Israel Is Smaller in Size But Stronger in Spirit

The withdrawal from Gaza, scheduled to begin in mid-August, is one of the most important events in the history of the State of Israel. It will determine whether Israel can continue to be a Jewish and democratic state.

In an Alert Paper published in June 2003 by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, titled “Jewish Demography: Facts, Outlook, Challenges,” a renowned demographer, professor Sergio DellaPergola, makes the following prediction: Sometime around 2014, there will be between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea more Arabs than Jews. My interpretation of this chilling statistic is that in less than 10 years, if Israel keeps the West Bank and Gaza and still wants to remain Jewish, then it will become an apartheid state; and if it wants to remain a democracy, then it will lose its Jewish nature. Or, in the words of a Palestinian poet-in-exile, Mahmud Darwish, “If you don’t want a Palestinian state on 22 percent of the land today, in 20 years there will be a Palestinian state on the whole land.”

Pulling out of Gaza, then, is the beginning of a long journey, which will hopefully bring Israel back to its senses. But is it indeed? Many Sharon mavens believe he wants to get rid of Gaza only to strengthen Israel’s grip on the West Bank and thus coerce the Palestinians into accepting some kind of “autonomy.” The trauma of the Gaza pullout, with the ugly scenes expected to flood TV screens, should supposedly convince the Israelis and the world community that further withdrawal is impossible. Sharon even went to Ariel (a West Bank city of 18,000) recently and promised it would forever be ours.

If I were living in Ariel, I would start looking for a moving company, just in case. Not only because Sharon said something and maybe meant the opposite, but because the basic analysis of DellaPergola remains unchanged. Whether Sharon meant it or not, he has just started a process bigger than he had envisioned — namely, bringing Israel to its viable borders. It remains to be seen if in due course he will be the one to break the bad news to the West Bank settlers or if someone else will lead us in the next painful phase. Either way, it has to be someone from the right, because in Israel, only the right can carry out the policy of the left.

Settlers and opponents of the evacuation claim that the way Sharon brought about this plan was undemocratic: He dismissed his campaign promises, disregarded his reluctant Likud party, fired two right-wing ministers and refused to hold a referendum on the evacuation plan. His conduct reminds one of the Jewish woman, who, in the darkness of the shtetl, mistakenly prepared the cholent (traditional Shabbat stew) in the night pot. The worried woman asked the rabbi if it was kosher. It is kosher, he told her, but it stinks.

It stinks, indeed, yet it’s kosher. It was repeatedly approved by the Knesset, the body representing all Israelis, and by the Israeli Supreme Court. As for Sharon’s sudden U-turn, wasn’t Menachem Begin elected in 1977 on the slogan of Greater Israel only to give Sinai back to the Egyptians when the historic opportunity presented itself? And anyhow, the settlers, who for decades benefited from Sharon’s talents when those helped them in cunningly maneuvering all governments in their favor, should be the last to be surprised and cry gevalt when he suddenly turns against them. As for a referendum, I don’t recall ever being asked if I agreed to settling the West Bank and Gaza. I didn’t.

At stake is not only the future of the settlements, it’s the future of Israel’s democracy. Sharon’s plan to pull out of Gaza is actually about the ability of Israel to turn the will of the people into political action in a democratic way. The execution of the plan will determine whether the Israeli democracy is still a functional one or a democracy in name only, incapable of implementing its most important decisions because veto power has been surrendered to a few extremists.

In the coming days, many of us will watch agonizing scenes coming from Gaza. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the wider perspective. Stepping into an operating room in a hospital while a patient is being operated on might be a disheartening experience. Yet it is a vital act in the road to recovery. Pulling out of Gaza — and later, out of the West Bank — is likewise vital to the survival of Israel. With self-defined borders at last, the State of Israel, democratic and predominantly Jewish, might be smaller in size but stronger in spirit, ready to defend itself if attacked or to give a helping hand to the Palestinians once they embark on a peaceful track.

