All's quiet in Ein Hilweh. No victory cheers this week from Tyre and Sidon either. Even in nearby Nablus, there was no euphoria over the withdrawal of the Jews from Nofei Nehemia, the pullback from Havat Gilad, and the promised evacuation of all the remaining "illegal outposts."
The reason for this Palestinian apathy needs to be understood. After all, according to the "no withdrawal under fire" thesis - the thesis espoused by the prime minister and chief of staff - our enemies should be beating drums and dancing in ecstasy at the abandonment of these settlements at the height of the intifada. Most especially, one would have expected the Palestinians to rejoice at the cries of the settler leaders and their rabbis, and of the evacuees themselves, as they shriek that Israel is growing weaker and succumbing to pressure.
But they are not rejoicing, and this is because Israel - the government and bulk of the people - is defining the evacuation of these outposts not as an imposed "withdrawal under fire," but as an act of policy that it has freely decided upon in order to meet certain political and diplomatic needs of its own.
The medium, after all, is the message. Not always, of course. In presenting a message, there has to be a solid core of logic and good sense - and self-persuasion - if the idea is to convince others. In this case, for example, the Jews and the Palestinians both know that the defense minister's withdrawal operation is essentially a political deal between himself and the prime minister, and therefore has no significance as a precedent-setter. The so-called "illegality" of the outposts is just a pretext accepted by everyone with a knowing wink.
In Tyre and Sidon they know it's a sham, too. They understand the internal politics behind the operation. They know there isn't even a whiff of "withdrawal under fire" here. Which is why they're staying home and not celebrating in the streets.
Actually, though, there is cause for celebration. Not for Israel's enemies, but for its citizens, for Zionists. Because in this seemingly insignificant act of dismantling dummy settlements, the State of Israel has snapped (unwittingly, perhaps) two years of paralysis. For the first time since the intifada, Israel has resumed the power to define its own actions - one of the most valuable assets of a strong, sovereign country.
This week, it has been proven that withdrawal from settlements is not a deterministic act that must necessarily cause rejoicing on the other side. Israel's unilateral act of defining and presenting the evacuation of the outposts persuaded the Palestinians that there was no cause for rejoicing on their part. The unequivocal message was that the pullbacks were carried out to serve Israeli interests and not out of weakness. That message got through.
In the same way, Israel could, if it so desired, define and present the evacuation of other settlements - some of those "legal" ones that we need like a hole in the head, like Netzarim, or all of Gush Katif. Their evacuation could be presented as the sovereign act of a country working freely to further its own interests, and not as "withdrawal under fire."
If and when Israel decides on a real withdrawal from real settlements - hopefully soon - the settlers and their supporters will presumably holler about defeatism from every rooftop and caravan. The Palestinians will pounce on their shrill cries and brand the operation "withdrawal under fire," which is to say, defeat. Will the dangerous propaganda of these two parties prevail? That will depend on the resourcefulness of the government that takes the decision to withdraw. If it presents the evacuation as a surrender, instead of as a fully conscious, sovereign act, Israel's opponents and enemies will celebrate. If it packs the places up and slinks out like a beaten dog with its tail between its legs (or like the Barak government, which took the right decision to withdraw from south Lebanon and then beat a hasty and demeaning retreat in the dead of night), it will turn a wise and courageous decision into an act that projects weakness and invites pressure.
The doctrine of "no withdrawal under fire" is a trap. The right embraces it because it ensures continued occupation. On the left, many cling to it out of the catatonic stupor gripping the peace camp since the collapse of Camp David. The result is that creative thinking on the subject of unilateral solutions has been stifled and suppressed.
The dismantling of the outposts carried out this week is not a precedent for real evacuation. But it could be the precedent and proof of something even more important: the fact, nearly forgotten, that Israel has the ability and the power to define its own actions and determine their significance.
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