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.