[The following editorial overview is extracted
from the January 2004 issue of The Other Israel.]
A BREAKING CONSENSUS
An Editorial Overview
It happened in much the same way as the demise of
previous (and as we now know, following) cease-fires: the Israeli army
continued its search for Palestinian militants; the "wanted terrorists"
resisted arrest and were shot "while trying to escape." Hamas retaliated by
blowing up an Israeli bus in Jerusalem, to which the Israeli Air Force
retaliated by a bombing in Gaza...
The collapse of the Hudna had been the last straw for the
tottering Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen — a man who had had no
chance, being so often praised by Sharon and Bush that he came to be
perceived by Palestinians as a "tool of the occupier" (and of the occupier's
overseas patron), while at the same time given no concrete achievements
which alone would have restored his credibility among his constituency.
Israelis had looked forward to at least three months of
security — the period over which the Hudna was supposed to last — and to the
possibility of it being extended for much longer. Many were bitterly
disappointed when already before the end of August it collapsed — just when
people started to believe in it and to make new plans.
But although some questions were asked — more than before
— the general mood was of helpless depression rather then the kind of anger
that may eventually gain a political expression. Prime Minister Sharon must
have felt confident that this discontent could be channeled into ever more
hatred against the Palestinians.
With the Hudna and Abu Mazen out of the way, the army
reacted as a suddenly released coiled spring. Encouraged by the political
echelon, the generals went berserk, cramming into a few hours or days all
that they had been debarred from doing during the preceding month and half
The Air Force undertook a massive series of assassinations
from the air of Hamas leaders, killing and wounding also a lot of innocent
bystanders. At the peak of the campaign, a bomb narrowly missed the Hamas'
spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin — the venerated leader of hundreds of
thousands. The generals claimed that their campaign would force the Hamas
leadership to devote most of its time to finding new hiding places — not
much of a consolation to the victims of the revenge bombings that Hamas did
manage to carry out...
Once more, all over the West Bank the siege of the
Palestinian towns and villages was tightened. The few roadblocks that had
been removed as a sop to Abu-Mazen were restored, and the ban on
Palestinians traveling on the main highways enforced more strictly than ever
At the town of Nazlat Issa, military bulldozers went into
the bustling marketplace and totally razed it within a few hours, depriving
hundreds of Palestinian families of their livelihood — in order to make
place for a new section of Sharon's "Separation Wall." (In the late 1990's,
the army had actively encouraged the creation of that same marketplace,
under the then-prevailing theory that a prosperous population is more likely
to behave peacefully...)
Shortly afterwards, at Rafah on the Gaza Strip¹s border
with Egypt, some 150 Palestinian homes were destroyed in a single day,
during the army's futile campaign to destroy the gun-runners' tunnels
supposedly hidden under some of the houses and which are always dug anew.
All of that seemed but the prelude. Well informed commentators published
ominous reports of the army preparing for "Operation Defensive Shield II",
in which the Palestinian Authority would be completely broken up and the
Gaza Strip occupied as the West Bank had been in the original Defensive
Shield of April 2002 (Alex Fishman in Yediot Aharonot, October
Sharon's aggressive stance was only possible with the
support — tacit in some cases, explicit and outspoken in others — of the
Up until August, the Bush Administration had based its
policy on Abu Mazen. The US had apparently made no fallback plans for the
case of Abu Mazen's fall — though that contingency had been anything but
The demise of this prime "good guy" and the re-emergence
of "bad guy" Arafat as the prime mover in Palestinian politics left a vacuum
in Washington's policy, which was initially filled by giving Sharon a
virtually free hand. This was apparent from the routine vetoing of any
initiative to censure the PM's policy that came up at the UN Security
Council. And President Bush embarrassed even his own advisors with blunt
statements such as "In Sharon's place I would have done exactly the same."
Editorials and commentaries widely assumed that the Bush
Administration had virtually lost interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue,
being concerned with the Iraqi quagmire and the approaching presidential
elections, and that this would only become more true the closer the
elections come, with Bush in need of Sharon's Jewish and Christian
Evangelist supporters; that any change would have to wait for after November
4, 2004. Peace seekers were left to wonder gloomily just how much damage
could Sharon cause in more than a year of unsupervised rampaging. But as it
turned out, Sharon did not have as complete a freedom of action as he might
have wished for.
Ariel Sharon's decades-long hatred towards Yasser
Arafat has long transcended any rational consideration of political
expediency. During the months in which Abu Mazen acted as the Palestinian
Prime Minister, Sharon had to restrain himself and play along with the
American concept of getting Arafat to transfer effective power to his PM and
becoming "a figurehead like the Queen of England." Any Israeli attempt upon
Arafat's person would have foiled that scheme and brought Abu Mazen crashing
But once Abu Mazen had fallen anyway, the way seemed to be
free. A massive propaganda machine started churning out a daily flow of
press articles, speeches and commentaries designed to demonize Arafat as a
terrorist, corrupt tyrant and "the main obstacle for peace"; Ahmed Qureia
(Abu Ala), who replaced Abu Mazen as Palestinian Prime Minister, was
dismissed as "Arafat's creature."
After weeks of more and more naked threats by Likud
Knesset Members and ministers, a terrible suicide bombing at a Jerusalem
cafe seemed to provide Sharon with a suitable pretext (though no connection
between Arafat and the perpetrators was ever seriously claimed, much less
On the memorable date of September 11, while America was
holding its commemorations, a widely publicized emergency meeting of
Sharon's inner cabinet resolved to "remove the obstacle to peace, Yasser
Arafat" though no date was set for implementation. The precise method of
"removal" was not specified, but several ministers stated explicitly that
Arafat was to be removed from the world of the living, rather than merely
from the country. "The safety is off, just one more suicide bombing will
spell Arafat's end. Sharon will not even need to convene the cabinet again,"
wrote a commentator in Ma'ariv.
