The debate between the right and the left in Israel usually focuses on a pathetic attempt to prove which of them was right before an imaginary court of history and public opinion. "We opposed the occupation," shouts the left. "And we warned against Oslo," thunders the right. "We said the settlements would be a disaster," boasts the leftist. "We warned that rifles should not be given to the Palestinians," replies the rightist.
These arguments are fine for the speaker's lectern in the Knesset and op-ed columns in the newspapers. But in reality, politics is not a theoretical clash between ideas, but a power game among pressure and influence groups, which compete among themselves over the distribution of national resources. Ideology is the rival groups' marketing tool, but it serves mainly to enlist supporters and encourage the convinced rather than to change the rival's viewpoint. In this battle, the winner is not the one who presents the better arguments on Razi Barkai's morning radio program, but the side that manages to subdue its rivals.
In Israel there a quite a number of effective lobbies: Israel Defense Forces officers, the disabled, the cellular phone companies, employees at the ports and the Israel Electric Corporation, the banks, the farmers, controlling shareholders of large corporations, the television channels' franchisees and the West Bank settlers. All these lobbies want resources from the state, and manage to attain them thanks to their control over centers of power and their ability to disturb the peace. Only the division of the land has no lobby.
The argument that, because of demographic fears, establishing a Palestinian state in the territories is essential to ensuring both Israel's future and its identity, has in recent years migrated from the left to the political center. "We prefer a Jewish state to a binational one," was how then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin explained the Oslo Accords shortly before he was assassinated. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon spoke about "the demographic situation that has been created on the ground" to justify the disengagement from Gaza. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went even further when he attended the Annapolis conference: "Two states or Israel is finished."
Israel's present leadership, headed by Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, warns that Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state will be undermined if the diplomatic process fails, as the Palestinians will then demand the "one-state solution," with full civil rights in Israel, as a substitute for independence in a separate state.
The problem is that while the demographic threat sounds good in a political debate, it is hard to translate into concrete reality. Exactly how will it happen? Will the fence fall one day, and Palestinians ask to unite with the Jews and Arabs on the Israeli side? Will the Hamas government in Gaza apply to the party registrar in Jerusalem and ask to run for the Knesset? Will Tel Aviv residents go to the beach in Gaza? Or vice versa? Will the settlers live in Jenin and Nablus, and wealthy West Bank Arabs buy private homes in the settlements of Kedumim and Karnei Shomron?
It is hard to harness people to action when they do not identify a clear and present danger, or a great opportunity for benefit. Therefore, attacks on neighborhood cafes, Qassam rockets and bulldozer drivers who run amok frighten the Israeli public far more than the Iranian nuclear bomb. Of course an atom bomb can kill far more people that a suicide bomber, and the very fact of Iran having one would cause Israel strategic damage. But these threats are theoretical, and it is hard to imagine them really happening - whereas everyone understands what would happen to him if the bulldozer working across the road suddenly attacked him.
The threats of the Iranian nuclear bomb and Palestinian demographics seem virtual, and the result is that there is no public pressure on the government to take action against Iran's nuclear installations or to leave the West Bank.
On the other hand, the settlers' situation is just the opposite. Their lobby benefits from the best of all worlds. It provides its supporters with spiritual and ethical meaning. It enlists them to act, out of fear of being expelled from their homes, a fear that became concrete after the evacuation of Gaza. And if the struggle fails and the settlements are evacuated, the settlers are guaranteed to get rich quick at the government's expense.
This is why the consistent results of public opinion polls - 70 percent of the public favors withdrawal and division of the country - are not reflected in reality. There is nobody to translate them into deeds, whether for fear of loss or in expectation of profit. Only rarely does a combination of interests arise that motivates the leadership to act.
That is what happened to Sharon, who was threatened by external pressure, a loss of popularity at home and a fear of losing his power. That was why he evacuated Gush Katif, and won the support of a majority of the public and unprecedented international popularity. His unpopular successor did not succeed in mobilizing the inner strength and public support required for such a move, and therefore he maintained the status quo in the settlements, although he favored a massive evacuation.
The division of the country will become possible only when its supporters have a sufficiently strong interest to unite them into taking action. Until then, they can only talk on the radio and write articles.
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