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.