan to use the disengagement to tighten Israel’s grip on major West Bank settlements and put further negotiations into “formaldehyde,” as a top aide colorfully put it? Or has he started something that will inevitably lead to new pullouts and create conditions for the negotiation of a final settlement, as another aide has hinted?

Sharon isn’t talking, and nobody in Washington can accurately assess his intentions.

Then there’s the Abbas wild card. Many Jewish leaders here believe that he is sincere in wanting to reform his government and pursue peace — but uncertain about his ability to fill that tall order.

Given those huge uncertainties, the administration has adopted the view that a cautious, incremental approach may be more practical and less risky than the grandiose but failed Mideast plans of past administrations. There is a realization that if the disengagement fails, the region will once again plunge into chaos. So working for the disengagement is the top priority; while the road map remains on the table, figuring out how to make it happen will wait until the disengagement is complete.

That approach makes sense, but there are risks. Without assertive U.S. leadership, the current window of opportunity in the region could slam shut. Finding the proper balance between cautious pragmatism and creative leadership will be the top challenge facing this administration in the months ahead.

A one-step-at-a-time approach makes sense in today’s fluid environment, but it could prove disastrous if, after the August disengagement, it is revealed as a cover for a different kind of disengagement — the disengagement of the United States from active involvement in the search for Middle East peace.


Nation & World Briefs

High Flier Takes Over

Dan Halutz, a former air force commander, replaced Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon as chief of the Israel Defense Forces’ General Staff at a blue-ribbon ceremony Wednesday. Considered a confidant of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Halutz’s immediate challenge is implementing the Israeli withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

“The decision of the government and the Knesset on the matter of ‘disengagement’ will be carried out with the proper sensitivity and the required determination,” Halutz said in his inaugural speech. Halutz, 56, is Israel’s 18th chief of staff but the first to come from the air force. Another strategic concern facing him is the Iranian nuclear program, which analysts describe as the greatest threat to Israel’s existence.

Dollars for Withdrawal

Israel will pay evacuated settlers an average of $450,000 per family in compensation. The government figure was presented Wednesday at an interministerial meeting in Jerusalem. Some 8,500 settlers are to be relocated when Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank beginning in mid-August. Their compensation packages will be set according to criteria including family size and how long they lived in their former homes. Some settlers have petitioned against the withdrawal plan at Israel’s High Court of Justice, calling the relocation terms inadequate.

Ya’alon: Another Intifada Seen

Israel can expect Palestinian terrorism to flare up after it withdraws from the Gaza Strip, the retiring chief of staff said. In an interview with Ha’aretz published in part on Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon said that unless Israel continued ceding land to the Palestinians after the withdrawal planned for this summer, they would inevitably return to terrorism.

“If there is an Israeli commitment to another move, we will gain another period of quiet,” he said. “If not, there will be an eruption,” adding, “There is a high probability of a second war of terror.”

Terrorist groups in the West Bank and Gaza largely have honored the cease-fire declared by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last February, but Ya’alon said this was no indication of lasting peace prospects. Citing Abbas’ calls for a “right of return” for millions of Arab refugees to land now inside the Jewish state, and Abbas’ refusal to crack down on terrorist groups, Ya’alon said that a future Palestinian state would try to undermine Israel and ultimately would lead to war.

Holocaust Heroes Honored

Yad Vashem posthumously honored a Dutch couple and a Pole for rescuing Jews during World War II. On Wednesday, Albertus and Margaretha Haverkort of Holland and Zofia Wroblewska-WieWiorowska of Poland, who hid nine Jews from the Nazis, were named Righteous Gentiles.

Irish Group Protests Israel

An anti-Israel group in Ireland will stage a protest before an Israel-Ireland soccer game. The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign has organized a demonstration against Israeli “occupation” to coincide with the arrival of the Israeli soccer team and its hundreds of traveling supporters in Dublin on Saturday for a World Cup qualifying match. The protesters will be marching from the center of Dublin to the Israeli Embassy two blocks from the soccer stadium. The group is encouraging people attending the match to wave Palestinian flags. An attempt to get Irish fans to boycott the last match between the teams in Tel Aviv in March was met with complete indifference. Neither the Israeli Embassy in Dublin nor the Israel Football Association would comment on the planned protest.

Denying the Deniers

Internet providers should block French users from accessing a Holocaust denial site, Paris’ district attorney said. The comments, made Monday, came during a trial on the issue of whether Web users should be allowed to access Aaargh, which in French stands for the Association of Amateur War and Holocaust Historians. The case, which went to trial March 8, was brought by eight anti-racist associations fighting to put into effect Internet filters to forbid access to Aaargh in France. A law passed in June 2004 would allow a French judge to order the site’s host to shut down the site or prohibit access to it. Two of the site’s hosts — OLM and Globat — have agreed to prohibit access, but a third — the American company — has refused to cooperate.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.


AIPAC and Sharon Get What They Need

A troubled but still potent American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) got a boost this week from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who addressed its largest-ever policy conference in Washington, with a record 4,500 delegates gathered for three days of speeches, workshops, schmoozing and lobbying.

And the pro-Israel lobby giant, in turn, gave Sharon what he wanted most: an explicit endorsement of his government’s imminent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, backed up by a Tuesday lobbying effort that urged lawmakers to continue U.S. support for the plan. This week’s events lay the groundwork for expected new requests for U.S. aid to Israel, to help carry out the disengagement.

AIPAC, which like other major pro-Israel groups has been accused of being tardy and unenthusiastic in its support for the disengagement, was careful to signal support without allowing the plan and the emotional debate over it to become the centerpiece of the high-profile conference.

Unswayed by outbursts of heckling when Sharon spoke on Tuesday, the AIPAC leadership explicitly endorsed his plan in a resolution approved by the executive committee as part of the group’s 2005 “action agenda.”

The committee overwhelmingly rejected amendments offered by Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) President Morton Klein that would have “spelled out the costs” of the Gaza “expulsion of Jews,” according to the ZOA leader.

Natan Sharansky, former minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs addressed the crowd but did not talk about the reason for his resignation from the Sharon government — or his unhappiness over the Gaza plan.

And AIPAC sessions on the Gaza disengagement were “fair and reasonably effective in making the case for what the Prime Minister is doing,” said an official of a dovish Jewish group attending the conference.

“Given differences within the AIPAC membership over the Gaza disengagement,” said the source, who requested anonymity, “I think they did a good job of showing support and lining up the membership behind the prime minister.”

But a former AIPAC official, also speaking not for attribution, characterized the group’s endorsement as unenthusiastic.

“The real story is that they were forced to make a statement supporting it as part of the price for getting Sharon to speak to them,” the source said. “The mood in the hall was skeptical — that was evident every time a speaker mentioned it — but they had no choice.”

From the rostrum, speakers praising Sharon’s plan produced limited applause or stony silence; scattered through the vast convention center were delegates wearing the blank orange buttons signifying solidarity with Gaza residents opposed to the pullout.

Several hecklers were ejected when Sharon addressed the conference on Tuesday, promising to carry out the disengagement “according to the timetable and the decisions authorized by the Government,” and to work with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “as long as we do not risk our security. That is the red line.”

Sharon promised that the disengagement “will increase Israel’s security and reduce friction between the Palestinians and us. It will help advance our national strategic interests, promote our economy and prosperity and advance the development of the Negev and the Galilee.”

