I RETURNED FROM A TRIP to Israel last week, at the beginning of what promises to be one of the most wrenching seasons in the country's history. The "disengagement" (the tolerable if imprecise and probably misleading term used to describe the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip, now scheduled for August) is what will make this summer wrenching; what might happen as a result of it is what might make this summer violent, tragic or historic (in a terrible way).
The support of, and perhaps demand for, the disengagement from Gaza by the United States is a key reason for it--but disengagement is not happening because President Bush told Prime Minister Sharon to do it. Its roots are in the political consensus that has developed in Israel over the past two years, probably shared by 75 percent of the Jewish population.
The motivating idea of the Israeli left has been that all peoples (and most people) want peace and prosperity above all else, that the root of a conflict is either a misunderstanding or a meaningless cycle of retribution--and that conflicts can usually be settled by reasonable people carrying out good-faith negotiations and making painful but necessary compromises. This was the ideology behind the Oslo agreement (which brought Yasser Arafat from Tunisian exile to within 20 miles of Jerusalem and won him, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin the Nobel Prize). It was partially the ideology behind the massive compromises that Ehud Barak offered Arafat at Camp David and Taba in 2000-2001--although Barak knew that he had to do everything remotely possible to make peace with the Palestinians to prepare the Israeli people for what would happen (and what did happen) if his efforts did not succeed.
There is now widespread acknowledgement, including on the left, that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not about 1967, it is about 1948. It is not about drawing a border here and not there, but about the very legitimacy of the Jewish state; it is not about geography, but about Zionism. There are no misunderstandings: the intifada clarified everything. An Israeli government embracing an Oslo accord would not happen today.
This is not the say that the Israeli left has come around to the views of a static Israeli right. No longer are those on the mainstream Israeli right saying that Jordan is the Palestinian state, with the suggestion that the Palestinians simply go there. No one has any idea as to how to get the Palestinians there (or anywhere else), and these times are too serious for idle concepts to form policy, or non-policy.
FROM THE PERSPECTIVE of the Israeli right, why are these times so serious? First, most on the Israeli right hate having to occupy Gaza and parts of the West Bank as much as those on the left. It is not a matter of ideology here, but experience. Palestinian terrorists violate the most basic premises of the laws of war--they don't wear uniforms and they surround themselves with civilians. Israeli reservists (who account for most of the male population) regularly have to operate in the territories, and emerge with stories about petrified children they encountered on their way to capture a terrorist. Those kids remind them of their own kids, and they hate it.
Moreover, the Israeli right joins the Israeli left in acknowledging that the real problem for Zionism is when the Palestinians stop hating the Jews for just long enough to say: Okay, time to put the past injustices on both sides behind us. This land isn't big enough, or planned appropriately, for two states. We apologize for terrorist acts in the past--and expect our fellow Israeli citizens to apologize for the occupation, among other things. And we say fellow citizens because we mean it: we want to live alongside the Israelis in a secular, democratic state where everyone gets one vote and shares in the common privileges and obligations of citizenship. There are easy and dispositive arguments against this, but will an audience that doesn't know or care much about Israel or the Palestinians--to say nothing of an anti-Israel audience--listen?
So a settlement program--or any other kind of program--that does not account for demographic realities (and the implications of demography on a sustainable, Jewish democratic state) would not happen today. The Israeli left has come to terms with psychology and the Israeli right has come to terms with demography, and this forms the basis for the remarkable political consensus that exists in Israel today.
THE CONSENSUS is cemented by another factor: that Israelis all over the political spectrum also share another crucial ambition--to be able to live in a normal, bourgeois society. A year ago, a friend and I visited a checkpoint at a part of the security fence near the West Bank. The soldier manning the checkpoint told us about the work she needs to do to prevent terrorists from passing (including judging, on the spot, whether an ambulance is legitimate or contains bombs intended for Israeli targets) and in preparing for a terrorist who attacks a checkpoint (because the security fence makes it so hard to get to other targets). My friend asked her how old she was; she replied that she was 19. My friend said that he had a 19-year-old daughter, and that her most pressing concerns were about MTV. The soldier perked up and replied, "I love MTV too!"
