Don't search for logic in a dream
There is no rational argument against withdrawing from the West bank. Yet the dream of Greater Israel has never disappeared.
It's hard not to envy the U.S. president, who has the power to get in front of the cameras and announce that by the end of August most soldiers from his country will leave Iraq. And it's hard to avoid a tinge of envy when the president taps 2011 as the target for the start of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. True, U.S. troops will continue to be deployed in Iraq for the next two years, and Afghanistan will not be devoid of foreign soldiers, but it's now clear that America's occupation has an end. American occupation is not Israeli occupation. It begins with a war and ends with some sort of arrangement; thereafter, the liberated country can do whatever it wants, as long as it does not harm American interests.
That's the difference that stirs envy: The United States did not establish overseas colonies, nor did it send American settlers to live in the occupied lands, so it's free to halt its occupation whenever it chooses. The United States needed to sway opinion both at home and abroad, exclusively for waging war. For withdrawal, it owes no excuses or explanations.
Israel enjoyed the same luxury many times in the past. It decided when to withdraw from Lebanon. It pulled out of the Sinai Peninsula twice, and even withdrew from parts of the Golan Heights. Israel also accomplished the near impossible by withdrawing from the Gaza Strip. But withdrawal from the West Bank, especially the eastern parts of Jerusalem, is a completely different story.
At first glance there appears to be a significant difference between the territories and Iraq or Afghanistan. The West Bank runs alongside Israel, whereas Iraq is thousands of kilometers from American cities. The West Bank can be used as a launching pad for missile attacks on Tel Aviv or Ben-Gurion International Airport, whereas only oil fields stand to be lost in Iraq.
But it's not the well-worn security argument that blocks Israeli withdrawal. That's because Iran poses an existential threat, and terror threats emanate from Lebanon and Gaza. Israel has no withdrawal issue as far as these lands are concerned. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows concerns about developments on the eastern front, he is referring to Iraq and Iran, not Ramallah, a West Bank town heaving with shopping centers and discotheques. There is no oil in the West Bank, which does not provide us with foreign workers. The West Bank has stopped serving as Israel's economic hinterland, a role it played in the 1970s and '80s. So no economic argument is at play here.
Nor can the danger of a collapse of the governing coalition serve as a viable excuse for not withdrawing, because even when center-left coalitions were in power and had the option of withdrawing, a pullout from the West Bank was not on the agenda. In other words, no rational argument is left to block a withdrawal. Israel's refusal to pull out is rooted in another dimension - the dream of Greater Israel has never disappeared. Two states for two peoples is a pleasing and rational slogan that appears to reflect political realism, but it's not strong enough to eradicate a psychological complex of power and bury a dream.
This is the core of Israel's schizophrenia, the reason the country has moments of lucidity during which it sounds reasonable, amenable to direct negotiations, and even eager to engage in peace talks. The prime minister is even convinced he is ready to concede - that's the phrase, not withdraw - to the Palestinians. He's aware of American pressure and of the implications of a prolonged occupation on Israel's future. But most of the time Netanyahu and his government are captive to an illusion; they are kept in thrall by the psychosis of a dream.
The Likud government and extreme right are not the only ones who suffer from this disease. Most of the public succumbs to it. This is not a right-wing public, even if it grants an electoral majority to right-wing parties. This is a public that dreams, or is at least accustomed to, a dream that has persisted for 43 years. As part of this dream, the political right is prepared to annex the territories and the 3 or 4 million Palestinians who live there. That way, the state will not relinquish one holy particle of land.
The right lives with a paradox. On the one hand, it is ready to relinquish land within the State of Israel populated by Israeli Arabs. On the other hand, it wants to annex millions of Palestinians because it covets the precious dowry of land those residents would bring. In the end, it's useless to search for logic in a dream. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has learned to identify all the dream's manifestations. He is wary about negotiations until he receives assurances about the dream's future. The United States remains the only party that can't fathom why "by 2011 we'll withdraw" can't be said here, and why it's impossible to defeat the dream.