And he strongly endorsed the international quartet’s “road map” for Palestinian statehood, calling it “the only political plan for a peaceful solution with the Palestinians.”

But he also emphasized that the road map will be implemented in stages and that “true peace will only be realized after full security is achieved and terrorism is eliminated.”

As a goodwill gesture, he announced plans to release an additional 400 Palestinian prisoners.

Ardent peace groups praised AIPAC for standing behind Sharon.

“They did the right thing,” said Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum. “AIPAC’s highly visible support for the Prime Minister’s disengagement plan sends an important message to the administration and to Congress.”

And that includes to members who might be inclined to erect roadblocks to U.S. support for the Gaza plan, he said.

AIPAC delegates had more than 450 lobbying appointments on Tuesday; support for the plan, along with continuing U.S. aid to Israel and stronger efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program, were at the top of their agenda.

“We’re very pleased that AIPAC has given its formal endorsement to the U.S. government’s support for the disengagement initiative,” said Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now. “This new policy position reflects the broad backing that disengagement enjoys in the American Jewish community and in Israel. “

AIPAC Still Packs Them In

AIPAC policy conferences are always exercises in political theater scripted to make a point about the group’s power.

But the stakes were higher than ever this year as AIPAC friends and foes alike looked for signs that the ongoing federal investigation of two fired AIPAC employees over leaked classified documents have put a dent in AIPAC’s presence on Capitol Hill.

There was no sign of weakness at Monday’s banquet, attended by almost enough senators to invoke cloture: 55, about the same as 2004. They were joined by 215 members of the House, up from 177 a year ago — by several accounts an all-time record.

The turnout reflected congressional confidence AIPAC will emerge unscathed from the current investigation — and also an extensive grass-roots effort by the group to encourage attendance.

During AIPAC’s famous “roll call,” congressional guests were greeted with ovations ranging from the tepid to the tumultuous (Sen. Lincoln Chaffee, R-RI, widely seen as cool toward Israel, produced barely a ripple; Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., almost brought the house down).

All four top congressional leaders spoke to the Monday night gathering in speeches that generally stuck close to AIPAC’s talking points for the week: assurances of continuing U.S. support for Israel, warnings to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to do more than just talk about curbing terrorism and sober words about the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

Also in attendance were administration officials, top political party leaders and numerous members of the diplomatic corps, most notably two envoys from Libya.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, now chair of the Democratic National

Committee, and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, filling in for Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman, addressed the group on Sunday night, agreeing on the need for strong U.S.-Israel relations but disagreeing on which party can best maintain them.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, signaling that the administration does not regard the pro-Israel lobby group as treif because of its ongoing troubles, received strong applause when she said the administration’s goal of democracy in the Middle East is “unassailable and incontrovertible,” and urged the Palestinians to “advance democratic reforms and dismantle all terrorist networks” as it pursues statehood.

But she was greeted with only faint applause when she said that Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan “presents an unprecedented and incredibly delicate opportunity for peace and we must all work together to capitalize on this precious moment.”

Rice also praised the recent Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, but said “Syria must also remove its intelligence forces and allow the Lebanese people to be free.”

Worries Over Federal Probe

Although no charges have been filed against the fired AIPAC employees being investigated by federal authorities, the controversy shadowed the conference and produced anxiety among delegates and the numerous Jewish leaders who came to show their support for the lobby group.

“There’s anxiety; there’s a cloud over [AIPAC],” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “So it is important for leaders of the American Jewish community to be here and show support.”

Foxman expressed the view of many conference attendees.

“There are so many things we don’t know, so many unanswered questions about the investigation,” he said.

“What’s remarkable is how they have been able to keep this conference focused on their big issues like Iran and terrorism,” a former AIPAC official said. “But you hear a lot of talk about [the investigation] in the hallways. Mostly, it’s people asking what’s going to happen next. And none of us has any real answers. I’m not sure AIPAC’s top officials know.”

A member of the large Los Angeles delegation downplayed the effect of the probe on AIPAC’s lobbying juggernaut.

“I’m not concerned about the health of the organization,” said Lee Zeff, a Realtor from Beverly Hills. “I’m not concerned about the reputation in Congress.”

As evidence, Zeff noted the veritable waiting list of congressional leaders lined up to address the conference.

Zeff added that the delegates were not especially focused on the FBI probe: “People are thinking about Iran. People are thinking about Hezbollah … Hamas….”

Zeff’s wife, Linda Macdonald, who is not Jewish, did express concern, particularly about misconceptions she’s noticed among relatives in her native England. From the soundbites they’ve heard, she reported, people are assuming AIPAC was involved in spying. As a result, Macdonald said, she’s found herself doing more public relations for both AIPAC and Israel.

AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr addressed the undercurrent of worries in an opening speech on Sunday, repeating his claim that “we now know — directly from the government — that neither AIPAC nor any of its current employees is or ever has been the target of this investigation.”

And he pledged to “take the steps necessary to ensure that every employee of AIPAC, now and in the future, conducts themselves in a manner of which you can be proud — using policies and procedures that provide transparency, accountability and maintain our effectiveness.”

Additional reporting courtesy of Washington Jewish Week.


Gaza Strife and American Jews


Civil strife in Israel over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan could cause new strains in the American Jewish community and accelerate the turning away from the pro-Israel cause, especially among younger Jews.

The mounting strife, which includes death threats by anti-disengagement activists and comparisons of the withdrawal to Nazi efforts to make Europe Judenrein, could add to Israel’s public relations woes in this country.

Those concerns are being quietly discussed in Jewish boardrooms across the country.

Support for the Gaza plan remains strong among American Jews, despite bitter opposition by a handful of Jewish and evangelical Christian groups. But uncertainty over the outcome and the fear of further enraging strident opponents have pushed some major Jewish groups to keep a low profile on the plan.

“We’re not prepared for it,” said an official with one major Jewish group. “We’re not prepared for the possibility of virtual civil war in Israel, and we’re not prepared for the fallout in our own community.”

Most major pro-Israel groups say they support the policies of the Jerusalem government, including disengagement. But many waited until the withdrawal was impending to speak up directly; others continue to keep their heads down, avoiding the issue as much as they can.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, with a diverse membership that includes some disengagement opponents, has been criticized for months for what some say has been a limp response to the plan; only in late February did its chairman tell Sharon that the umbrella group “proudly supports and has supported your historic disengagement plan.”

The pro-Israel lobby has supported Sharon, but has been uncharacteristically reserved about it as the debate rages in Israel and as some pro-Israel forces in this country campaign against it.

Overall, the attitude has been this: if Sharon, who has spent his life fighting for Israel’s security, wants to get out of Gaza and some of the West Bank, who are we to second-guess him? But there has also been a reluctance to be too out-front on the subject.

Very few mainstream Jewish leaders actively support the settler movement, but many are fearful of being regarded as opponents.

Some, feeling betrayed by an Oslo peace process that turned sour, are determined to restrain their enthusiasm for any new peace move, fearful that it, too, could prove a chimera.

Groups on the left are in an even more awkward position.

Many believe that Sharon’s real goal is to use the Gaza plan to solidify Israel’s hold on major portions of the West Bank by putting new peace talks in “formaldehyde,” as a Sharon aide once said. That, most doves believe, would produce new conflict and kill any chances for peace.

