STAND BY ME

One of the less than super features of my six years at the high school formerly known as Akiba Hebrew Academy was the seemingly endless succession of assemblies hosting guest speakers from organizations like the ZOA speaking on topics like the caginess of Arabs and the awesomeness of what we’ve since learned to call “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Then my senior year I organized a human rights conference that included Ian Lustick, a Zionist with some concerns about human rights in Israel, and I got called into the Principal’s office and told that he didn’t like having controversial speakers without counterbalancing speakers there to offer “the other side” (in the end I was able to negotiate a compromise where Lustick would speak alone after an Ahmadinejad-at-Columbia-style introduction from the Headmaster and Lustick and Daniel Pipes would be invited to have a debate at Akiba later on).

A couple months later, the Headmaster announced that everyone in the school would be bussed to an “Israel Solidarity Rally” downtown. After a bunch of kids objected to being forced to participate in a rally defending the Likud government from criticism, Akiba agreed to let kids who wanted to skip the rally and stay at school to watch Exodus and think about what they’d done. A couple months after that, Akiba’s administration announced at my graduation that everyone in the Class of 2002 would receive a copy in the mail at college of Myths and Facts About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (“Myth: Palestinians. Fact: Israelis.”).

All this came to mind when I opened my e-mail and saw an e-mail circulating amongst Akiba Alumni to “Seek neutrality on political issues at Akiba.” What instigated it? Apparently some of my more right-wing friends were appalled that Akiba sent out an e-mail announcing an event hosted by the insufficiently-Likud-friendly New Israel Fund.

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DISENGAGEMENT: FORMALDEHYDE OR CATALYST?

The Gaza pullout is one of those political events like a geometrical plane: it’s massive or nearly invisible, depending on the angle from which you look at it.

The idea that leaving Gaza represents a historic change of hearts on Arik Sharon’s part, while it makes good copy, isn’t grounded in much evidence – certainly not enough to disprove the more convincing and more characteristic explanation Dov Weinglass (Sharon’s Rove) gave to Ha’aretz last year:

The disengagement plan makes it possible for Israel to park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from political pressure. It legitimizes our contention that there is no negotiating with the Palestinians…It is the bottle of formaldehyde within which you place the president’s formula so that it will be preserved for a very lengthy period. The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians…there is an American commitment such as never existed before, with regard to 190,000 settlers…there will be no timetable to implement the settlers’ nightmare. I have postponed that nightmare indefinitely. Because what I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns.

Weinglass identifies a series of factors which have made it necessary for Israel to make some kind of visible concession, including the growing ranks of seruvniks refusing to serve in the territories (no blue-haired pot-smokers, he observes), and the signing of the Geneva Accords by opposition parties on both sides. If the Gaza withdrawl represents a new understanding on Sharon’s part, it’s a new understanding of the extent of pressure on his government to demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice for peace, not a discovery of his inner peacenik. His statement to the press that he would not definitively rule out future concessions by Israel in the West Bank at any time in the country’s future doesn’t change that.

That said, the fact increasing non-violent resistance to occupation, as well as a range of external factors (Arafat’s death, though after the original announcement, certainly contributes) and demographics, have built pressure for peace and justice to the point that the man who pledged “more Elon Morehs” would give up any territory at all is huge and worthy of celebration.

As for what this means for the chances of a West Bank withdrawl, seems to me the establishment of a state of Israel with just and internationally recognized borders will likely continue to be a very slow process, and Sharon opposition to such remains as strong as ever. But I’m inclined to agree with Ian Lustick that Sharon’s gamble that chaos in Gaza will heighten Israeli opposition to giving up any more of the occupied territories is likely to backfire, simply because Israel’s borders have now been recognized by the Likud party and many more Israelis as a strategic one rather than an absolute moral and religious principle. During the first Intifada, Lustick explored the process by which the idea of returning occupied territories crosses the threshholds from being undiscussed to being seen as incitement to civil war, and from being seen as incitement to civil war to being seen as a political question on the public agenda, with an extensive and ultimately hopeful comparative analysis of Israel’s challenge to one which faced Britian in Ireland and France in Algeria. In that framework, the current chatter about civil war amongst Israelis can be understood as a sign of how far we’ve come from the pre-Oslo days when a Palestinian state was simply off the agenda of the Israeli public.

As for the scenes on the ground in Gaza this week, it’s of course an ugly and divisive situation (a Likudnik relative who lives in a West Bank settlement reports having his tires slashed because his car had no anti-disengagement orange on it). The IDF appears so far to have largely shown the kind of restraint – even in the face of settlers throwing acid – that it has sadly failed to show in dealing with Palestinian protesters, violent and non-violent, since the second Intifada broke out. Here’s hoping for further restraint on all sides, and that the Israeli public will continue to recognize disengagement as a necessary, if difficult step. And that further steps on all sides will follow bimhairah, b’yamainu (speedily, in our days).