The cabinet decision caused a storm of international
protests, and an enormous up swell in popular support for Arafat among his
own people, with thousands of Palestinians flocking to the beleaguered
compound at Ramallah for massive manifestations of support for their
The US, too, made declarations of opposition to the
expulsion or "elimination" of Arafat. However, the American ambassador to
the UN cast a veto when a draft resolution condemning the threats upon
Arafat came up in the UN Security Council, casting grave doubts upon Bush's
Things came to a head two weeks later, in the wake of yet
another suicide bombing — which came without even the questionable
justification of being a direct revenge and which may very well have been a
deliberate gambit by Arafat's Palestinian opponents.
Within hours of the deadly blast at Maxim's Restaurant at
Haifa, the level of demagogic threats upon Arafat by Israeli politicians and
commentators rose to a deafening crescendo. A small band of Gush Shalom
activists hurried to Ramallah to act as human shields (see separate article)
amid a feeling of gathering doom.
Until the opening of presently-classified archives, it
would probably not be known what urgent messages passed that night between
Jerusalem and Washington and what debates raged in the meetings of Sharon
and his advisors. Still, the presence of Israelis was a factor mentioned in
some reports and in any case, there had been no attack upon Arafat's
Instead, Israeli jet fighters made the first attack upon
Syrian territory in more than two decades, bombing an alleged terrorist base
and breaking the sound barrier directly above the residence of Syrian
President Bashar Assad.
Overnight, the various demagogues shifted their target
from Arafat to the Syrians. The same unnamed "intelligence sources" which
hitherto explained how Arafat supervises terrorist cells out of his besieged
and half-ruined headquarters now shifted to expounding the story of
Damascus-based malevolent groups controlling sinister networks in the West
The limitations of power
The night when an attack on Syria was substituted for
the assault on Arafat turned out to be the high-water mark of Sharon's
upsurge of unrestrained military aggression. On the day following the
Damascus air-raid, a Hizbullah squad retaliated by shooting across the
Lebanese border and killing an Israeli soldier — but there was no escalation
into general conflict: the Syrians and their allies had not provided any
significant pretext, the Israeli armed forces were overextended in keeping
down the Palestinians, and for the Bush Administration a certain degree of
Israeli pressure on recalcitrant Syria may have been welcome, but a
full-scale Middle East war was definitely not.
Rather, the following weeks and months saw a mixture of
verbal sparring between Jerusalem and Damascus, occasional border incidents,
some hesitant peace feelers and also a complicated series of negotiations on
prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizbullah, carried out under German
The normal rule is for such negotiations to be carried out
under a shroud of secrecy, which only comes off once a deal is achieved. Not
so this time: there was an enormous lot of publicity, and the public as well
as cabinet ministers were faced with highly emotional, conflicting claims by
different families of prisoners held — or supposed to be held — in Lebanon.
Combat pilot Ron Arad, whose plane crashed in Lebanon back
in 1986, had become an Israeli national hero during his many years of
captivity — but it is more than a decade since anything was heard of him,
and many experts doubt that he is still alive. Elhanan Tennenbaum, former
colonel turned businessman, had been lured to Lebanon while seeking a
(possibly illicit) deal, and captured by Hizbullah — and is known to be
alive and available to be exchanged for all the Lebanese (and some
Palestinian) prisoners held by Israel.
Would or would not the government be justified in
expending for the sake of Tennenbaum the hostages who had been kidnapped ten
years ago, for the specific purpose of getting Arad? The question was
endlessly debated in the op-ed pages and on TV talk shows, and polls showed
it to be dividing the public and the cabinet down the middle. Few stopped to
ask whether it was proper in the first place for a state defining itself as
democratic to engage in the hostage-taking game...
PM Sharon plunged in on Tennenbaum side, despite bitter
recriminations by the Arad family, and got a narrow government majority for
the exchange deal. But he added the proviso that release of all Lebanese
prisoners would not include Samir Kuntar, a man who in 1979 took part in a
raid on and the killing of children at the northern Israeli town of
Nahariya. "Those with blood on their hands will never be released," declared
Thus, the exchange deal for which the public keyed itself
up fell through, leaving a feeling of anti-climax. Retroactively, it seems
that then it was that the first signs of a subterranean change surfaced.
The weariness of three years' continuous conflict became
louder, loud enough to be heard also by the opinion-makers. The short-lived
Hudna had aroused hopes that were not quite quenched by its demise; the
generals could only offer the repetition of military remedies that had
already proven a failure, and articles started to appear in growing numbers
expressing the feeling that Sharon was leading the country into a dead end.
This was added to frustration at the ongoing economic
recession and the aggressively free-market policies of Finance Minister
Earlier Likud governments had espoused a kind of
paternalistic welfare policy towards the poor — sensible, since the poor had
always been Likud's main source of electoral support.
Netanyahu, however, entered upon a wild spree of slashing
welfare benefits, sharply cutting the education and health budgets, and
engaging in head-on confrontations with the unions leading to prolonged
public sector strikes.
All this was justified by arguments drawn from the
vocabulary of the US Republican Party, familiar in America but never before
voiced with such vehemence in Israel. The traditional Likud voters in the
poverty-stricken towns did not like it, and in the October municipal
elections the party was soundly trounced.
There were also several corruption scandals implicating PM
Sharon and his two sons in highly questionable land deals in both Israel and
Greece and in a multi-million Dollar "loan" or gift made to them by the
mysterious Cyril Kern of South Africa.
Despite backstage manoeuvres aimed at discrediting the
main police officer involved in the investigation of these scandals and
securing a "safe" candidate to take up the soon-to-be-vacated key position
of Attorney General, the corruption affairs continued to gather momentum —
contributing to the fall of Sharon's rating in the polls and making Likud
Party stalwarts start considering the possibility of Sharon turning into a
It was against this background that The Letter of the
Combat Pilots shook the Israeli public, heralding the comeback of an Israeli
peace camp that had been discredited and cast into eclipse by the Barak
fiasco of 2000. Where the society had so long played deaf, it was exactly
inside the army that certain questions could no longer be avoided.
It had started with the courageous court-martialed
conscript refusers and the constant stream of reservists serving terms in
prison — but from there it was now spreading to the heart of the armed
Appeal to morality
Back in the 1960's and 1970's, Israeli school kids
learned as a matter of course to sing the Air Force song (On the Wings of
Silver/The Knights of the Wind take off into the clouds/The Brave and the
Good/The Sons of the Thunderbolt fly high!...). The Air Force pilots were
the best of the best, the elite of the elite, who keep the country's sky
safe and who more or less by themselves won the great victory of 1967.