At the same time, there is hope the plan, if implemented, will set a precedent that will make Israel’s exit from most of the West Bank inevitable, regardless of Sharon’s real motives.

Some on the left are loathe to be seen lining up behind Sharon, the early engine behind settlement expansion, but fearful of not supporting the only peace move currently on the table.

While Jewish groups try to find ways to express support for the plan without being too open about it, or simply cower before a vocal minority of opponents, the images coming out of Israel are already sending shock waves through the Jewish community and the American public.

Settlers threatening violence against the soldiers sent to remove them, or rabbis who issue religious edicts justifying the killing of the Gaza pullout planners, do not represent the picture of Israel Jewish leaders here want Americans to see.

The Christian Zionists who are traveling to Gaza to proclaim that the pullout is a violation of “God’s plan” for Israel symbolize a kind of extremism that many fear will further tarnish Israel’s image with mainstream America.

American Jews are busy telling their non-Jewish neighbors that Israel is a moderate, peace-loving place and the only democracy in the Middle East, but the shrill death threats against Sharon and the fiery visions of Israel’s future by some of the Evangelicals contradict that message.

At a time when Jewish groups are fighting the divestment effort by mainline Protestant churches, the anti-withdrawal vitriol of some of Israel’s extremists will just add fuel to that bias-fed fire.

Also troubling may be the impact on an American Jewish community that a recent study showed continues to edge away from active involvement in the pro-Israel cause.

Civil strife in Israel and the extremist positions of those who promise fierce resistance to any effort to uproot them are likely to accelerate that trend, especially among younger Jews.

Jews who are deeply committed to Israel will be saddened and disturbed by the likely confrontations over Gaza, but their attachment to the Jewish state will not be changed. But for many whose connection is much more tenuous, the expected clashes and the poisonous political atmosphere could accelerate an estrangement that will further weaken the bonds between American Jews and the Jewish state.


Israel Foresees Pullout Headaches


On the face of it, nothing illustrates Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s political odyssey from settlement builder to settlement dismantler better than a recently published report on West Bank outposts.

The report details how government ministers and officials broke the law and circumvented regulations in building and funding dozens of unauthorized settler outposts in the West Bank.

Sharon, once one of the greatest culprits, was the man who, in his new incarnation, commissioned what he knew would be a scathing indictment.

But it’s not that simple. Sharon commissioned the report under intense American pressure to take down the outposts. And so far, despite the report’s findings and recommendations, the Americans are not convinced he intends to act.

The response to the report highlighted another key issue. It shows just how difficult it will be to implement Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza and the northern part of the West Bank.

Israeli officials are expecting such massive resistance to the disengagement that they have developed a detailed plan of operation to carry it out.

After adopting the report’s findings, the government deferred dismantling the 24 outposts it had long promised the Americans to remove. That led some politicians and pundits to ask how, if it backs away from taking down tiny outposts, the government will dismantle 25 full-fledged settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank when the time comes this summer?

Sharon commissioned the report to demonstrate good faith and carry out commitments he made to the Bush administration last April. After promising the Americans to dismantle unauthorized outposts built since March 2001, he found he did not know the genesis and precise legal status of each one. Similarly, under pressure not to expand full-fledged, authorized settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he found he lacked accurate information on their precise borders.

So he set up two teams: One, under lawyer Talia Sasson, was to clarify the legal status and history of the unauthorized outposts. The other, under reserve Brig. Gen. Baruch Spiegel, was to demarcate the physical boundaries of all existing settlements.

But the Americans remain unimpressed.

American officials note that although Sharon had shown good faith, they still do not have a list of unauthorized settlements or a timetable for their evacuation. Nor has Spiegel yet produced the required border documentation.

The report by former chief prosecutor Sasson, released last week, charged that ministers and senior aides, some of them settlers, had systematically turned a blind eye to the law.

It also charged that budgets were funneled clandestinely through the Housing Ministry, that building permission was covertly granted by the Defense Ministry. There was a system of saying one thing in public and doing the opposite behind the scenes and Likud and Labor administrations were equally at fault.

“The picture that is revealed is one of crass violation of the law by state institutions, public authorities, regional councils in Judea, Samaria and Gaza and settlers, all by creating the false impression of an organized system operating according to law,” Sasson wrote.

The most important thing now, she said, was to regulate the procedures and stop the double talk.

In response, the government set up a committee under Justice Minister Tzippi Livni to root out the covert practices by laying down clear regulations for authorizing and financing outposts and initiating new legislation if necessary.

At a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Sharon was adamant about the need to dismantle the 24 outposts established since March 2001. That was an Israeli commitment in the internationally approved Israeli-Palestinian peace “road map,” he explained. But he did not propose any timetable.

That brought deep differences between Likud and Labor ministers to the fore. The Labor ministers wanted to see immediate action; the Likud ministers favored waiting.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz of the Likud argued that disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank was Israel’s top policy priority, and the government could not afford to be sidetracked by other issues.

But Labor’s Haim Ramon countered that to do nothing now would be to show weakness and send a message to the extremists that they could stop the disengagement by using threats and force.

Rejecting the Labor argument, the government decided to concentrate only on implementing disengagement.

To that end, 18,000 police officers — three-quarters of the entire Israeli police force — and two army divisions have been assigned to the job, and already they are gearing up to meet a wide range of settler and extremist threats.

Only when this huge operation is complete, Sharon and Mofaz say, will they focus on the outposts that the Sasson report, American pressure and Israel’s road map commitments demand they take down.

Whether the United States and the rest of the international community have the patience to go along with this policy remains to be seen.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report


Bombing Creates Quandary for All

The late February suicide bombing in Tel Aviv shattered a three-month lull in terror and brought key Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking issues into sharp relief.

The terror attack, which came just three weeks after Israeli and Palestinian leaders declared an end to more than four years of hostilities, forced both sides to define their new relationship more clearly.

It enabled Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to clarify his policy toward the Palestinians, finger Syria and the Hezbollah as potential spoilers, and re-emphasize his view that there can be no real peacemaking until the Palestinians dismantle their armed terrorists.

It also highlighted Israel’s vulnerability to suicide terror attacks and rekindled the debate on the security fence.

Lastly, it underlined the core Palestinian dilemma: How to stop rogue terrorist cells from subverting the peace process without actually taking them on. Israeli military intelligence traced the orders for the attack to the Damascus headquarters of the radical Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which has dozens of agents on the West Bank, also was said to be implicated. According to military intelligence, the Jihad in Syria used Hezbollah channels in Lebanon to convey instructions to Hezbollah agents in the West Bank, who, in turn, operated a small Jihad cell in the West Bank town of Tulkarm.

In a pre-bombing video, the bomber identified himself as a Tulkarm-based Jihad operative. A few days later, Israeli forces found and dismantled a huge car bomb between Tulkarm and Jenin. Again Islamic Jihad in Damascus was said to be behind the planning, with the Tulkarm cell responsible for the actual operation on the ground.

The new terror, clearly designed to scuttle the nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace process, left Israeli policy planners in a quandary.

