Getting to Goodbye

In the tumult of war and under the burden it placed on the nation, the significance of the challenge issued by the extremist flanks of the national-religious camp in the territories has been brushed aside.

On the 10th day of the war, Ehud Olmert uttered some nonsense about how the confrontation in the North was bolstering his realignment plan. He quickly retracted in the face of the reaction from extremists in the orange camp, who threatened to abandon the battlefield if the goal of the war was to make it easier for the government to throw the settlers out of the West Bank. In the meantime, the war ended, leaving behind heroic tales and a large number of fatalities among the religious settlers in the territories. Olmert has released to the world his conclusion: The realignment has been shelved.

In the tumult of war and under the burden it placed on the nation, the significance of the challenge issued by the extremist flanks of the national-religious camp in the territories has been brushed aside. They instructed the state under which conditions they would be willing to risk their lives in defense of the country: the removal from the national agenda of any plan to withdraw from most of the West Bank. Thus, the fundamentalist element in the orange camp opened the door to en masse refusal to serve on an unimaginable scale. In fact, they put the state in a position of being blackmailed: Only if their ideological or political demands are met will they be willing to fulfill their civic duty and answer the call-up order; if they do not agree with the action of the elected government, they will leave the field of battle.

This precedent, unparalleled in its severity and consequences, is not part of the public discourse that has developing since the end of the war; all attention has been on the tangible outcome of the war and its political reverberations.

Ignoring this call to refusal by the settlers is being bolstered by the prime minister's political decision to shelve the realignment plan. It is as if all those involved, including a public that is exhausted and disturbed by the war, took a joint decision not to address the phenomenon, since it is no longer strictly relevant: if there is to be no withdrawal from the West Bank, why deal now with the ideological refusal that it would involve? This escape from reality will not last long.

That is because the prime minister - either Olmert or whoever follows him - will have to provide a new national agenda. The idea of the realignment was the cornerstone of the current government; in his speech at the state opening of the Knesset, Olmert referred to it as his government's raison d'etre. If this initiative is no longer on the table, what right to exist does the Olmert government have? This is not just a rhetorical question; the leadership of a country should present its public with a central plan of action, a national task toward which it is working. This is an understandable expectation in a post-war period: a nation is entitled to some horizon of hope, to some positive goal.

Olmert tried to respond to this need by describing the rehabilitation of the North as the next national challenge that must be met, but he is wrong if he believes that some public relations visit by the directors general of his ministries, along the lines of a whistle-stop election tour, and a media brouhaha ushering in a period of ministerial activity are the answer. Moreover, repairing war damage and getting life in the North back on track are supposed to be on the government agenda and that of the relevant local authorities; this mission, however urgent and important it may be, cannot be considered the new national rallying cry that is needed now.

The nation needs a new agenda, a special challenge that demands creativity, the concentration of human resources and extraordinary deeds. A worthy goal would be to forge new ties with the Arab world. The war proved that Israel's military might has its limits and demonstrated the galvanizing power of the Palestinian and Syrian complaints about the use of this force. It may well be that Israel is fated to fight for its existence against the ignorant hatred of Khomeinism; even if this is the case, it would be better to prepare to face this challenge without the added burden of occupied territories. The second Lebanon war means that the government (whatever its composition may be) must now prepare the public for the moment we part with the Golan Heights and the West Bank. This puts the orange camp's threat of refusal firmly back on the national agenda.