A while back, I was taking a taxi through Jerusalem when sirens went off all over the city. In an instant the home of the Wailing Wall became a Wailing City. My taxi driver pulled over and turned off his engine. So did all the other cars on the road. Quickly, an entire unruly society came to a standstill. My driver's other passenger began to light a cigarette, but the driver said, "Not now," and the man put the pack back in his coat pocket.
It was the Day of Remembrance, and this was the minute when the country stopped to honor the casualties of Israel's many conflicts. I looked down the street and the mixture of longing and unease and sadness on people's faces was absolutely visible. For one entire minute, people were drained of their impatience. I have been to countries far more exotic, but have never experienced anything quite as remarkable as the moment of silence on Yom HaZikaron in Israel.
One effect of witnessing that minute of silence on Remembrance Day is to give those of us who support Israel but live outside it an extra dose of humility. A lot has been written about how the cost of America's decision to go to war in Iraq has been disproportionately paid by the relatively few families who have seen loved ones killed or wounded there. For the great majority of Americans, the check seems to be on someone else's table.
That's not the case in Israel, where sorrow and suffering spread quickly throughout a much smaller society. This is especially true since the second intifada began. I have met Israelis from all walks of life, and I haven't met one whose life hasn't been radically, sometimes tragically, altered by the ongoing violence there. The stakes of decision-making in Israel are not just huge, but hugely felt.
I thought of this fact again this week while gauging reactions to President George W. Bush's embrace of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan.
In an exchange of letters last week, Bush endorsed Israel's claim to several settlements in the West Bank and rejected Palestinian demands for a "right of return" to Israel.
The Palestinians and the Arab world went haywire at the news. More than the content of Bush's letter, what galls the Palestinians is their being left out of the lead up to the intensive U.S.-Israel negotiations. But, uh, what do they expect? You can't bomb cafes one day and hope to meet for coffee the next.
"This shows terrorism doesn't pay," said professor Steven Spiegel, associate director of the Burkle Center for International Relations. "The Palestinians really blew it with this intifada."
More interesting and certainly less predictable than Palestinian umbrage is the reaction of the Jews.
"It's a good thing," Americans for Peace Now founder Mark Rosenblum said of the plan. "If Sharon implements it and the Palestinians see material benefits, then the Palestinians might say this isn't so bad after all."
Rosenblum and many on the left see Sharon's plan, and Bush's embrace of it, as a step forward. The key is a letter from Dov Weisglass, Sharon's bureau chief, to national security adviser Condoleeza Rice that outlines and clarifies a series of pledges Israel will undertake in conjunction with the agreement. These include disbanding settlement outposts and freezing settlement growth in most, if not all, of the West Bank. These steps would happen following a Likud vote of support for Sharon's plan on May 2 -- a vote Bush certainly hoped to influence.
"These steps could demonstrate to the Palestinians that this initiative is not all barrier, but also a bridge," Rosenblum said.
Even more striking, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called Sharon "my hero" for the withdrawal plan. Yoffie, a liberal leader and frequent Sharon critic, made the comment in an op-ed piece in The Forward newspaper.
Meanwhile the right, or at least those to the right of right-wing centrists, is livid with their leader, Sharon. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky canceled his visit to Los Angeles in order to vote against Sharon. Zionist Organization of America head Morton Klein wrote that the withdrawal from Gaza, the primary piece of Sharon's plan, "will only increase terrorism because it will prove to [Palestinians] that violence pays." Others on the right have said Bush's letter undermines his stance against terrorism, since it rewards the Palestinian Authority with territory.
It is as if two people on a seesaw suddenly crossed sides mid-motion. Sharon and Bush have pried the center and left away from a strict adherence to Oslo and an antipathy to the two leaders themselves, and forced the right to swallow the substance of three decades of leftist arguments over land, security and the Palestinians.
It would be tempting for either side to gloat, but Yom HaZikaron is upon us, and the costs of these momentous decisions, in lives lost or lives saved, should be sobering to us all.
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