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If a brilliant photographer had accompanied Yossi Beilin on his visit to Hebron this week, he might have won a Pulitzer for snapping a picture of a lone Israeli politician, a bit nerdy-looking, but courageous, surrounded by a big cluster of policemen and security guards, surrounded by an even bigger cluster of Jewish settlers from Hebron who surged at him, shouting and cursing.

Except that the prize went, rightly of course, to a photograph by Oded Balilty in which a lone settler woman is trying to hold back a tremendous army of policemen and soldiers as smoke billows in the background from the homes being demolished in Amona.

Despite the similar cast of actors, there seems to be no connection, or possibly a reverse connection, between these two crowd scenes. And yet they both reflect two sides of the same coin: the ongoing railing of the settler community against the authority of the State of Israel - both as victim, and as aggressor and victor. Yes, victor, in spite of everything.

In the year that has come and gone since last Independence Day, the settler showdown, which was really the basis for the political change the current government was relying on, was all but forgotten. New troubles pushed out the old. Preoccupation with the war in Lebanon and political corruption created a distraction. Moreover, the art of distraction is a field in which Ehud Olmert excels: He gave up the "convergence plan," on the strength of which he was elected, almost parenthetically. His colleagues in the Labor Party accepted the shelving of this plan with the same meek indifference with which they accepted the National Union as a coalition partner and the systematic rejection (until recently) of every peace plan or proposal for withdrawal.

True, disengagement from the Gaza Strip created a different dynamic from the one intended by the masterminds of the plan (remember Eival Giladi, the chief of "coordination and strategy," who sat in prime minister Ariel Sharon's office and spoke about "paradigms" and "stabilizing moves" that would create the "Archimedean balance" between the "three vectors" of "defense input"?).

It now appears that it wasn't these paradigms that led Sharon to invent the disengagement; it was personal political survival, and maybe also belated sobriety with regard to Israeli self-definition and the limitations of power and demography in this region.

But at a certain stage, it seems, as witnessed by the brutal force of the evacuation, Sharon made up his mind, in a manner consistent with his tendency to trample over others, to put an end to the hegemony of the settlers, who challenged him in the same way they challenged all his predecessors. In fact, it was just a preliminary move, the first symbolic step in a dynamic designed to shatter the 40-year-old "paradigm" in which a small minority with messianic tendencies had the right to veto decisions about Israel's borders, identity and foreign and defense policies. It was not about peace. It was about Israel's identity as a normal country; it was about normalization, without which there can be no peace.

It is no coincidence that Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin, the toughest of our generals, dared to stand up to the settlers. Both were cut down, and the battle ended with their fall, perhaps forever. What Sharon never managed to do is not going to be done by someone else. And we don't need a slippery wimp like Olmert and his bewildered ministers to understand that. Who is going to be the "bulldozer," and move something around here? Olmert? Ophir Pines-Paz? Benjamin Netanyahu? Beilin, who yelled "Crazies, go home" at the settlers this week, like some grouchy neighbor?

Our minds are so preoccupied with the military defeat in Lebanon that we have yet to realize the depth of another defeat, hidden from sight, on our own home turf, precipitated by the disappearance of the last dominant but consensual leader who wanted to change things and could.

A year has passed, and everyone has gone back to being themselves - the settlers, brazen and defiant; and the politicians, shuffling and weak. The statement by the Yesha Council (of Jewish settlements) this week about the "great strategic importance of the house in Hebron" and the important link it provides in "territorial contiguity," issued in that same overlording tone, was a victory whoop to remind us who the real boss was for 40 out of the 59 years that Israel has been around. Was, and still is.