Like many other things held sacred until then, the Air
Force's reputation emerged tarnished from the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and
the months-long daily bombardments of Beirut taking their terrible toll upon
the civilian population (it was then that President Reagan placed upon his
desk the photo of a five-year old Lebanese girl mutilated by an Israeli
Only later was it realized that the feeling of disgust at
the bombings, shared by anti-war activists, had penetrated to quite a few of
the pilots themselves. Rumors that were confirmed only two decades later
told of pilots refusing to bomb a school at Saida and throwing their bombs
into the sea instead.
A very long time has passed since Israeli pilots had been
required to fight enemy pilots in the sky or brave a serious system of
anti-aircraft defences. Since the 1980's their missions almost invariably
consist of bombing ground targets which have little or no way of fighting
back — which went against the pilots' image of themselves as aerial knights
following a kind of chivalric code, and led to occasional manifestations of
There was the case of Colonel Yigal Shohat — a former
squadron leader who was shot down over Egypt in 1970, lost a leg, spent
three years as a POW and upon his release became a surgeon. In January 2002
he mounted the podium at Gush Shalom's Conference on War Crimes and made a
public call upon pilots to refuse to bomb Palestinian cities (see
This call by a highly respected past officer reverberated
within the Air Force, creating a turmoil of which only little became
manifest at the time.
During the great invasion and reconquest of the West Bank
cities in April 2002, a helicopter pilot flatly refused to bomb a house in
the town of Dura described to him as "a terrorist stronghold" but inside
which a Palestinian family was cowering in fear — a case which got little
attention at the time, though the saved Palestinians wrote a public letter
of heartfelt thanks and invited their savior to visit the town as their
For many pilots, the watershed was crossed with the Gaza
bombing of September 2002, in which — together with Hamas leader Shehadeh
who had been targeted for assassination — fifteen civilians were killed in
the middle of night, most of them children in their beds.
Asked about it, Air Force commander Dan Chalutz reacted
with a remarkably callous remark: "I sleep well at night (...) when the bomb
drops, I feel a slight bump on the plane's fuselage — nothing else."
It was at this time that several young helicopter pilots
started thinking seriously of collecting signatures on a "Refusal Letter."
They eventually got support from those of earlier generations, some still
serving as flying instructors and others already retired from active service
but highly respected for their record — such as the legendary Brigadier
Yiftach Spector, who had led the raid on the Iraqi nuclear reaction in 1981
and took part in many other daring exploits.
The final impetus for 27 active service & reservist pilots
to come forward was the increasing number of Palestinian civilian casualties
from aerial bombardments after the breaking of the Hudna. On September 25,
the eve of the Jewish New Year, it burst like a bombshell filling the
papers' front pages in Israel and all over the world:
The Pilots' Letter
Dear Commander of the Air Force, General Halutz
We, Air Force pilots who were raised on the values of
Zionism, sacrifice, and contributing to the state of Israel, have always
served on the front lines, willing to carry out any mission, whether
small or large, to defend and strengthen the state of Israel.
We, veteran and active pilots alike, who served and
still serve the state of Israel for long weeks every year, are opposed
to carrying out attack orders that are illegal and immoral, of the type
the state of Israel has been conducting in the territories.
We, who were raised to love the state of Israel and
contribute to the Zionist enterprise, refuse to take part in Air Force
attacks on civilian population centers. We, for whom the Israel Defense
Forces and the Air Force are an inalienable part of ourselves, refuse to
continue to harm innocent civilians.
These actions are illegal and immoral, and are a direct
result of the ongoing occupation, which is corrupting all of Israeli
society. Perpetuation of the occupation is fatally harming the security
of the state of Israel and its moral strength.
We who serve as active pilots — fighters, leaders, and
instructors of the next generation of pilots — hereby declare that we
shall continue to serve in the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force
for every mission in defense of the state of Israel.
[List of signatories available from
The storm that burst out was unprecedented, far beyond the
impact of any earlier group of refusers. For more than a week, there was
hardly any other issue on the public agenda. Being who and what they were,
the pilots' act of collective public refusal posed an unprecedented potent
challenge, arousing an enormous controversy.
It must have been rather a shock for people who were used
for years to the adoration of being the nation's favorite sons — and who now
found themselves, literally overnight, the target of a vicious hate
campaign, branded as "cowards", "traitors" and "terrorist accomplices."
Their very elite status was turned against them ("spoiled blue-bloods who
fly above and don't share in the privations of infantrymen on the ground").
And more difficult than the attacks of ambitious politicians and demagogic
columnists was the alienation from the Air Force itself.
"Signing the letter means that you will not fly any
more. For any pilot worth his salt, that is a terrible blow and wrench —
but you always knew that this day would come upon you once upon a time,
by aging if not for any other reason. What is worse is to be torn out of
a close-knit community, to be suddenly alienated and plunged into
conflict with past and present colleagues and comrades-in-arms whom you
have known for years. It is even worse for some who are the sons of
pilots or the fathers of pilots and who find themselves at odds with
their own family members. Still, there is no choice."
[description by Lieutenant Colonel Yoel
In fact, three of the original twenty-seven signatories
could not stand the pressures applied upon them, and eventually signed
humiliating letters of retraction. But six other pilots joined the ranks of
the dissidents at the very peak of the controversy, right after General
Halutz announced that all who persist in their refusal would be permanently
Among peace activists there started an exchange of email
messages on how best to organize support for the pilots. Gush Shalom had
held immediately (Sept. 29) a solidarity vigil ("The 27 are the real
patriots!"); KM Yossi Sarid of Meretz, who had expressed grave
reservations about earlier refuser groups, strongly spoke on the pilots'
For the pilots themselves, however, it was more important
to hear of the turmoil in the ranks of Air Force and of fierce debates going
on among junior and senior officers alike, in spite of General Halutz
clamping down upon any manifestation of open dissent. And there were
statements of support from such people as General (ret.) Amos Lapidot, who
commanded the Israeli Air Force from 1982 to 1987 and who hitherto rarely
spoke out on controversial issues:
Leibovitz & the Air Force
'I understand the protest of the refusers.
