It's perplexing. The world believes that Israel's departure from Gaza is long overdue and that it will improve Israel's strategic position. Israelis, on the other hand, view their impending exit as a necessary evil rather than as the portent of a better future. With just a month to go before D-Day (Disengagement Day), more than 60 per cent of Israelis support disengagement, but more than 50 per cent feel that once they're out of Gaza, violence will erupt again. This apparent contradiction is key to understanding why the pullout seems so tough.
Don't be misled. This ambivalence in no way reflects Israelis' tolerance for the actions of zealous settlers prepared to resist evacuation at virtually any cost. In fact, the more agitated the resistance, the stronger public support for the planned pullout becomes. Rather, there's a deeper discomfort at the heart of the current debate.
What's actually going on is a profound reorientation of Israel's security doctrine and its national aspirations -- first, when it comes to the value of holding onto land; second as it pertains to the nature of peace.
Since 1967, when Israel first occupied the West Bank and Gaza, the debate over what to do with these territories could be distilled in two simple equations. There were those who believed in holding onto the territories indefinitely for religious or security reasons. These people subscribed to the notion that the Arabs would eventually accept Israel's superiority and make peace. For those Israelis, civilian settlements guaranteed the irreversibility of occupation. In contrast, there were those Israelis who believed the territories would ultimately become a burden and that the land should be used as a bargaining chip, trading the territories in exchange for recognition and peace. For them, settlements were reversible. Either way, peace was part of the equation.
As for the nature of that peace, the Oslo negotiations in the 1990s were based on the assumption that peace would lead to mutually beneficial co-existence. The Israeli-Palestinian accords in 1993-95 called for co-operation in numerous civilian areas and reflected a shared interest in face-to-face relations.
The collapse of talks and the last four years of violence rendered all this obsolete. Nearly 1,000 Israeli fatalities, and concern over the demographic implications of controlling three million Palestinians, have finally convinced wide swaths of the Israeli public that territory must be relinquished. However, Israelis' shattered faith in the Palestinian leadership (even after Yasser Arafat's death) makes them question if giving up land will necessarily lead to peace. They doubt Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's capacity to control militant Palestinian factions and they don't see much evidence of his willingness to negotiate on the key peace-talk issues of refugees and Jerusalem. In short, Israelis feel the land must be vacated but are disillusioned about what they'll get in return.
This uneasy attitude has brought together much of the country's mainstream right and mainstream left in the present unity government, largely a coalition of Likud and Labour parties. Even so, many are concerned that leaving territory with nothing in return may broadcast weakness to their enemies. That's why, even within cabinet, some argue for staying put in Gaza, while most believe that the benefit of evacuating the settlements outweighs the plan's flaws.
(Outside of government, only the extreme religious right still wants to retain all of what they see as God's promised land.)
It's a bleak vision compared to the hopes of the past for peaceful co-existence.
Disengagement represents one half of Israel's emerging security doctrine in action. The other half is the construction of the West Bank security fence that draws what many believe will be Israel's future border. (The exact route of the fence, especially around Jerusalem and large Jewish settlement blocs, remains in dispute.) Both actions are being carried out unilaterally -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon barely pays lip service to the notion of a negotiated permanent settlement -- and the Prime Minister's close advisers hope that once Gaza is left behind, Israel can stay put in what they call a long-term "parking lot" in the West Bank, with less international pressure to move.
No wonder Israelis are uneasy. At best, they're reluctantly resigned to the new approach. They fear violent Jewish dissent during the pullout and renewed Palestinian violence in its aftermath. They fall back on the hope that, nevertheless, Israel's future will be more secure without Gaza than with it.
I'm reminded of the Israeli military's euphemistic use of the phrase "improving positions backwards" to describe what would otherwise be called a retreat. For many Israelis, unilaterally leaving Gaza amounts to just that -- a retreat that may offer a tentative improvement. Whether it will, depends on what Mr. Sharon does on the days before and after the withdrawal.