Israel Report

May 2003         

The Meaning of "Painful Concessions"

By Yossi Klein Halevi - May 8, 2003
Like most journalists, I routinely use the words "West Bank" - or preferably, the more neutral "territories" - to refer to Judea and Samaria. And "settlements" to refer to its Jewish villages and towns. And "land for peace" to refer to the formula that suggests that mass Jewish dislocation can somehow heal this conflict.

I use that language, in part, to shield myself from the traumatic implications of an eventual withdrawal, which I, like most centrist Israelis, reluctantly support. The reasons for that support seem to me self-evident - the demographic threat to a Jewish state, the moral consequences of endless occupation, the need to separate from the Palestinians and define a defensible border, the need to extricate ourselves from an increasingly pathological relationship with the international community.

Most Israelis have decided that withdrawal is both necessary and inevitable. And the man who built the settlements, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, now agrees with them.

Still, as we approach our moment of decision, the language of euphemism with which we speak about withdrawal feels increasingly untenable. As a people, we need to courageously confront the consequences of uprooting - what Sharon calls, with rare understatement, "painful concessions." We need an advance account of the enormity of that pain, not in order to dissuade ourselves from accepting the brutal decree of history, but to do so without illusions. The failure of the Oslo process hasn't released us from the necessity of withdrawal, but it does demand an end to self-deception. And a key element of that self-deception has been our unwillingness to concede the human, social, and historical consequences of withdrawal.

The deception begins with the sterile phrase, "land for peace." "Land" implies a pristine landscape, devoid of human presence. In fact, the formulation means a destruction of worlds - neighborhoods and homes, schools and synagogues, hangouts and hitchhiking stations. It isn't "land" and it probably won't be "peace" - at least not a peace that means recognition of our right to exist and respect for the inviolability of our borders.

The human toll that will result from the destruction of organic communities is incalculable. After the Sinai town of Yamit was destroyed in 1982, many never recovered; for some, the result was depression and divorce. At its peak, Yamit contained perhaps 5,000 residents. Increase Yamit by tens of thousands and you can begin to imagine the implications for Israeli society that will result from a similar uprooting - the real word is "transfer" - in Judea and Samaria.

And Yamit was barely a decade old when it was destroyed. By contrast, some communities in Judea and Samaria are well into their third decade. Unlike Yamit, a native generation has grown up in Judea and Samaria for whom Israel lies across the green line. And a third generation is now being formed there. Think of that next time you read a newspaper account that refers to children killed or wounded in a terrorist attack in Judea and Samaria as "settlers." Beyond the personal is the national trauma. The towns and villages of Judea and Samaria are the legacy and symbol of this generation of religious Zionists. The destruction of dozens of communities that form the emotional core of religious Zionism will be a blow from which it may not fully recover.

The implications for the state are profound. The religious Zionists, after all, aren't a marginal community but the last collective repository of idealistic Zionism. For a state under siege, their invigorating presence has been essential.

Young religious Zionists have replaced secular kibbutzniks as the army's elite, increasingly filling combat units and the officers' corps. Go to any settlement on a Shabbat morning and you'll see dozens of young men gathered outside the synagogue, soldiers on leave from elite units exchanging army stories while their younger brothers eavesdrop with envy and silently plan their own military careers.

Will religious Zionism continue to provide the army with its most passionate soldiers, after its most beloved communities are destroyed and its young people feel betrayed by the state? In religious terms, the uprooting will inevitably be referred to as a "hurban." That Hebrew word for destruction refers to the two ancient exiles from this land. True, withdrawal from Judea and Samaria will only be a partial hurban; one assumes the Jewish state will survive the blow. But in one sense the exile from Judea and Samaria could be more devastating than its two predecessors, because this time, the hurban will be self-imposed.

When one part of the nation accuses another part of being responsible for its hurban, the most minimal sense of collective identity will be threatened, perhaps for generations to come.

One of the great mistakes of the Israeli Left has been to minimize Israel's claim to Judea and Samaria. The impulse was understandable: The Left downplayed the historic and emotional attachments to the land to resist the annexationist appeal. Yet it confused the need for physical withdrawal with an unnecessary emotional withdrawal.

The Left's denial of our historic claim - and its downplaying of the price we will pay for uprooting - has allowed the international community to see an Israeli withdrawal not as a concession at all but as the self-evident restoration of occupied land, the thief returning his booty.

By contrast, the Palestinians never fail to remind the world that they are being forced to abandon their claim to pre-1967 Israel.

The logic of partition is based on the fact that two peoples claim the same territory. But if one people stakes its emotional claim to the entire land, as the Palestinians continue to do, while the rival people confines its claim to only part of the contested land, then the moral basis for partition is compromised.

Precisely those who support partition should be vigorously reminding the world of the Jewish claim to Judea and Samaria and the trauma we will be imposing on ourselves by forfeiting that claim. Otherwise, we risk a repetition of what happened after the Camp David negotiations in July 2000, when much of the international community dismissed Israel's willingness to withdraw as inconsequential.

If political and demographic conditions make withdrawal necessary, that doesn't lessen the legitimacy of our connection to Hebron and Bethlehem, just as the Palestinians never forget their links to Jaffa and Haifa. The settlers were right to stake our claim - just as the peace camp was right to insist on justice and reconciliation as the highest national priorities. Both the settlement movement and the peace movement were legitimate, indeed essential, expressions of Jewish history. The fact that neither could fulfill its vision doesn't detract from the nobility of the effort.

In voluntarily severing ourselves from our historic heartland, we will be doing what no nation has ever done to itself.

That hurban gives us the right to demand of the Palestinians and the Arab world an equivalent hurban of their deepest claims and grievances, especially the "right of return" to pre-1967 Israel.

Failure to convey the full extent of the price we will pay for withdrawal will result in the world continuing to indulge Palestinian intransigence, while taking for granted our self-inflicted mutilation.

The writer is the Israel correspondent for the New Republic and author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.

©2003 - Jerusalem Post;=1052756303992

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