A Disengagement of Disenchantment


The political direction of which Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan forms a part is the most significant development in Israeli policy making since 1967. It is an attempt to finally free the Israeli political discussion from the squabble between rival utopias that has dominated it since the 1970s.

The first of these promised utopias, that of the left, has already largely vanished from the public discourse – a victim of the cataclysmic failure of the Oslo process of the 1990s. This project posited a historic compromise between Israel and Palestinian nationalism, based on the ascendancy of shared, rational economic interests. As it turned out, the shared interests were perceived by only one of the sides. The collapse of Oslo cast the proponents of the possibility of rapprochement between Zionist Israel and the leadership of Palestinian nationalism as currently constituted into political irrelevance.

The result of the eclipse of the left is that the drama of the clash of ideas in Israel is currently taking place in the center-rightward side of the arena. The battle is being fought between a disenchanted, realist outlook, as represented by Ariel Sharon and his allies, and the redemptive ambitions of the religious nationalist camp. The flagship of the latter has for a generation been the settlement enterprise in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Nevertheless, it should be understood that the clash between Sharon and the Yesha Council [representing settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza] is not ultimately an argument over demarcation and real estate. Rather, it is about fundamentally differing conceptions of democracy, of Jewish statehood, and ultimately of the very dynamics governing international affairs.

For right-of-center Israelis, the right to construct Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza is axiomatic. And in a society increasingly demobilized, fragmented and self-critical, the apparent willingness of the settlers to cleave to old, treasured values and pay the price for them awakened the admiration of circles far beyond the religious nationalist public from which their leadership has been drawn.

Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the agenda of the most militant elements of the Yesha leadership, and their political allies in, for example, the Jewish leadership group of Moshe Feiglin, are far from the concerns, ambitions and desires of the greater part of the Israeli Jewish public. They are also far from anything resembling classical Zionism. Feiglin, the controller of around 130 votes in the Likud Party Central Committee, and one of the architects of the prime minister’s defeat in the Likud referendum in April 2004, openly advocates disobedience by Israel Defense Forces soldiers to thwart disengagement. “No one can overcome God’s will to keep us in Gaza,” he tells his followers. He also favors stripping Arab Israelis of their citizenship, ending military service for women and establishing a Sanhedrin on the Temple Mount. Such views, exotic and bizarre to the Israeli mainstream, are representative of the wilder streams now preparing civil disobedience. The clash between Feiglin and his allies and the prime minister and his camp is thus about more than disengagement from Gaza and part of northern Samaria. With increasingly unveiled calls to sedition being heard, it is shaping up to be about the right of elected government to govern, and a clash between the advocates of Jewish nationalism as we have known it and the partisans of something else entirely.

As for the “road map” guiding the advocates of disengagement, its key elements are the following items:

–Firstly, a rejection of arguments positing the imminent emergence of “democratic” leaderships in various parts of the Middle East and among the Palestinians, and the consequent emergence of a consensual “peace between democracies.” Abu Mazen’s latest statements in support of the so-called “right of return” and his rejection of firm action against Palestinian terror groups indicate that for the foreseeable future, Israel is likely to remain a Jewish democracy surrounded by neighbors seeking its demise. Palestinian nationalism has not yet crossed the Rubicon of historical rapprochement with Israel. It is showing no signs of being about to do so.

–Secondly, the awareness that something must be done. Demographic realities make the status quo untenable. A Jewish state presiding over an Arab majority will be an arrangement with a brief future ahead of it.

–Thirdly, the awareness that the bringing into being of a Palestinian state with provisional borders, created as part of a process of cooperation between Israel and its most important ally, the United States, represents the best possible outcome in the current reality. Irreconcilable issues will remain unreconciled. But a political arrangement including (limited) Palestinian sovereignty will have been established.

–Fourthly, Israel’s security in the dysfunctional region in which it is situated will continue to derive, in this arrangement, from the strength of its armed forces and their technological edge.

Disengagement is the first step along this road. The plan is the product of disenchantment, and hence has none of the heady thrills of utopia about it. In the weeks to come, its opponents, most significant among them advocates of theocracy of various stripes, will be mobilizing to make its implementation impossible. The future direction – internal and external – of the State of Israel will to no small extent be dependent on the outcome of this contest.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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