Their protest is not against the Air Force but against
those who give the orders and define the policy that leads us nowhere.
I share the view of the refusers that the occupation is
increasingly corrupting our people. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz said
it already 36 years ago, and now everybody who has eyes can see it. Just
look at the violent behavior of drivers at the Israeli roads.
I think that the refusers took an unwise step, since a
pilot in the Air Force is a volunteer anyway and nobody could force him
to fly. What they should have done is collectively resign from the Air
About the liquidations: I think that when there is a
ticking bomb, somebody who is about to commit a suicide bombing or
participate in it, it is justified to kill him — but the policy makers
should look further ahead. We are not sensitive enough, not aware of
what we are doing to the other side.
We have to recognize that the Oslo agreement failed not
only because of them but also because of us.
We should create a horizon of hope and start forthwith
the dismantling of settlements.'
With the increasing public support for the pilots,
right-wingers went into a frenzy of calling anathemas in all directions.
Some Knesset Members demanded that El-Al, Israel's national airline, dismiss
several of the pilots who are on its payroll — and when the airline rebuffed
them, they contemplated a comprehensive boycott on all its flights.
And when several hundred university lecturers signed a
support petition for the pilots, the Likud-dominated National Union of
Students called upon students to boycott all these lecturers — which
precipitated a breakaway by the more dovish Tel-Aviv University Student
Then the Yesh Gvul movement, veteran refusenik support
group dating back to the 1980's, lodged an appeal to the Supreme Court to
have General Halutz prosecuted for the mass killing of civilians during the
Shehadeh assassination. A whole group of prominent Israeli writers, such as
Amos Oz and David Grossman, had associated themselves with the appeal.
Immediately Tzvi Handel, Deputy Minister of Education and
a prominent settler leader, declared that the works of all these authors
should be forthwith deleted from the curriculum in Israeli schools.
When the dust cleared after this week and half of a
free-for-all, one result was immediately obvious: the aerial assassinations
in the Gaza Strip, a daily occurrence before the pilots wrote their letter,
became a rare matter — and a measure whose legitimacy was much more
A month later, a helicopter gunship did carry out a
"liquidation" at Nusseirat Refugee Camp near Gaza — and like in previous
cases, it resulted in numerous civilian casualties. There was a sharp public
debate in Israel, the refusenik pilots were asked for numerous media
interviews, and their withering criticism was echoed by quite a few
The Air Force published photos which were supposed to
prove that the Palestinians had lied about the number of civilians killed —
but KM Yossi Sarid proved that it was the Air Force which had lied about the
type of armament which had used been used. ("We had to give out inaccurate
information in order to protect a new, highly-classified weapons system"
claimed the embarrassed General Halutz.)
The impact of the pilots' letter was, however, far from
limited to the specific issue of the aerial assassinations. They had set a
new trend in the Israeli public opinion, so long dominated by the
nationalists. And the opening that they made was soon to be enlarged and
Filling the vacuum
Like the Pilots' Letter, what eventually came to be
known as "The Geneva Initiative" has germinated for a long time before
coming to the attention of the general public.
The starting point was the last round of
Israeli-Palestinian talks, held at the Egyptian resort of Taba in January
2001 — the last weeks of the Barak Government's tenure.
As was later recounted in memoirs from both sides, Israeli
and Palestinian negotiators alike felt that the negotiations were making
some significant headway, and that they were steadily narrowing the gaps on
the issues over which Camp David had collapsed half a year earlier. But it
came abruptly to an end by Barak recalling his negotiators, for reasons
which were never made entirely clear; and soon afterwards Sharon was
elected, who had no intention whatsoever of restarting these negotiations.
It was then that Yossi Beilin, a minister in the Barak
cabinet and a senior negotiator at Taba, decided to continue the
negotiations with his Palestinian interlocutors and try to reach a mutually
satisfactory solution of all the outstanding issues — even though he was now
a private citizen without official standing whatsoever, so that the
resulting document would be no more than a draft, an instrument for
political campaigning which would not be binding upon the state of Israel.
In the decade since he had master-minded the Oslo
"back-channel" Beilin had acquired enough of a reputation as a serious
peacemaker to make the exercise worthwhile for Yasser Abd-Rabo and the other
Palestinian interlocutors — predominantly members of the Palestinian
Authority mainstream, though in their dealings with Beilin and his friends
they acted in private capacity, with a tacit rather then official
authorization from Arafat.
On the international diplomatic arena, too, the initiative
was taken seriously despite Beilin's lack of official status. Professor
Alexis Keller of Berne University (no relative of the TOI-editor)
convinced his country's foreign minister to facilitate the initiative and
provide logistical support, much as Norway had done in 1992-93 at the
crucial stages of the negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords. The
European Union, too, was constantly apprised of developments.
It was never kept in secret. Beilin announced it to the
press right at the start in February 2001, and over the following years
occasional snippets of information about Beilin's ongoing initiative
appeared in the papers — but failed to elicit any great deal of attention.
At the time, the Israeli public opinion and political
system tended to take for granted that "Israel has no Palestinian partner."
Even in his own Labor Party, from which Beilin was becoming increasingly
alienated, he was often regarded as a has-been, clinging to the shards of a
In December 2002, when Labor was preparing to contest the
elections, Beilin announced his intention of soon concluding his talks with
the Palestinians and presenting the resultant document to the electorate.
This was taken, however, as an attempt to drag the party too far to the left
and to steal the thunder of Amram Mitzna, then at the peak of his brief
moment of glory as party leader.
The affair hastened Beilin's final departure from the
ranks of Labor — and in any case, he had underestimated the gaps that still
needed to be bridged; by the elections day the draft peace agreement was far
There were indeed many objective obstacles to be overcome.
Particularly following the April 2002 wave of Israeli invasion and
reconquest, there were months in which the Palestinian partners could not so
much as leave their homes in curfew-bound cities without the Israelis
interceding for them with the military authorities.
