Israel: Teen's Birthday, Nation's Decision

Gershon Gorenberg of Jerusalem Report, 12/15/2003

Washington Post
Sunday, December 14, 2003; Page B01


My son turned 15 last week. I start with this because in Israel, no government can build a border fence separating the personal from the political. When I mentioned his birthday to friends, they all said the same thing, with the same worried look: "Three years." Three years to his draft notice. They spoke my thoughts, precisely.

When my son was 6, I took him with me one evening to hear then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin speak. I wanted to give him a gift of memory — of having seen a historic figure, of having heard his gruff, fearless voice. The small boy fell asleep with his head on my shoulder. It was the summer of '95. You could believe easily in your children's future, then. Peace ceremonies were being featured regularly on the news, immigrants were pouring in from the former Soviet Union, foreign investors had decided Israel was a safe place to send their capital and all the faces in the photos on the business page were smiling.

Even so, I wasn't giddy. I still expected birthdays to remain a countdown to basic training. The Mideast wouldn't turn tranquil; our neighbors would never fully accept us. But I had hope that army service would become less risky, and would no longer involve the moral quandary of military rule over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Today, though, I must wonder: When my son puts on olive drab, will we still be lost in the same senseless struggle with the Palestinians? Will soldiers still be sent to Netzarim in the Gaza Strip, to defend a tiny settlement surrounded by Palestinians? In a group interview with the Haaretz newspaper last weekend, seven officers who recently completed a month of reserve duty at Netzarim said the danger to both settlers and soldiers made holding the spot "patently unreasonable," in the words of one officer. What kind of country will my son be defending — a democracy, or an Israel where a Jewish minority rules an Arab majority?

When he finishes his mandatory service, he'll be the age I was when I gave up the private comforts and relative security of America to live in a Jewish state. Will he want to stay in his birthplace, the country to which his parents married themselves, or will he fill out applications to foreign universities? On Thursday, the daily Yediot Aharonot newspaper cited poll figures that 73 percent of Israelis "don't see a future here for the young generation." The statistics match conversations I hear daily.

Paradoxically, these numbers also help explain the sudden reawakening of political debate and political hope in recent weeks, most prominently revealed by a surge of interest in two private peace initiatives, each the product of Israeli-Palestinian partnerships. With a startled look, Israel is shaking off despair. A good number of people, including some unexpected public figures, have concluded that we simply can no longer afford the luxury of inaction.

One reason for this ferment is a creeping recognition that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can't stop the Palestinian revolt, including terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, by military means alone. It's not just that the guy next to you on the bus might blow you — and himself — up. The conflict is also destroying businesses. Investors are rarer than tourists. Each day's paper brings news of layoffs. Strangely, people face danger to their lives more easily than they face danger to their livelihoods. No one feels heroic, or patriotic, holding a pink slip, and smart politicians know this.

But the numbers that really matter are demographic. Beginning in September, when Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics published its annual estimate of the country's population, reports have shown that Jews are on the verge of becoming a minority in Israeli-ruled land. The number of Palestinians in the occupied territories, combined with Israel's own Arab citizens, is close to the number of Jews — and the Jewish birthrate is much lower.

Opponents of the occupation have been warning, ever since Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, that this would happen someday. Suddenly, "someday" is now.

One result is Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's stunning declaration nine days ago that he favors unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the occupied territory. The foreign press paid remarkably little attention to this statement. It would be less surprising if Dick Cheney came out for socialism.

Olmert, the ex-mayor of Jerusalem, belongs to the aristocracy of the Israeli right, bred on the belief that Jews should rule the "complete Land of Israel." His father served as a Knesset member for a hard-line nationalist party in Israel's early years. Yet in a recent speech at Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion's grave, Olmert praised the late prime minister's pragmatism in not conquering the West Bank during Israel's 1948 war of independence, lest Jews find themselves a minority in the new state.

For those who missed the point, Olmert gave an interview with Yediot Aharonot last weekend, in which he warned that Palestinians will soon declare, "There's no room for two states between the Jordan and the sea. All we want is the right to vote." When that happens, "liberal Jewish organizations that shouldered the burden of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa will lead the struggle against us." (Olmert's very mention of apartheid in connection with Israel made me rub my eyes in disbelief.) Maintaining the status quo, he said, "will lead to the loss of Israel as a Jewish state." But Olmert also asserted that reaching an agreement is impossible, and therefore called for a unilateral pullback, giving up most of the West Bank and possibly even parts of east Jerusalem.

Olmert's turnabout has cracked the Israeli right. In the Knesset, one legislator labeled him a "traitor." Yet Olmert has also gained support from some prominent members of his ruling Likud Party. It's likely they are paying attention to polls showing that a majority of Likud's own voters favor a Palestinian state — and that even among the party's central committee members, who are presumably hard-liners, 23 percent are ready to evacuate Netzarim. A Yediot Aharonot survey, published Friday, found that a narrow majority of all Israelis, and 48 percent of Likud voters, back Olmert's idea of a unilateral pullout.

The same dynamic — an urgent sense that the occupation can't continue — is behind wide interest in the two private peace initiatives backed by Israelis on the left. One is the detailed outline for an agreement fashioned by former Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin and Palestinian politician Yasser Abed Rabbo, and presented Dec. 1 in Geneva. The other is a set of principles offered by Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel's Shin Bet security service.

The two plans share the assertion that there's a basis for a Israeli-Palestinian peace, a basis close to the parameters Bill Clinton proposed three years ago. Israel would have to concede virtually all of the West Bank; Palestinians would essentially give up the "right of return" for refugees to Israel. What's new is the bid to enlist the public to pressure failed governments. A survey published by Haaretz shows that 31.2 percent of Israelis back the Geneva accord, with 37.7 percent against. So far, 130,000 Israelis and 70,000 Palestinians have signed petitions in support of the Nusseibeh-Ayalon declaration. After three years of consensus that we can't reach an agreement because we have no partner for peace, that's remarkable.

Olmert rejects the Geneva accord (as it is now known) for giving too much away. But, denying the nationalist catechism of his youth, he has accepted the principle of withdrawal. In effect, he has declared that the argument should no longer be over whether to give up land, but how — by Israeli imposition of borders in the midst of conflict, or via a peace agreement. In doing so, he has inadvertently strengthened the argument for agreement and confirmed what the Israeli left has long argued: that Israel's foreign supporters are doing the country no good by defending the status quo. The status quo leads to the status of Jews as a minority in a binational state.

I don't expect the new debate to be polite or easy, but right now it gives me hope. We are arguing, once again, about how to rebuild the future for our children. There is a chance that when my son puts on a uniform, it will be to defend the kind of Israel I came here wanting to live in. This isn't just politics. It is entirely personal.

Gershom Gorenberg is associate editor of the Jerusalem Report and author of "The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount" (Oxford University Press).