If they retaliated with military might they could play into the terrorists’ hands and destroy the fragile process. And if they waited for the Palestinians to act, things could get badly out of hand. Instead, they appealed to the international community to limit the spoilers’ room for maneuver and put pressure on the Palestinians.

On Monday, Israel’s Foreign Ministry summoned ambassadors of countries on the U.N. Security Council and in the European Union for a briefing. Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, head of research in military intelligence, explained the Syrian, Hezbollah and Jihad involvement.

The Foreign Ministry’s director-general, Ron Prosor, said the Hezbollah and Jihad were trying to undermine the cease-fire agreement Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had reached with the terrorists. And Syria was to blame for allowing the Jihad offices to operate on its territory, he said.

Late Monday, Feb. 28, the U.N. Security Council condemned the Feb. 25 attack “in the strongest possible terms.” Noting in its statement to the media that the Palestinian leadership also had condemned the attack, the council urged the Palestinian leadership to “take immediate, credible steps to find those responsible for this terrorist attack and bring them to justice and encourage further and sustained action to prevent other acts of terrorism.”

Clearly feeling the heat, Syria, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad all vigorously denied the charges.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, already under massive international pressure to pull his troops out of Lebanon, told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, “It is a pointlessly offensive accusation. Syria had nothing to do with it.”

Hezbollah officials dismissed the Israeli charges as “beneath contempt.” And Islamic Jihad’s Gaza chief, Mohammed al-Hindi, claimed the bombing was the work of a rogue cell acting on its own.

“The Islamic Jihad’s policy has not changed. We are still committed to the period of calm we agreed with Abu Mazen,” he declared, using the popular name for Abbas.

Israel also sought to apply pressure directly on Abbas’s new Palestinian leadership.

Sharon himself took the lead, warning that the new diplomatic process would get absolutely nowhere unless the Palestinian Authority confronted the terrorists and disarmed them.

“While Israel is interested in advancing toward a settlement with the Palestinians, there will be no diplomatic progress, no progress until the Palestinians take strong action to eliminate the terrorist organizations and their infrastructure,” he told a meeting of Likud Party members.

“Israel,” he warned darkly, “will not compromise over the security of its citizens.”

Sharon has no wish to be caught in a situation where Palestinian rogue organizations carry out terror and Israel can’t respond because of its concern for the peace process. And the subtext of his message was that if terror continues, Israel will take military action, even if that means sacrificing the chance for peace.

Meanwhile, Israel is exploring other options.

By far the strongest lever it has is the release of Palestinian prisoners. Writing in the mass circulation daily Ma’ariv, columnist Ben Dror Yemini argued that Israel shouldn’t stop the political process or its disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank, “because that is just what the terrorists want.”

Instead, it should make the rate of prisoner release dependent on the degree of terror.

“Release the prisoners gradually — 20 at the end of every quiet month,” he wrote. “Every violation of the cease-fire will lead to a suspension of the releases for a period of time that Israel alone will decide. ”

The bombing also highlighted the fact that the government has completed the construction of only one-third of the security fence designed to keep the bombers out.

Even if there is progress in peacemaking with the Palestinians, politicians and pundits argued that Israel should rely on its own devices to keep the bombers out — devices like the fence. So far, only some 132 miles of the planned 372-mile route are in place.

On the Palestinian side, Abbas, in the short time he has been in power, has made some positive security moves. He has appointed a new interior minister, who is charged with enforcing the cease-fire, and warned a group of new military commanders that they would be sacked if violence isn’t stopped.

As for moves on the ground, Palestinian forces have closed down 12 arms-smuggling tunnels in Gaza and arrested six Jihad terrorists.

But the bottom line is that so far there is no sign of any willingness to actually dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. That could be fatal for the peace process.

If the terror continues and Abbas does nothing about the terrorists, the process will die. It could die, too, even if there is quiet, and Sharon continues to demand dismantling of the terrorist groups as a condition for progress in peacemaking.

Which leads to what is perhaps the most important question of all: What will the American position be a few months down the road, if there is quiet — or relative quiet — but the terrorists remain intact?

Leslie Susser is diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.


Terror in Tel Aviv

by Dan Baron, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Last Friday night’s attack on the Stage killed five people and wounded more than 50, turning the usually raucous Tel Aviv beachfront promenade into a nightmare of blood and debris.

The bomber was a 21-year-old Palestinian from the city of Tulkarm, acting in the name of Islamic Jihad. The terrorist group’s own leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip denied any involvement in the bombing, which violated their truce talks with Mahmoud Abbas. Then came a claim from Islamic Jihad’s Beirut branch, a proxy of its Damascus headquarters.

Among the dead were three members of a close-knit Israel Defense Forces reserve combat unit and the fiancée of another member of the unit. All died immediately. Yael Orbach, a 28-year-old acting student, was to have been married in three weeks — she had planned to hand out wedding invitations that evening. Her fiancé, Ofir Gonen, was seriously wounded.

“I call on these people and the army, in tears and with full consciousness, to avenge Yael Orbach,” her father, Yisrael, told Army Radio on Sunday. “If they do not avenge this righteous person, I will.”

The fifth victim, Odelia Hobera, 26, died Monday. She was going to a birthday party she’d organized at Stage.

Three of Gonen’s comrades — Yitzhak Buzaglo, Arik Nagar and Ronen Reuvenon — were killed. Buzaglo’s wife, Linda, remains in critical condition.

Unilateral Withdrawal

I, along with what the polls say is 60 percent of Israelis — and maybe even Ariel Sharon, too — trust Mahmoud Abbas’ good intentions. More than that, I’m impressed by what he’s done on the ground — by prevailing on Hamas and the other terrorist groups to “cool down” the violence a week after he took office, and reading them the riot act after their rockets started flying again a day after the hopeful Sharm el-Sheik summit. He seems to be the real thing — a radical departure from Arafat, the kind of Palestinian leader whom peace-lovers have been waiting for since this bloody mess began.

But even if Abbas’ intentions aren’t enough — if somebody kills him, if the warriors of the intifada decide it’s not over, if his security forces don’t follow his orders, if trigger-happy Israeli soldiers or settlers break the fragile truce — I would be disappointed, but not overly so. I don’t have a lot of faith in the Palestinian body politic, even with Abbas. What I do have faith in is Sharon and his disengagement plan. Whatever happens with Abbas and the truce, I believe Sharon is going to get us out of Gaza and a chunk of the West Bank, maybe by the end of this year as scheduled.

Sharon’s disengagement is the real peace process, the first step toward ending the occupation, toward getting Israelis out of the Palestinians’ midst. And what makes it a masterstroke, and superior to the Oslo Accord, is its unilateralism. It doesn’t depend on the Palestinian body politic, only on Israel’s. And with a political colossus like Sharon in power, with Israeli public opinion behind the plan by a 2-1 margin or better, and with the Bush administration now basically declaring disengagement an American strategic interest, the Israeli body politic is healthy. Healthy enough to finally overcome the intimidations of the settler movement. Strong enough to actually do the once-unthinkable — remove 9,000 Jewish settlers from their homes, along with the soldiers who’ve been dying and killing to protect them all these years.

And if that can be done, a precedent will be set for doing the same in the interior of the West Bank, in areas where settlements were planted deliberately as a “Jewish presence” amid densely populated Palestinian areas. If such a scale of disengagement is ultimately carried out, we will be able to declare the post-1967 occupation effectively over. All we’ll have left with the Palestinians is basically a border dispute.