Still, the work of tackling the most difficult issues
separating the two peoples proceeded — at Geneva which came to give the
whole initiative its name, at other European venues such as London, as well
as at the Palestinian town of A-Ram, halfway between Jerusalem and Ramallah
and one of the few places which are still more or less accessible to
Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Very real negotiations
As Paul Usiskin of the British Peace Now, who took part
in several sessions remarked:
"If the talks that I witnessed were 'virtual' then I
have to say that they mimicked reality remarkably well. There was no
sign that this was an exercise and that the participants could call for
a time-out and emerge into the real world whenever they chose."
Israeli and Palestinian participants alike had good
reasons to argue and dicker, quite as fiercely as if they were truly
representing their two peoples in binding negotiations. Even though they
were all on the dovish side, they had their deeply ingrained positions and
beliefs, which on more than one occasion clashed with each other. Moreover,
all of them were deeply aware that they would eventually have to "sell" the
finished agreement to their respective constituencies, in face of those who
would accuse them of "selling out."
This was all the more so after Beilin succeeded in drawing
in some people politically to his right — two Knesset Members of the Shinuy
Party, which is a member of Sharon's ruling coalition, and even the maverick
Likudnik Nehama Ronen.
Quite a few former generals and senior security service
operatives were encouraged to join in and take an active part in formulating
the details of the proposed agreement, on the assumption that their military
prestige would help make the result more acceptable to the general Israeli
public. For rather similar reasons, the Palestinian team included a
considerable number of ex-prisoners who had undergone long terms in the
Israeli prison system.
This precipitated a major crisis on the issue of the
Palestinian prisoners and detainees held behind Israeli bars. The Israeli
generals such as former Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak considered
"prisoners with blood on their hands" as murderers who should live out their
lives in prison.
Hisham Abdel Razek, who had been Palestinian Minister for
Prisoner Affairs and who earlier spent two decades in an Israeli prison, was
very determined that a final peace could not leave Palestinians incarcerated
in Israel, whatever they had done. On this point the Israelis gave in,
agreeing to a phased release of all Palestinian prisoners.
On the other hand, the Israelis were adamant about
Palestinian recognition of Israel, not just as a state but as the state of
the Jewish People — i.e., recognition of a basic tenet of the Zionist
ideology that Palestinians always found highly unpalatable. Writer Amos Oz,
in particular, threatened to walk out over this issue. When it was
eventually conceded by the Palestinian partners, the Israelis reciprocated
by accepting complete Palestinian sovereignty over the highly emotive Haram
A-Sharif/Temple Mount compound, one of the main issues over which Camp David
The realism of the negotiations was especially expressed
in the drawing up of a very precise borderline — which meant dealing with
the settlement issue in detail. Here, the Palestinians accepted that some
settlements would stay on and be annexed to Israel, provided that precisely
equivalent amounts of land would be given to Palestine from the territory of
pre-'67 Israel. For their part the Israelis agreed that this could only
apply to settlements near to the old border, and that those more deep inside
Palestinian territory — including the substantial settlement-cities of Ariel
in the northern West Bank and Efrat to the south — would have to be
On the most emotive and deeply contested issue — the
Palestinian refugees — there was made a pragmatic compromise, which was in
fact already foreshadowed at the Taba talks, and which may well be the only
workable solution in reality. Still, this was to be the point on which all
participants would be most often and most ferociously attacked: the Israelis
for not having secured a formal renunciation of the Palestinian Right of
Return, their Palestinian partners — for having given it up in practice.
Finally, all loose ends were wrapped up during several
days (and nights) of last minute negotiating and wrestling at the Moevenpick
Resort Hotel on the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea. Significantly, the
Israeli delegation was joined by two prominent Laborites who had taken no
part in earlier sessions. Amram Mitzna was there, no longer Labor Leader but
still head of a significant faction, and who had long since mended his
fences with Beilin. And also former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, whose dire
warnings and prophesies of doom, contained in the article 'A Failed
Israeli Society Collapses While Its Leaders Remain Silent', had been
reprinted again and again and translated into numerous foreign languages.
The following is excerpted from KM Burg's article:
A state lacking justice cannot stand
(...) Traveling on the fast highway, it is hard to
comprehend the humiliating experience of the despised Arab who must
creep for hours along the pocked, blockaded roads assigned to him. One
road for the occupier, one road for the occupied. This cannot work. Even
if the Arabs lower their heads and swallow their shame and anger
forever, it won't work. A structure built on human callousness will
inevitably collapse in on itself. Note this moment well: Zionism's
superstructure is already collapsing like a cheap Jerusalem wedding
hall. Only madmen continue dancing on the top floor while the pillars
below are collapsing.
We have grown accustomed to ignoring the suffering of
the women at the roadblocks. No wonder that we also don't hear the cries
of the abused woman living next door, or the single mother struggling to
support her children in dignity. And we don't even bother to count the
number of women murdered by their husbands.
Israel, having ceased to care about the children of the
Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come, swathed in hatred,
and blow themselves up in the centers of Israeli escapism. They consign
themselves to Allah in our places of recreation, because their own lives
are torture. They spill their own blood in our restaurants in order to
ruin our appetites, because at home they have brothers and parents who
are hungry and humiliated.
We could kill a thousand ringleaders and bomb-makers
every day, and it will solve nothing. These ringleaders come up from
below — from the wells of hatred and anger, from the "infrastructures"
of injustice (...)
It turns out that the 2,000-year struggle for Jewish
survival comes down to a state of settlements, run by an amoral clique
of corrupt lawbreakers who are deaf both to their citizens and to their
enemies. A state lacking justice cannot survive. More and more Israelis
are coming to understand this as they ask their children where they
expect to live in 25 years. Children who are honest admit, to their
parents' shock, that they do not know. The countdown to the end of
Israeli society has begun (...).
The time for illusions is over. The time for decisions
has arrived. We love the entire land of our forefathers, and in some
other time we would have wanted to live here alone. But that will not
happen. The Arabs, too, have dreams and needs.(...)
We must remove all the settlements — all of them — and
draw an internationally recognized border between the Jewish national
home and the Palestinian national home. The Jewish Law of Return will
apply only within our national home, and their Right of Return will
apply only within the borders of the Palestinian state.