Israeli teenagers want to watch MTV; Israeli young adults want to fill up Tel Aviv nightclubs; Israeli entrepreneurs and venture capitalists crave a businessman's stability; Israeli parents appreciate the sense of community that mandatory Army service provides, but don't want their 18-year-olds to have to spend every night (or any night) in combat; and all kinds of Israelis want the soccer team's World Cup qualifying games against Ireland to be the most monumental national event of the month. Israel may be the only country in the world where it is fairly common to meet one person who is a warrior, a successful businessman, an impressive intellectual, and a devoted parent. Israel is also a country where the vast majority of people have bourgeois, Western desires, but understand that the full achievement of those ambitions depends in part on their neighbors--who won't let them have it.
How can Israeli pursue its bourgeois ambitions while confronting the ugly political realities of the region? The left-wing solution (negotiating with the Palestinians as though they will accept the very existence of Israel) did not work. And neither did the right-wing solution (continuing the occupation indefinitely and expanding settlements). The remaining solution is disengagement.
THROUGH DISENGAGEMENT, Israel is saying: We are not giving in to the Palestinians; we are giving up on the Palestinians. We will live in an Israel that is as independent from Palestinians as possible, and we will live as normally as possible, with strength. Of course, Israel can not really "disengage" from an enemy on its borders who wants it extinguished--Israeli intelligence and security services will have to remain engaged at times beyond Israel's borders for the foreseeable future. Disengagement is a hopeful exaggeration, but what it really means is minimizing engagement.
What is commonly called "the disengagement"--the pullout from Gaza--is just the latest phase in a disengagement process. It has been coming, and happening in other ways, since Ariel Sharon began to fight the intifada after taking office in 2001. The disengagement is not commonly thought of this way because of Ariel Sharon's strategy. Sharon is often said, even by his supporters, to be a pure tactician with no strategy governing his maneuvers. But he is a rare kind of strategist--the quiet strategist, whose strategy is revealed only after it is successfully executed.
As the Israeli counter-terrorism expert Boaz Ganor says, a terrorist needs two things to operate--motivation and operational capability. It seems as though Sharon fought the intifada with this in mind. Sharon started by killing and capturing the terrorist foot soldiers; he did not get to the leaders until much later--realizing that killing terrorist leaders would raise the motivation. The Israelis killed Hamas leaders Yassim and Rantisi in the spring of 2004, after which there was no response. Why? Because many of those who would have responded had been neutralized.
And then there is the security fence, which has been constructed throughout Israel in the past couple of years. Before the fence, a terrorist could go on foot from an Arab village to a Jewish one in around five minutes. Now, it takes an hour and a half through checkpoints and over a fence that is being constantly monitored by Israeli soldiers in control centers and on patrol. Terrorism is now down by well over 95 percent, and from this position of strength Israel can pull out of Gaza.
The fence and the Gaza pullout represent the beginning of what might be considered a replacement of the "peace process": Israelis saying that they will pull back to safe and defensible borders where they can have as little engagement with the Palestinians as possible (with every reasonable person recognizing that zero will not be possible). The Israelis are not going to wait for the Palestinians to accept a Jewish state before proceeding with as normal a life as possible.
WHY GAZA? There are 8,000 Jewish settlers among 1.2 million Palestinians who want them out and probably dead--and these Jews escape murder only because of the thousands of Israeli soldiers and reservists who are fighting to protect them. Moving a few miles will remove themselves and the soldiers who protect them from constant danger, and enable them to live inside a Jewish state that is demographically sustainable and militarily defensible. They might not want to move for a variety of reasons, but there is a long tradition in Anglo-Saxon law of eminent domain--of a state forcing its citizens to move their homes to serve a state purpose. Bush wants it, Sharon wants it, the majority of Israelis want it--so it is no wonder why people out of Israel usually refer to moving the settlers from Gaza as casually as we do moving people from a neighborhood in Brooklyn to build a new stadium for the Nets basketball team.