Uri Dromi is the director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. From 1992 to 1996 he was the spokesman for the Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres governments.


Sharon Battles for Pullout Plan

Facing a crucial Cabinet vote next week on his amended disengagement plan from the Palestinians, Ariel Sharon is facing as much pressure as he ever did as a general on the battlefield.

On the international front, the Israeli prime minister has weathered scathing criticism of Israel’s latest military operation in the Gaza Strip, which left more than 40 Palestinians dead and dozens of homes demolished in the Rafah refugee camp.

At home, a rebellion is gathering steam in Sharon’s Likud Party by opponents of the planned withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

But Sharon is determined to press on. Just as his crossing of the Suez Canal turned the tables in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Sharon hopes that Cabinet passage of his amended disengagement plan will disarm critics in his party and improve Israel’s tarnished international standing.

The Israeli army’s top brass hasn’t been fully behind the plan, the confrontation with the Likud rebels could split the party and threaten Sharon’s political career, and Sharon first will have to get the plan approved in the Cabinet, where opinion is split.

The decision last week to send Israeli troops into Rafah, in southern Gaza, came after reports that Iranian arms, including Katyusha rocket launchers and anti-tank weapons, were about to be smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels leading from Egypt.

The army leadership has long argued that if Israel withdraws from Gaza, it would need to widen a strip along the Gaza-Egypt boundary, known as the Philadelphi route, and maintain a presence there to prevent future arms smuggling.

But international condemnation of Israel’s destruction of Palestinian homes to find smuggling tunnels and widen the Philadelphi route, thereby making future tunneling virtually impossible, led to a revision of the military’s thinking.

The generals realized they wouldn’t be able to widen the Philadelphi route as much as they had planned, strengthening arguments against maintaining any Israeli military presence in Gaza.

Ironically, despite the international criticism and the Israeli and Palestinian casualties in Gaza, Sharon found himself in a political win-win situation.

If the army succeeded in establishing an efficient hold over the Philadelphi route, the army leadership then could back Sharon’s disengagement plan. If it failed to do so because of international and domestic pressure, it would have to rethink its overall Gaza strategy in line with Sharon’s longer-term evacuation plans.

The Likud challenge to Sharon is more serious. The main difference between Sharon’s amended plan and the one Likud voters rejected in a May 2 referendum is that, under the new plan, withdrawal will be implemented in stages.

The idea is to evacuate the more vulnerable settlements first, proceeding from one stage to the next only after the government is satisfied that the previous stage has created a more favorable security situation.

Sharon’s Likud opponents say that’s only a cosmetic change from the original withdrawal plan, which party members resoundingly rejected. In proceeding, Sharon is in breach of party discipline, they argue.

This group claims to have the support of more than half of the 40 Likud legislators in the Knesset, and the group clearly poses a serious threat to Sharon.

The first major battle will come next Sunday, when Sharon submits his amended plan to the Cabinet. Of the 23 ministers, 11 support the new plan, 11 are opposed and one, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, is the potential tiebreaker.

One way or another, a determined Sharon likely will push at least part of his plan through the Cabinet. Then he will have a party rebellion on his hands, the size of which will depend on whether leading figures like Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu join it.

Sharon’s hopes of political survival could depend on whether he is able to forge a political alliance with Labor. Labor could join with Likud in a coalition that pushes the disengagement plan through the Knesset. Sharon also could form an electoral alliance with Labor and Shinui by running on a disengagement ticket in new elections that would be seen as a sort of national referendum on withdrawal.

But there’s yet another wrinkle for the beleaguered prime minister: Aside from all the political maneuvering, Sharon must survive a legal battle against corruption charges.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz is due to rule within the next few weeks on whether or not to indict Sharon. An indictment almost certainly would end his career, while a decision not to indict would enable Sharon to survive yet another day — and face the political battle of his life.