When the initiators of Geneva were approaching the finish
at their Dead Sea resort, it was none other than Prime Minister Sharon who
gave the initiative an enormous publicity boost. In the Bat-Yam municipal
election rally he fulminated against 'subversive leftists who undermine
the government's authority.' First, it set the journalists wondering
precisely what the PM was referring to; and when they found out — which
didn't take long — they came to the unanimous conclusion that something over
which Sharon was so worked up must be significant.
"We had in mind several alternatives for an initial
gimmick. But none of them was half as good as the kick-off which Sharon
handed us on a silver platter" said later Dror Strenschuss, the Geneva
Initiative's public relations officer and a committed peace activist
Sharon's send-off did the trick, all right. Within three
days, there was scarcely a TV viewer or newspaper reader — not only in the
region, but all over the world — who had not heard of the Geneva Initiative.
In Israel, it came to dominate the public discourse to the exclusion of
The angry expostulations of the right-wing nationalists
only served to further bolster its image. What most infuriated the
right-wingers was the Geneva document's first sentence: "The Government of
Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization agree..." and the dotted
line at the very end, left empty for Sharon's signature. " How do they dare!
The presumption of these people!" was an oft-repeated phrase.
Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party declared:
"This Geneva Agreement is treason, nothing but treason — and for treason,
capital punishment still applies in Israeli law!" On the following day, a
facetious cartoon in Ha'aretz depicted Yahalom in a hangman's cowl.
The angry Justice Minister Lapid, leader of the Shinuy
Party, summarily forced his party's "black sheep" to withdraw their
signatures from the Geneva Document. And the Labor Party's old-new Shimon
Peres was sour-faced at the advent of Geneva, recounting on TV a whole list
of defects he found in the document. Most commentators took it as
manifesting a narrow-minded envy of Beilin — a man who had started political
life as Peres' protegé and devoted disciple, but who now indisputably
surpassed his mentor in the art of virtual diplomacy.
Two weeks later, Peres got the Labor Party to adopt a new
program, supporting the two-state solution "with a border based on the 1967
lines" and the principle of two capitals in Jerusalem — which could have
been sensational news just two or three years ago, but was now taken as no
more than the Labor Party adopting a watered-down version of Geneva.
In opinion polls, the much-attacked Geneva Initiative
repeatedly got the support of thirty to forty percent of the Israeli public.
Meanwhile, peace initiatives predating Geneva, such as
that of the Israeli former security chief Ayalon and prominent Palestinian
academic Nusseibeh, got renewed public attention. It became the bon ton to
formulate and publish peace plans and initiatives, and dozens appeared and
disappeared by the week. Many of them were crackpot or insincere (also the
settler leaders published a "peace plan" of sorts, which even they
themselves did not take very seriously). And there were some truly original
ideas such as having four Israelis and four Palestinians make a joint
expedition to Antarctica and climb a mountain which had never known human
feet — the proceeds from the documentary made on the spot to go to
disadvantaged Israeli and Palestinian children.
The overall effect was to underline the enormous shift
that had taken place: for the first time in three years, the peace camp was
defining the public agenda in Israel. No longer could the rejectionists hide
behind the argument of there being "no partner" on the Palestinian side.
The new confidence and strength was manifested, both in
the attendance and in the atmosphere at the annual Rabin Memorial Rally.
Much more than the rallies of previous years, it was perceived to be — and
thus was — an overtly political affair, a massive manifestation (estimated
at 150,000 participants) of support for the cause of peace, and for the
Geneva Initiative. And the prime minister was increasingly perceived as a
man of the past, a leader with nothing to offer but a collection of old
nostrums that had already proven futile. 'Sharon created a vacuum, and
Beilin came to fill it.' was a phrase often occurring in commentaries
and editorials as well as in Knesset speeches.
Wounded lion Sharon
Through October and November Sharon saw his rating
steadily falling, and the police investigation of the corruption affairs
against his sons and himself closing in. Then, Yediot Aharonot
came with another sensation: the joint interview with four former chiefs of
the Shabak Security Service. Having overcome their long-seated rivalries and
power-struggles, they all sat together and each in his own words strongly
condemned the government policies. The message was unmistakable: a warning
about dire short- and long-term dangers to the country unless the occupation
was terminated and peace achieved with the Palestinians. As a logical
consequence they declared their support for the Geneva initiative.
The Shabak chiefs' declaration was widely published and
reverberated around the world. It was soon followed by a startling open
criticism of government policies by Army Chief-of-Staff Moshe Ya'alon, who
called for reducing the number of checkpoints and roadblocks which
effectively strangle the Palestinian towns and villages, and moreover
accused the government of complicity in the downfall of Abu Mazen through
its failure to make significant concessions which could have bolstered the
former Palestinian PM's position.
Ya'alon's criticism was all the more startling since he
had hitherto been known as an uncompromising hawk. In earlier dispatches he
had called for "unrelenting and uncompromising armed struggle" aimed at
"burning into the Palestinian consciousness the fact of defeat". Somehow,
during the first half of 2003 the impossibility of that goal seems to have
been burned into Ya'alon's own consciousness...
Meanwhile, without any cease-fire being officially
proclaimed, the respite in Israeli "liquidations" of Palestinian leaders was
reciprocated by a three-month long respite in suicide bombings at Israeli
population centers, depriving Sharon of the classical escape valve —
Israelis uniting in fear and anger at the Palestinians.
Palestinian fighters continued, however, to conduct
guerrilla attacks on soldiers and settlers in the Territories themselves. A
Palestinian raid on the settlement of Netzarim — an absurd enclave located
right in the middle of the overcrowded Gaza Strip — left three soldiers
dead, two of them girl soldiers who, so it turned out, had been sent to
defend the settlers without having been being adequately armed or trained.
The newly bereaved parents hurled bitter accusations at
the government. There was increasing public attention to the situation of
isolated settlements garrisoned by reluctant soldiers, often many times
outnumbering the settlers themselves. Six paratrooper reserve officers,
fresh from a tour of duty at Netzarim, were interviewed in Ha'aretz
and spoke of 'the futility and waste' of holding on to that enclave.
