It would be hard to exaggerate how fateful, how historic is the drama about to begin at the settlement outposts. Here's where things stand:
Within a few months, we will pretty well know if Israel's 36-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza will be on its way out or here to stay.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, backed by a large majority of the public, has pledged to send the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to take down not only dozens of outposts but at least a few established settlements, as well. The settlers, backed by the hard-line right, have vowed to stop them.
Inside a few months -- this being the time frame Sharon cited in his Herzliya speech for carrying out the "disengagement plan" -- one side will win and the other will lose.
If Sharon wins, meaning if he dismantles at least the most besieged, lunatic settlements like Netzarim, Kfar Darom, Ganim and Kadim, it will probably be a death blow to the settler movement.
Since the first settlers turned up at Hebron's Park Hotel on Passover 1968, none of the 150 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza has ever been uprooted. If Sharon breaks that taboo, if he sets a precedent even by removing only a few settlements, his successors will find it much less difficult to continue where he left off.
The settlers' aura of invincibility will be gone, and they will be left demoralized. Many of the less committed ones will conclude that their special society has reached a dead end, that the public doesn't want it, that the future holds only further disintegration, so there's no purpose in braving the dangers of living out there anymore -- and they will move their families to safer, more stable surroundings in Israel proper.
The settler leaders know this, which is why there is no talk among them of compromise, of giving Sharon a few tiny, isolated settlements so they can keep the rest. For them, it's all or nothing. They promise that several thousand settlers and supporters will be waiting for the soldiers and police for the first showdown at Ginot Arye, an outpost of about 20 residents that's supposed to be dismantled in the coming days.
This is a warm up for Migron, the largest of the outposts, the one settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein told Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz he was "ready to die over" (see Dina Kraft on page 18). But makeshift outposts have come down before; the decisive stage of the struggle will be fought if and when Sharon advances his disengagement plan to the gates of one of the "permanent" settlements.
"If the Jewish people run scared from Netzarim, they will end up running scared from Tel Aviv. It will bring on the end of Jewish life in the Land of Israel," said Adi Mintz, general manager of the settlers' Yesha Council -- and Mintz is one of the most temperate settler leaders.
They're talking in apocalyptic terms already. I have no doubt that once the action starts, the Greater Israel faithful on both sides of the Green Line will be seeing everything through a Holocaust prism, like they did during the Rabin era.
The chance for political violence, including assassination attempts, couldn't be plainer. The saving grace is that since Rabin's murder, prime ministers are virtually impossible to get at.
Settlers and their children will be scuffling in the winter mud with soldiers and police, shrieking about Auschwitz. People could get hurt.
Families of terror victims will be sobbing on the news. The streets of Jerusalem will be filled with raging crowds. Politicians will be accosted by people screaming, "Traitor!" at them; threats and curses will be invoked without letup -- the intensity of the uproar over the evacuation of settlements can only be imagined.
Public opinion is heavily behind the disengagement plan now, but I expect it to thin out as the plan's toll on domestic peace -- at a time Israelis are facing a Palestinian guerrilla war -- becomes clear.
I don't know if Sharon has the nerve to go through with this. The sheer logistical challenge of clearing out settlements, while masses of Jewish extremists are on the scene, together with fierce political opposition from the right and alarm signals from the general public, may make him decide that he can't do it.
He may prove unwilling to sacrifice the unity he's come to value so highly for the sake of improved security. If that happens, the settlers win.
And if they fight off Sharon from uprooting settlements, it's just about impossible to see anybody coming along afterward to succeed where he failed. Labor isn't about to elect a prime minister and, at any rate, Labor can't take down settlements, because the Likud would be there to stop it -- the old story.
The most likely prime minister-to-be is the Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu, and while he might like to get rid of some settlements, he falls short of Sharon in both strength and savvy.
This is how it is: If Sharon can't break the settlers, nobody can. And if Sharon can't move at least some settlements off the map, they will all be safe to go on growing, the IDF's presence in the territories will have to grow alongside them and Israel will remain balled up indefinitely with the Palestinians, whose population will also keep growing.
It's going to be an awful fight, and I don't know who's going to win, but if I had to bet, I'd bet on the settlers. They are willing to inflict much greater damage on Israel than Israeli society is willing to inflict on them, which gives them the advantage.
I don't think Sharon has enough ruthlessness of purpose to win, either. He did once, but he wasted it on building all those settlements.
Larry Derfner is The Journal's Tel Aviv correspondent.
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