It’s possible. If we can unilaterally get out of Gaza and a little part of the West Bank now, I see no reason why we can’t get out of a much larger part of the West Bank later.

This may sound overly optimistic, but only to people who haven’t noticed what’s been going on along Israel’s northern border since the army pulled out of south Lebanon in May 2000. What’s been going on is a fair approximation of peace and quiet. Up there, Israel’s nearly 5-year-old experiment with unilateral withdrawal has worked. Not perfectly — Hezbollah sometimes fires at Israeli targets, but then Israeli spy jets frequently fly over Lebanon — yet the level of violence is a little fraction of what it was for a whole generation. Ask the Israelis in the north if unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon was a good idea. Ask the soldiers who don’t have to go back there.

Many argue that Hezbollah’s “victory” over the Israelis in Lebanon inspired the Palestinians to launch the intifada, and while I think there’s an element of truth to this, on the whole it’s a mistake. There’s no doubt the Palestinians were encouraged by Hezbollah at the start of the intifada — they freely admitted it — but to suggest that they never would have gotten the idea to fight Israel if not for Hezbollah’s example is to erase Palestinian-Israeli history. And to think Hezbollah’s inspiration alone could have kept the Palestinians going for four and half years, to die in the thousands and be reduced to destitution, is silly. If not for the pullout from Lebanon — Ehud Barak’s lasting achievement as prime minister — Israel would have ended up fighting the intifada in the territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon at the same time.

So while Oslo turned out to be a failure, unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon turned out to be a success, and the latter is also a precedent worth keeping in mind as disengagement goes forward.

But it’s not only Israel’s security that stands to benefit by withdrawal from the settlements — Israel’s morality will certainly benefit, and by morality I mean how we treat the Palestinians. Whatever anyone thinks of them, nothing gave Israel the right to move into the West Bank and Gaza after the Six-Day War when there were 100 percent Palestinians and 0 percent Israelis there, and to do so permanently, which was Israel’s intention when it built the settlements. A country does not build towns and neighborhoods and schools and clinics and shopping centers for tens of thousands of families on land it plans to give back. Residential settlements cannot be justified as self-defense — they’re an armed land-grab. That’s plain wrong, and no religious text can justify it.

Then the argument is often made that if Arabs can live in Haifa, why can’t Jews live in Beit El or any other settlement? It’s a false argument, though — Arabs live in Haifa as citizens of Israel, subject to Israeli laws and authority, and with no recourse to any Arab state for intervention. If the Jewish settlers were prepared to live under corresponding conditions in a Palestinian state, they’d have a case for being allowed to remain in their homes. But very few settlers are talking about that option now, and at the moment of truth I think only a few eccentrics would want to stay under Palestinian rule — and to them I would only say good luck.

What the settlers really want is to live in the West Bank and Gaza not like the Arabs of Haifa, but like the European settlers of colonial Africa and Asia — with their national army protecting them from the natives, to whom they, of course, have superior rights and privileges. That’s not the life of Haifa’s Arabs, nor of Haifa’s Jews for that matter.

And I’m very sorry — few Jews want to hear about this, but the acts of brutality against Palestinians by Israeli soldiers, not to mention settlers, are part of the fabric of the occupation. Without going into what I’ve seen with my own eyes, and the many, many accounts from soldiers I’ve heard and read, there’s a reason why Jews don’t want to hear about it — it’s insupportable. It has to be denied. I’ll just give one recent example of a reserve soldier in his early 20s who told me he had no sympathy for left-wing soldiers who refuse to serve in the territories for reasons of conscience.

“And when I fired at the legs of 5-year-old children — under orders — because they were throwing stones at us,” he said, “don’t you think that bothered my conscience?”

A friend of the soldier’s looked at him and asked, “You fired at the legs of 5-year-old children?”

He didn’t know; he didn’t want to know. But it’s true.

But what about Israel’s morality in how it treats the settlers? The right argues that uprooting them from their homes against their will is “transfer,” the national euphemism for expulsion. The world would never countenance transferring Palestinians, but it can’t wait to transfer Jews, goes the claim. This, too, is false. Transfer means expelling people beyond the borders of their country, turning them into refugees. That’s not exactly what will happen to settlers in Gaza and northern Samaria. Instead, they’ll be compensated for their lost homes and businesses — and I hope the money is enough to let them maintain their current standard of living — and be welcomed into their new homes in Israel, as citizens. Millions of struggling Israelis would love to be victims of the “transfer” awaiting those 9,000 Israelis.

Forcing citizens to give up their land and homes in return for compensation is something governments do when there’s no other way to build a stadium, airport or other public project. It’s called the power of eminent domain. If governments can rightfully act under their power of eminent domain to build a bus station or highway, they can do so to build national security and morality, which is Israel’s purpose in the disengagement plan.

But the plan must first be put to a national referendum, say the anti-disengagement forces. Something so fateful must be put before the people, especially when Sharon was against unilateral withdrawal during the last election campaign. This argument doesn’t stand up, either. Israel has never held a national referendum on any issue in its history, certainly not on the building of settlements, which never was nearly as popular as disengagement. So where do the settlers and their friends come to demand a first-ever referendum before the settlements can be evacuated? And anyway, it’s not the unilateralism of disengagement that bothers them, but the disengagement itself. If Abbas co-signed the withdrawal, would the settlers be any less outraged? By rights, the disengagement plan should stand or fall like every other Israeli policy — by majority vote of the Cabinet and Knesset. Again, the settlers aren’t asking for equal rights, but for superior rights.

This week, the newspapers are filled with stories about death threats against Cabinet ministers supporting the withdrawal, about graffiti calling for Sharon’s assassination, about the verbal assault and tire-slashing endured by Binyamin Netanyahu, who’s on the fence about disengagement. There’s plenty reason to be scared of a repeat of the Rabin murder or another Baruch Goldstein-style massacre or a renewed plot to blow up the Temple Mount or some other act of criminal insanity aimed at stopping the withdrawal.

But I believe it’s not going to work. The right-wing opposition is in a Catch-22 — if they play by democratic rules they’ll lose because the public is massively on Sharon’s side, and Sharon is a surpassingly shrewd and determined leader; on the other hand, if they turn to lawlessness and violence, the public will grow fed up, they’ll go along with harsh security measures against the extremists, and support Sharon all the more. If Sharon were killed, I don’t think Israelis would be in the mood to grant the assassins their wish by calling off the disengagement. I don’t think the Bush administration would go for the idea, either.

When Sharon first started talking about the disengagement plan in late 2003, I was betting he wouldn’t go through with it, that he wouldn’t be able to stand up to the settlers’ political and psychological pressure, that his supporters would back down until he was standing alone, and then he would back down, too. But since November, when Sharon stared down the settlers and won the make-or-break Knesset vote on disengagement by a thumping 67-45 margin, I’ve changed my mind. He’s another Ben-Gurion in the making, he’s stronger than all his opponents put together, and the occupation is going to start coming to an end — soon.

This has done wonderful things for my mood. I walk around looking at Israelis living their lives, and I say to myself, “What an interesting, lively, attractive country this is. Boy I’m glad I’m living here. Look at that group of animated young people over there — one day my two young sons will be sort of like them. And that’s fine by me.”