Meanwhile, all 15 members of the UN Security Council,
including the United States, voted for the Russian proposal to formally
adopt "The Roadmap for Peace" and enshrine it in a binding resolution. Of no
avail was a hasty personal trip by Sharon to Moscow and his efforts to
prevail upon President Putin — whom he considered 'a friend and colleague in
the anti-terrorist struggle', i.e. the user of brutal means of oppression in
In theory, the new UN resolution should not have bothered
Sharon, who claims to adhere to the Roadmap. But the Sharon cabinet had
accepted the Roadmap only subject to 14 'reservations', which effectively
nullify it — and these were, of course, not taken up in the UN text.
At the same time, the European Union became more assertive
on the long-contested issue of settlement products. Already back in 1998,
the EU ruled that — since the Occupied Territories are not part of Israel's
internationally recognized territory — products originating in Israeli
settlements located in these territories are not entitled to the exemption
from customs duties granted to Israeli products.
During the intervening five years, the decree had little
practical effect, since successive Israeli governments refused to mark which
of the products sent from Israel to Europe actually originate at
But European officials in mid-2003 had started levying
customs duties upon all Israeli products — since all were equally suspect.
The Israeli exporters cried out to the government. Sharon made another hasty
trip abroad — this time to meet the Italian PM Berlusconi (like himself,
plagued by corruption investigations...) who happened to hold rotating
presidency of EU — but it was to no avail.
Finally Ehud Olmart, Minister of Trade and Industry and
one of the contenders in the unofficial race to succeed Sharon, went off to
Brussels and agreed to clearly mark settlement products sent to Europe.
To angry reactions from the settlers and their supporters,
Olmart responded: "The exports from Judea and Samaria are only a small
fraction of our trade with Europe. I had to act to save the great majority
from ruin." Olmart's act was widely taken as a vindication of the Gush
Shalom movement, which had long been conducting a campaign for boycott of
All governments of Israel in the past decades have
valued their alliance with the United States far above and beyond the
relations with the rest of the world put together. Sharon, in particular,
considered the forging of a firm personal relationship with President Bush
as his greatest achievement. Yet in late 2003, this special relationship was
visibly becoming tarnished and strained.
In spite of Sharon's calculations, the Bush Administration
did after all accept the new Palestinian government headed by Abu Ala as a
partner in a new effort to relaunch the derailed Roadmap. True, the
Americans did not treat Abu-Ala with anything like the warmth which had been
shown to his predecessor Abu Mazen; there was, for example, no question of
inviting Abu-Ala for a state visit to the White House.
But then, Abu-Ala himself had no desire for such honours.
His lesson from his predecessor's demise was to establish a strong position
among his own people before starting upon any serious outside venture — and
any exaggerated manifestation of American favor could only hurt a
Palestinian Prime Minister.
For his part, Sharon had no real problem in accepting
Abu-Ala — whom he had originally castigated as 'Arafat's puppet' — as long
as such acceptance entailed no more than an occasional summit meeting that
would provide photo opportunities and bolster Sharon's effort to present the
image of a peacemaker. But the Palestinian PM would not fall into such a
trap; he refused to meet with Sharon without being assured in advance that
something concrete will come of it.
More serious from Sharon's point of view: even the most
superficial and half-hearted attempt to restart the Roadmap immediately
touched upon some concrete Israeli obligations enumerated in that document,
i.e. the stipulation that Israel remove the settlement outposts which had
multiplied all over the West Bank ever since Sharon's accession to power in
Sharon and his Defence Minister Mofaz had been handing the
Americans occasional reports on outpost removal, according to which the
problem seemed well in hand. But, as an American official remarked amid
growing annoyance, "the numbers just didn't add up."
On closer examination, most of the outposts reported as
removed turned out to be uninhabited — in other words, they were no more
than an empty container or two placed by settlers on a hilltop to stake a
claim. In the rare cases where an inhabited outpost had been evacuated
(typically with a fierce struggle between soldiers and settlers conducted in
front of TV cameras) it almost invariably turned out that the settlers came
back quietly a few days later — and that rather than stopping them, the army
detailed military units to guard them.
It was not possible for Sharon and the settlers to cheat
the Americans — once the Americans decided not to let themselves be cheated
any longer. Not only are US satellites passing daily over the West Bank,
perfectly capable of observing new buildings, but Washington also had
available the Settlement Watch Reports periodically published by the Israeli
Peace Now movement.
In October, Capitol Hill witnessed an unprecedented event:
The Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee heard for several hours the
testimony of Dror Etkes, Peace Now's main fieldworker. Etkes spends most of
his time roaming around the West Bank — observing, recording and reporting
the growth of the settlements. As the American-Jewish weekly Forward
remarked, "Etkes is very good at his job. It can be said that he knows more
about the settlements than anyone else, except a handful of settler leaders
and government officials." And Etkes' visit left some visible traces in
Washington. Senior people, including President Bush himself, became familiar
with the name "Migron." Etkes several times told the story, which he himself
witnessed and documented.
Soon after Sharon came to power, a cellphone company was
authorized to place an amplifier antenna on top of a particular hill in the
West Bank near Ramallah. A bit later, several settlers were "hired to guard
the antenna"; then the number of 'guards' steadily grew, month after month;
at a certain moment they brought their families to live with them on the
Nowadays, there are 52 settler families living there, who
were provided with a paved access road, water and electricity by a
government that still officially claims that the place was created without
its authorization. (The name "Migron" was pulled out of the Bible, where it
refers to some place that existed in that general neighborhood around the
year 1000 B.C.).
A related issue constantly cropping up between Sharon and
his American allies was the Separation Wall/Fence which continued to "snake
its way through the West Bank" (as President Bush put it in a famous
admonitory speech in July) with devastating results to Palestinian villagers
cut off from their land and livelihood.
Apart from repeatedly wagging fingers at Sharon and his
Wall, the administration did deduct the cost of the Wall from the loan
guarantees that it had provided to assist the ailing Israeli economy. But
Sharon and his Finance Minister Netanyahu didn't blink: "Several hundred
million dollars deducted from ten billion still leaves Israel very much
ahead of the game."