But Israeli politics are usually significantly determined by what are called the "facts on the ground"--and they reveal here, as they often do, a telling story. The pullout will require manpower from all over the standing army. Only active duty soldiers will be engaged in the actual work of disengagement, but it will take so many of them that every single combat reservist in Israel is being called to duty this summer. One reason that the Army is using soldiers instead of reservists (who, being older and experienced, can be presumed to be better equipped to handle the pullout's sensitive situations) is because the latter are more likely to refuse to carry out the disengagement. Reservists have full lives outside of the Army, and some may not care that refusing leads them to be kicked out of the reserves. The stigma against disobeying an order is enormous in the standing Army, and few young Israelis are likely to allow politics to compromise their standing in what is not only their country's most well-respected institution, but their rite of passage.
Still, that reservists are at least tempted to refuse to serve in one of the most consequential Israeli military operations in the country's history is an astonishing thought. Those (in the reserves or the regular forces) who contemplate refusing are not all religious Zionists--who both disproportionately oppose disengagement and serve in the special Army units (they have replaced those reared on kibbutzim as the best Israeli soldiers). They are also secular Israelis who simply don't want any part in moving a Jew out of his home--especially when the Palestinians have shown that they will not be more tolerant of a Jew living in Ashkelon or Tel Aviv than Gaza. The settlers in Gaza went there under the patronage of the government, did wonders with the land, and lived surrounded by the enemy with remarkable courage--keeping the terrorists occupied a few key miles away from the rest of Israel. Israelis from across the political spectrum are uncomfortable with removing such people from their homes, regardless of how convincing the underlying demographic and political reasons are.
The polls that show that a majority of Israelis support disengagement can be deceiving for the reason that polls and votes often are: They do not measure the intensity of belief. Most Israelis who oppose disengagement do so with confidence and often anger. Most Israelis who support it do so with a deep sense of tragedy, angst, and sometimes ambivalence.
If the opponents of disengagement protest respectfully (i.e. if they don't block roads in protest--or worse), they will gain support; already, disengagement is becoming less popular as its day approaches. This does not have to do with the policy itself, but with Ariel Sharon's perceived attitude towards it. Sharon is fundamentally a soldier and not a politician (his autobiography is entitled Warrior)--and the disengagement calls for a master politician's instincts. Many Israelis say that Sharon does not empathize with the settlers, that he does not see anything tragic about the choice that he has made. They point out that while Menachem Begin removed the settlers at Yamit in 1982 pursuant to the Israel-Egypt peace agreement, he went to Yamit and cried with those settlers; Sharon has not done anything like that.
SO WHAT WILL HAPPEN IN AUGUST? No one has any real idea, but the fact that Gaza is now filling with vociferous disengagement opponents from the West Bank and Brooklyn must be considered. There is a chance that the disengagement will go relatively smoothly (if the settlers and their allies leave with resistance ranging from the symbolic to even wrapping themselves in barbed wire). There is a chance that it will be violent, with or without weapons. There is a chance that it won't occur at all--the Palestinians want the settlers to evacuate under fire, so that the Israelis will have "surrendered," and the Israelis won't leave under fire for the same reasons that the Palestinians want them to.
And then there is the chance of the Apocalypse (if a Jewish terrorist crashes a plane into the Dome of the Rock or a Jewish troublemaker catapults a pig into the Dome of the Rock and Muslims from the world over march on Jerusalem). The Israeli security forces are doing everything they can to monitor and subdue Jewish extremists, but the latter's cells have become very hard to infiltrate--and one awful action could change everything.
The Israeli government has given its word and lent its legitimacy to the disengagement from Gaza. Therefore, the consequences of the pullout not happening (for any reason) would be dire and wholly unpredictable--almost as unpredictable as what Israeli politics and society will look like in September, after disengagement; if it happens.
Mark Gerson is the CEO of the Gerson Lehrman Group, a New York based information services company.