It’s been a long time since thoughts like this have been popping into my mind; in fact it’s been four and a half years, ever since the Oslo peace process died and the intifada was born. Now the intifada may be dead, and even if it’s not, we in Israel are coming up out of the bunker. It’s going to be a hard year, but I’m optimistic that it’s going to end well. After such a long stretch of bleakness, the future seems to be smiling at this country again.


Apparent Allies Might Not Be Our Friends

This week’s Israel Christian Nexus gathering at Stephen S. Wise Temple was intended to rally support for Israel. Its advertised list of speakers included John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and a fair number of prominent local rabbis.

While we share these speakers’ deep concern for the well-being of Israel, we are astonished that our Jewish colleagues have not inquired more carefully into the words and deeds of their Christian co-sponsors.

Are Jews or Israel really well-served, as James Besser asked in these pages this month, by joining forces with the likes of the Rev. Pat Robertson, who not only called disengagement from the occupied territories “Satan’s plan” but had the audacity to urge Jews to accept Jesus as their messiah on his recent trip to Jerusalem?

Before addressing this question in our local Los Angeles setting, we must make clear that we are not blind to attempts by Christians of a different political persuasion to harm Israel by calling for divestment. The Middle East conflict is complex, and both Israelis and Palestinians bear a measure of responsibility for the current dire state of affairs.

Despite the obvious power imbalance between the two sides, the Palestinian reliance on terror, stoked by irresponsible leadership, makes it unfair to hold only Israel accountable in this conflict. We also reject the notion that Israel, in a world tragically full of bad state actors, is the only one worthy of the kind of sanctions being proposed by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and some Anglicans.

Finally, we doubt the efficacy of the tactic of divestment, which we fear will only serve to force most Israelis, including the millions who support a peaceful, two-state resolution to the conflict, into a defensive posture that encourages stasis rather than change.

But our concern over divestment does not and cannot lead us into the arms of those who embrace Jews in order to eradicate Judaism. Our community leaders must wake up and realize that their apparent allies may not, at the end of the day, be their friends.

One need go no further for evidence than the Israel Christian Nexus event, which, remarkably enough, was funded in part by the Jewish Community Foundation. This meeting featured, among others, Christian dispensationalist fundamentalists whose view of Jews, Judaism and Israel causes us great concern.

For example, the event’s honorary co-chair and a featured speaker was Dr. Jack Hayford, president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Earlier this month, Hayford served as the co-chairman of the International Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem. It was at that event that Robertson offered his unique view of territorial compromise as “Satan’s plan.”

We wonder if Hayford shares Robertson’s view that decisions of Israel’s elected governments — and the state’s very democratic character — are violations of a grand divine plan that will end with the Second Coming of Jesus.

Would that this were our only question about Hayford. In fact, he and other Israel Christian Nexus leaders are unabashed advocates of converting Jews. This is not wild speculation.

As J. Shawn Landres, a research fellow at the University of Judaism’s Sigi Ziering Institute and expert on American Protestantism, reported, Hayford has endorsed Jews for Jesus materials, one of which “guides Christians to the heart of the issues that keep Jewish people from accepting Jesus as their messiah, and shows how to develop a faithful, effective and loving witness to them.” Hayford, who founded King’s College & Seminary, lists Jews for Jesus as one of the organizations at which it places its graduates.

But this is not our sole concern about the Christian sponsors of the Israel Christian Nexus. We are also disturbed by the following:


• Simi Hills Christian Church and its pastor, Israel Christian Nexus featured speaker Kevin Dieckilman, were profiled in an October 2003 Ventura County Star article describing Dieckilman’s controversial Yom Kippur service, whose purpose, he admitted, was to “reveal” Jesus to Jews.


• Faith Christian Church’s Web site includes both Jews for Jesus and Chosen People Ministries (a self-described “ministry of evangelism to the Jewish people”) among the missions it supports.


• Shepherd of the Hills Church supports a ministry that targeted vulnerable Russian Jewish refugees for conversion as they migrated through Italy to Israel. It now supports Jewish converts to Christianity in Israel.


• Together for Israel links directly to sites that target Jews for evangelism, including one called Supernatural Ministries to the Jew.

We cannot prevent Christians from actively seeking converts. But we can oppose Christian groups that actively target Jews for conversion. We are disappointed, but not surprised, that the Jewish organizers behind the Israel Christian Nexus project would be willing to work with Christian partners who profess strong support for Israel, but who can hardly be described as pro-Jewish.

Accordingly, we think it is inadvisable and irresponsible for our Jewish community leaders to embrace precisely those Christian groups who not only spin theological fantasies about our disappearance as Jews in the future but actively seek it in the present.

We call upon our esteemed rabbis and community leaders, including our Federation president, to look more carefully at their Christian partners in the Israel Christian Nexus and repudiate their dangerous views.

We count as friends and work closely with Christian leaders who reject the extremes of divestment on the one hand and apocalyptic visions of Jews and Israel on the other. We believe, along with these Christian friends, that there is a middle path, one in which a secure Israel exists along side a viable Palestinian state, and in which American Jews and Christians of good will walk together in peace and respect.

Professor David N. Myers is a member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance board.
Daniel Sokatch is the executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

Groundwork Laid to Evacuate Gaza

Despite political hurdles, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is forging ahead with his Gaza disengagement plan, giving various government agencies the green light to prepare for the evacuation of settlers — using both carrots and sticks.

Even as Israeli police begin laying the groundwork for evacuating Gaza, an interministerial team of some 70 officials is working out details of a bill to compensate evacuees in hopes that the prospect of money and alternate housing will help avert a violent confrontation between settlers and police.

Despite police objections — "no budget, no manpower" — the Cabinet decided that Israeli police would perform the actual evacuation.

Tzachi Hanegbi, who recently resigned as minister of internal security, wanted the army to do the job, as it did in the evacuation of Yamit in northern Sinai 22 years ago. But most ministers preferred to spare young soldiers the experience of a potentially violent confrontation with Jewish citizens.

So police have begun making necessary preparations. Step one: allocating the funds.

Not only will the government need to pay generous compensation to evacuated settlers — about $400 million — the actual process of evacuation will require substantial funds. Police Inspector General Moshe Karadi met Sept. 5 with senior officers to assess the costs involved.

The cost of the evacuation will depend on the scope of resistance, both in Gaza and in Israel proper. No one knows for sure how many people will actively resist the evacuation, or over what period of time. Therefore it’s not only a matter of budget but of recruiting the necessary manpower.

It’s assumed that large police forces will be kept busy not only in the Gaza Strip but also within Israel, dealing with demonstrations against the disengagement.

Police were planning to set up an "evacuation administration" comprising two arms, one responsible for planning the evacuation and the other for carrying it out. The Border Police, which usually is deployed in the territories to deal with the Palestinian population, has been selected to evacuate the settlers.

The Border Police plans to reinforce its 12 companies with an additional 20 reserve companies, which will free up regular forces to cope with the evacuation.

Sharon hopes to create sufficient motivation among settlers to evacuate their homes willingly in exchange for generous compensation packages, avoiding violent confrontations like those in Yamit.

