Text size

At the end of the fourth year of the intifada, Israel appears to be losing the "battle of the narrative" that has been the backdrop to the conflict since its beginning. Israel's claim that this is a just war of defense against ruthless terror from peace rejectionists is being worn down by the decline in attacks. The relative quiet on the Israeli side against the daily casualties on the Palestinian side strengthens their claim that they are fighting for their freedom from an occupation.

And thus the settlements were sent back to the top of the agenda. The international media is getting interested in the construction tenders for the territories, the diplomatic arena is warming up for the coming debate in the UN General Assembly about the separation fence, and there's the threat of sanctions on Israel. The consensus that held inside Israel when it was under fire has been broken, and the debate over the purpose of the war has renewed.

At the center of the debate is the question of how many settlements must die. Some want to keep all the settlements (Yesha and the rightist parties); some are ready for vague concessions but not now (Uzi Landau); and some would make do with giving up all but a few settlements (Yossi Beilin). In the middle is Ariel Sharon, who proposes giving up some settlements so that others will survive, and his supporter, Shimon Peres, who believes in the power of Gaza First to move along a similar process in the West Bank.

Sharon is trying to revive the distinction made by the Labor government between "settlement blocs" and the isolated settlements. In his eyes, expanding Upper Betar and Ma'aleh Adumim is only a solution to the housing problems of young Jerusalemites. Housing Minister Tzipi Livneh explained that the new projects will be built "in places that are in the heart of the Israeli consensus." There is a political logic to the distinction between the settlers in the blocs who sought better standards of living, and the ideologues of the hilltops. It shrinks the camp of opponents to compromise.

The problem is that the domestic debate does not interest the international community, which regards all the settlements as a crime. The foreign ministers of the unaligned countries who called for bans on the entry of settlers to their countries don't distinguish between Harel Moyal of Ma'aleh Adumim, winner of the "Star is Born" singing competition and a symbol of mainstream Israel, and the ideological settler of Kiryat Arba. The European Union, which demanded labels on settlement produce, does not give any discounts to the Barkan industrial zone which is in "the heart of the consensus." As far as they are concerned, Israel needs to end at the Green Line.

Those who scorned the international community's position and relied on the belief that America is with us and there's nothing to worry about were devastated by the blows from the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which rejected all of Israel's actions in the territories as violations of law. Israel lost the campaign for the fence, and it was forced to drag it to the Green Line, despite the backing from Washington. The jurists and diplomats in Jerusalem are now quarreling over how grave was the defeat at The Hague, and whether the sanctions are a real threat, as Attorney General Menachem Mazuz's lawyers have claimed.

It's obvious to all that Israel will not be successful at persuading the world of the justice of its claim, and that the debate is only about the extent of the anticipated damage and the steps that must be taken: should Israel hurry to adopt the Fourth Geneva Convention, or is a quiet understanding with friendly governments sufficient?

Oded Eran, the Israeli ambassador to the EU, reckons that sanctions won't be applied, because there is a solid bloc of European countries that would foil such an attempt. The question is whether that support will hold. A senior European ambassador in Israel says his government is against sanctions in principle. "But in the 1980s, I served on our South African desk," he recalled this week, "and I noticed that the sanctions against apartheid began from below in the volunteer organizations, and slowly rose to the top and brought about changes in the government's position."

Sharon understands the danger and portrays his disengagement plan as a last-ditch battle against the pressure to drive Israel back to the 1967 borders, a deal to save the West Bank at the cheap price of Gaza. In the coming months it will become evident if his gamble succeeded or if it was too late, and Israel will then face an international political collapse that makes irrelevant the domestic debate over the settlements.