An interministerial team is working out details of the compensation bill. The general idea is to offer settlers a house in exchange for a house; they also will be given the option of relocating en masse to communities in Israel.

Government assessors were instructed to appraise the houses according to equivalents in regions that are better off than development towns, but not as upscale as Tel Aviv.

The evacuation administration already has proposed advance payments that would be deducted from final compensations, but advances can’t be handed out until the complicated legal procedure behind them is finalized.

The government will commit itself to paying out the full value of compensation packages even if the disengagement plan eventually collapses. Settlers also will receive special compensation worth six months’ salary to find alternative employment.

Eran Sternberg, spokesman for the Gush Katif settlement bloc, insisted in an interview with JTA that only a handful of families have expressed interest in entering negotiations on compensation.

"We regard this entire talk on compensations as psychological warfare," Sternberg said. "Sharon in his desperation shoots in all directions."

The overarching imperative in preparing for the evacuation is to avoid civil war. Policemen in the evacuation task force will undergo special psychological seminars, preparing them for confrontation with their "brothers."

When will all this take place? Sharon recently told his Likud Party’s Knesset faction that he did not intend to "drag out the disengagement plan over a long period of time."

He has presented the following timetable for the disengagement:


• By Sept. 14, the prime minister will present the Cabinet a blueprint for evacuation and compensation of the settlers.


• By Sept. 26, a draft disengagement bill will be presented to the Cabinet.


• By Oct. 24, the financial compensation bill will be brought to the Cabinet.


• On Nov. 3, the compensation bill — "The Law for Implementing the Disengagement Plan" — will be brought to the Knesset.

It’s assumed that the actual evacuation would take place no later than February 2005.

After Likud voters rejected Sharon’s disengagement plan in a May 2 party referendum, and following the impressive human chain protest of some 130,000 people in late July, settlers now are planning additional anti-disengagement campaigns, including an upcoming massive protest in downtown Jerusalem.

"Over 3,000 children and youths began the school year this week at our schools," Sternberg said. "I’m sure we will all be there to open the next school year."

A Settler in Favor of Disengagement

This is a soul-wrenching time for all of us who love the Land of Israel. Jewish homes and villages, farms and factories — the settlement work of three decades — are soon to be uprooted in Gaza. We know that more demolitions may be coming.

Politically — for the first time in the history of the Jewish people — the State of Israel is apparently working toward establishing foreign sovereignty over a part of our land. If George Bush and the European Union think this is a swell idea, that’s partly because they can disregard the moral, historical and emotional ramifications to us, as Jews are rousted from their homes, as well as the potential security implications of giving Gaza to our enemies.

Nonetheless, and though I’m a "settler," I find myself reluctantly supportive of disengagement — an opinion that makes me a minority of one in my West Bank village. Here are six reasons why.

1) Reorder the demographics, or start to. Nearly as many Arabs as Jews live in the Land of Israel already, whereas a Jewish state requires a large Jewish majority. That’s a cliché but true. Getting rid of Gaza unloads 1.3 million Arabs for — relatively — a small price, relocating just 7,000 Jews.

2) Consolidate Jewish gains. Forget about "peace in our time"; that’s Peace Now’s delusion. The war with the Palestinians, Syrians, Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran is far from over. But leaving Gaza will shorten Israel’s defensive lines while allowing us to secure the gains of the last three decades by bolstering the settlement blocs near Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Green Line. The security fence now being built to incorporate those communities will mark new borders for Israel.

3) Return to pragmatism. A part of Israel’s population is being driven mad by the dream (which I admit I share) of a Jewish state stretching from the river to the sea, the entire Land of Promise. But right now — as in all previous generations — it has proved impossible for us to inhabit the whole land. Only God knows why, but let’s acknowledge that the Messiah didn’t come and meanwhile gratefully accept the great gift we’ve been given: the world’s only self-governing Jewish state. A firm connection to reality always improves one’s survival possibilities. And meanwhile there’s work to do.

4) Doing the work. While we’re waiting for God to give us the rest of the land, there’s much to build and heal in the large portion we possess. If disengagement succeeds, the hostile friction between left and right, often following the fault line between religious and secular, will be muted. That energy can then be directed to projects to improve Jewish life, such as feeding the hungry, educating Jews to Judaism, cleaning Israel’s polluted rivers, lending a hand to Diaspora communities and so forth.

5) Strengthening the center. The real news in last month’s Likud Party vote against disengagement was that 40 percent of Israel’s largest right-wing party voted for it. As the party of Jabotinsky transforms itself, we’ll see a strengthening of centrist government, with its stability, its preference for slow change and its responsiveness to the sensible center that makes up most of the country’s electorate. Gen. Ariel Sharon, a military mastermind, turns out to be a political genius, too.

6) Improve Israel’s international position. By far. The world is sick of us and the Palestinians. Even we’re sick of us and the Palestinians. Sharon has warned that Israel will not be able to resist much worse plans for bringing peace, quiet and a good business environment to the Holy Land in the absence of "a plan of our own." Even though he’s a politician, I believe Sharon on this one. Israel has to get off the dime for its own sake, rather than be left fighting a rear-guard, negative battle against an imposed solution that will endanger us.

Am I unworried? Hardly. Disengagement raises security fears, in particular. But no military withdrawal has to be permanent, and the Palestinians know that. And in any future round of fighting, at least the Israeli army will be unencumbered by the need to protect Jewish civilians.

Israel has, for years, lived inside a conundrum: We can’t drive the Palestinians out of the country (neither the nations nor the Jews will permit it) or magically "disappear" them or, apparently, convince them to live in peace beside us. To me, even more confounding is the possibility that neither withdrawing from Gaza nor staying is the correct path — that, given the Arabs’ limitless hostility, Israel has no really good options except remaining heavily armed and vigilant.

But I think we can do that at least as well from outside the fence that surrounds Gaza. Let the Palestinians eat the bread they’ve buttered for themselves. Until they come to their senses (or the Messiah arrives at last), we have the Jewish people to protect and the Jewish state to build.

David Margolis is a journalist
and novelist who made aliyah from Los Angeles in 1994 and now lives in a village
in the Judean hills. He can be reached through his Web site,

Bribe Charges Cloud

The state prosecutor’s recommendation to indict Ariel Sharon
on bribery charges came just as the Israeli prime minister was putting the
finishing touches on his plan for Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and
parts of the West Bank.

If Attorney General Menachem Mazuz decides to press charges,
it could mean the end not only of Sharon’s political career but of the policy
he hoped would alter radically the contours of the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. If indicted, Sharon almost certainly would suspend himself or resign,
and his successor would be free to drop the plan to disengage from the

In the meantime, until Mazuz makes up his mind — which could
take up to two months — Sharon will find it difficult to garner U.S. and
domestic backing for his far-reaching plan while under suspicion of criminal

Though it carries enormous weight, the prosecution’s
recommendation is not binding, and it is far from certain that Mazuz will
accept it. Justice Ministry insiders said Mazuz has described the case against Sharon
as “problematic” and “borderline.”

Sharon confidants said they are convinced that, when it
comes to the crunch — with tenuous evidence able to determine a prime
minister’s political future — Mazuz will not indict.

Sharon is suspected of receiving hundreds of thousands of
dollars through his son, Gilad, from Likud activist and millionaire contractor
David Appel for helping to promote Appel’s real estate interests in Greece and
the central Israeli city of Lod. Appel already has been charged with giving a
bribe. Now Mazuz must decide whether Sharon was aware that he was receiving one
and whether there is enough evidence to make a charge stick against the prime

In the meantime, Sharon is a prime minister under a cloud
and something of a lame duck.

Before the indictment recommendation, Sharon was working
hard to move his disengagement plan forward. He was close to tying up a deal
with the Bush administration for U.S. support; he had just made bold moves
against Hamas to facilitate Palestinian Authority control of Gaza after an
Israeli withdrawal, and he was hoping to use those two factors to win support
in his own Likud Party, where right-wingers, including some prominent Cabinet
ministers, have been highly critical of the plan.

Sharon also was covering his coalition bases. He was close to
cutting a deal with the opposition Labor Party for its 19 Knesset members to
join the coalition if the 13 legislators from the right-wing National Union
bloc and National Religious Party bolted over the disengagement plan.

Now, it will be hard for Sharon to tie up all the loose
ends. He might not even be able to get Cabinet approval for the plan: 11 of 23
Cabinet ministers expressed their opposition before the indictment
recommendation, and others may now come out against the weakened prime minister
and tip the balance against him.

Labor will stay out of the coalition as long as Sharon
remains under a cloud, and party leaders like Avraham Burg, who oppose any
alliance with Sharon, will have a stronger case. In addition, when Sharon flies
to Washington for a key April 14 meeting with President Bush, U.S. officials
are less likely to make formal commitments to a man who could be out of office
within weeks.

The fiercest challenge to Sharon, though, will come from the
right. Leaders of the National Union, the National Religious Party and the
Yesha settlers’ council are hoping to utilize Sharon’s plight to scuttle the
disengagement idea. They hope that if the prime minister is replaced, his
successor will shelve a plan that entails the dismantling of nearly all the
Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and at least six in the West Bank.

If Sharon is forced to resign, Likud insiders said he
probably would be succeeded by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has
shown little enthusiasm for the disengagement plan.

By Israeli law, the resignation of a prime minister does not
necessarily trigger a general election. Sixty-one Knesset members can propose
an alternative candidate, and the president can confer on him the task of
forming a new government.

Though Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, who backs
the disengagement plan, and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who does not, might
mount leadership challenges, most Likud insiders believe Netanyahu would win
the party nomination easily.

But what Netanyahu does about disengagement is not a
foregone conclusion, and the right-wingers may be disappointed.

Despite his criticism of the plan, Netanyahu is leaving his
options open. Rather than rejecting it outright, he has laid down three
conditions for supporting the plan:


• That Israel control border crossing points to prevent arms
from flowing into Palestinian areas.


• That the United States recognize a route for the West Bank
security fence that puts more Jewish settlements on the Israeli side.


• That the United States publicly back Israel’s position
that no Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel proper.

Insiders said this stance gives Netanyahu maximum
flexibility: If he becomes prime minister, he will be able to keep a right-wing
coalition together while negotiating with the United States on his conditions
for disengagement. If Sharon survives, Netanyahu will be able to claim the
credit if his conditions are met or choose his moment to confront Sharon if
they are not.

In both his disengagement plan and in targeting Hamas,
Sharon has been playing for high stakes. Some critics even imply a connection
between his bold moves and the burgeoning legal case against him. Indeed,
Sharon’s critics on both the right and the left accused the prime minister of
playing with fire.

In contrast, his supporters said that his twin policy of
cracking down on terrorism and disengaging from the Palestinians could
transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To make those policies work,
however, Sharon needs more time.

And as Mazuz assesses the evidence, Sharon’s time could be
running out. Â

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

Hello, I Must Be Going

There is something Marxist about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s pledge to “disengage” Israel from the Palestinians through the completion of a security barrier and the evacuation of a few settlements. Just like Groucho Marx, Sharon is declaring his intention to leave and stay at the same time.

In fact, his plan has less to do with reducing Israel’s footprint in the occupied territories than with consolidating an Israeli presence in the West Bank. It is a formula for continued engagement with the Palestinians and ongoing friction between the two sides.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Israel taking unilateral steps to reduce its conflict with the Palestinians. Had Sharon decided to build the security fence along the Green Line, instead of deep inside the West Bank, the barrier would be perceived as a justifiable defensive measure against Palestinian terrorist infiltrations. And had a Green Line fence been accompanied by settlement evacuations from the territories, along with a genuine Israeli proposal for a viable two-state solution to be negotiated with the Palestinians, no one could fault Sharon.

But such is not the case. Sharon’s security fence is being constructed well beyond the Green Line in the West Bank, signaling intent to hold on to all the land on the Israeli side of the barrier. Along the way, he is bringing thousands of Palestinians inside the Israeli line of defense and cutting off hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians from their families, farmlands and social services.

While a great deal of attention has been paid to Sharon possibly dismantling a couple of settlements — which certainly would be welcome — few people have noted his corollary statements about strengthening Israel’s hold on those parts of the occupied territories where it remains.

Further, nothing in Sharon’s record indicates that he is prepared to offer the Palestinians anything remotely resembling a real state. The most he has ever been willing to part with in the West Bank is perhaps half of the area, leaving the Palestinians with small islands of divided territory, little ability to govern their own affairs and a nonviable economy.

Instead of using unilateral steps to promote an eventual peace agreement with the Palestinians, Israel will remain deeply engaged in their lives if Sharon carries out his plan. Once Sharon completes the barrier along Israel’s eastern border and the Jordan Valley, roughly half of the West Bank will remain under direct Israeli rule.

Israel will still likely dictate life inside the remaining portions of the occupied territories through frequent military incursions and control over Palestinian borders. Israel will still determine what goods and workers are allowed to move in and out of the occupied territories. Israel will still be the provider of energy and water for the Palestinians.

In fact, the tightening of Israel’s grip on millions of Palestinians would lead to greater entanglement with them. For example, international donors are already displaying fatigue at propping up the Palestinian economy with their contributions. Some are openly questioning why they should be subsidizing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

These donors could well respond to Israel’s complete physical enclosure of the occupied territories by totally withdrawing their relief operations or at least curtailing them. The Palestinian Authority, already teetering on the brink, could collapse under the financial pressure. This would put the onus on Israel to return to directly administering services and law enforcement in the territories, thereby deepening its engagement with the Palestinians and costing it billions of shekels in the process.

Israelis living inside the fence might have more protection under Sharon’s disengagement plan. But Jewish settlers remaining on the Palestinian side of the barrier would likely be subject to more terrorist attacks, simply because they will be easier targets, especially if Hamas and Islamic Jihad succeed in replacing the Palestinian Authority.

Finally, given demographic trends, Sharon’s plan to maintain control over the West Bank and Gaza will ensure that Jews will soon be a minority and Arabs the majority in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, spelling an end to the Zionist dream of a Jewish, democratic state. The Palestinians will clamor for equal voting rights, just as blacks did in South Africa during the apartheid era, thereby exacerbating — not easing — the Israeli-Palestinian political struggle.

Unilateral steps can provide some useful short-term relief for Israelis. But they are no substitute for actually resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the long-run. The secret word for securing Israel’s future is still “negotiation.”

Luis Lainer is chairman of Americans for Peace Now.