Then, however, came the Palestinian initiative at the UN
General Assembly, to refer the matter of the Wall to the International Court
at the Hague. While in the past, the US moved with all its considerable
might to scotch any such manoeuvre, this time Washington did not do much
more than vote against. Meanwhile, the Geneva Initiative came back — to
haunt Sharon yet again.
From Geneva to the Israeli street
The initiators did something never done by any
political group in Israel (and which could have only been done by people
with access to considerable resources). They got the entire 44-page Geneva
Document published in millions of copies, accompanied by maps and with an
introduction by writer David Grossman, and had them sent by post to each and
every household in Israel — "so as to let the citizens judge for
Of course, not everybody read the neat brochure, bound in
the Israeli national Blue-and-White. Many Israelis treated them as just one
more piece of junk mail, and some rabbis called upon their followers to burn
them in public. Still, a surprising number of people did read through the
text — to judge from the radio call-in programs, where both supporters and
opponents of the document quoted from it chapter and verse to prove their
The mass mailing in Israel was followed by the official
launching ceremony at Geneva. The peak of Beilin's "Alternative Diplomacy",
a carefully planned gala event attracting the presence of VIP's and the full
glare of world wide publicity in a way which was hitherto reserved to
agreements signed between the accredited representatives of governments.
Hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians were flown in, with
expenses paid by the government of Switzerland. In composing their guest
list, the Israeli organizers had quite a few surprise choices. Veteran
activists who could have expected an invitation were omitted. On the other
hand, there were all kind of people — from chefs to football and basketball
players — who had no previous experience at this kind of thing and who were
to represent the initiative in a variety of constituencies and milieus.
Also, in addition to the usual reporters and columnists,
there were invited journalists from the gossip columns. At Geneva they
created some embarrassing moments by asking gauche and insensitive
questions; still, what they later wrote reached audiences that never read
the serious columnists.
On the day before their departure, 250 Rabbis
ceremoniously excommunicated 'The Geneva Traitors', and at Ben Gurion
Airport there was a small group from the extreme-right, jeering and cursing.
Still, that was very light compared with what their Palestinian partners
faced: massive anti-Geneva rallies, quite a few threats and some direct
physical assaults. Feeling insecure, the Palestinian delegates announced
that they will not go to Geneva without an official go ahead from Arafat —
which was duly granted after a few hours of tension.
While the Israeli partners in this initiative were often
accused of usurpation, of presuming to act in Israel's name behind the
government's back, the Palestinian participants were attacked exactly
because they did to a considerable degree represent the Palestinian
Authority and their concessions were seen as binding. More than a few
Palestinians — especially refugees — could not stomach the assumption of
Geneva: that a few refugees may gain entry into Israel, but the cherished
dream of having all refugees go back to where they or their families lived
in 1948 would remain forever unfulfilled. And other Palestinians — realizing
that this concession would have to be made eventually — raged at its being
made at an agreement with an Israeli opposition group having no power to
For their part, the Palestinian initiators replied that
keeping the refugee issue in reserve pending real negotiations was a
self-defeating step — since Sharon would use Palestinian adherence to the
Right of Return in order to frighten the Israeli public and prevent
negotiations from ever starting.
In the Geneva gathering itself, the most significant
speech was probably that of former US President Jimmy Carter, stating
something long obvious to many but never uttered in such circumstances:
namely, that an expansionist, settlement-creating Israeli policy was a grave
hindrance and liability for the United States policy in the Middle East.
The same idea apparently seems to be incubating also among
members of the present administration, despite the political and ideological
gulf separating it from Carter. Directly from Geneva, Beilin and Abed-Rabo
flew to Washington, there to meet with Secretary of State Powell — who
disdainfully rebuffed Sharon's attempts to dissuade him from holding the
However, on the Palestinian side the Geneva event had the
unforeseen effect of complicating the negotiations held between the various
Palestinian factions at Cairo, with the aim of reaching agreement on a new
Hudna — and further, forging a united new Palestinian leadership. Hamas
demanded, as the price for joining, that the Palestinian Authority denounce
Geneva — which Prime Minister Abu Ala would by no means do.
That was one of the reasons — though by no means the only
one — why the talks failed and no new Hudna achieved, though the Egyptian
mediators got the factions to agree to continue talking.
Sharon strikes back
Less than a week after the grand event at Geneva, the
headlines were swept by yet another sensation: in an extensive interview to
Yediot Aharonot, Trade and Industry Minister Ehud Olmart set
out a comprehensive new political plan. It was by far the most
dovish-sounding statement ever made by a senior leader of the Likud Party.
This overture was both an answer to Geneva and the
incorporation of some of its elements. Olmart totally abjured the Likud's
traditional ideology, according to which the entire land between the
Mediterranean and the Jordan River is exclusively Eretz Yisrael, the Jewish
people's historical patrimony of which not an inch may be given up. (To be
sure, this ideology was already greatly weakened and compromised in the past
decades, but never before was it so explicitly and unequivocally discarded.)
Olmart spoke of the "demographic danger" of the
Palestinians becoming a majority in the land and demanding to have the vote
in Israel rather than a state of their own — and in order to avert that
danger, he urged the making of considerable territorial concessions, the
recognizing of an independent Palestine, the dismantling of many
settlements, even the giving up of "the outlying Arab neighborhoods of
Jerusalem" — so that the remaining Israeli territory will contain "a solid
Jewish majority, with no more than 20% of Arabs."
So far, Olmart's arguments ran quite close to those of the
initiators of Geneva. Beilin himself and many of his fellows often used the
demographic arguments in terms essentially similar to Olmart's. But the
concrete concessions Olmart was willing to make fell far short of Geneva: no
acceptance of the 1967 borders, but annexation of considerable tracts,
making the future Palestine a collection of isolated, overcrowded enclaves;
retention of exclusive Israeli rule in the Old City of Jerusalem and the
highly sensitive Temple Mount/Haram A-Sharif compound; and since the
Palestinians would obviously never agree to such terms, it would be not so
much an agreement as a unilateral arrangement dictated and implemented by
Israel, for which the accelerated building of the Separation Wall/Fence was
already paving the way.
The Olmart interview succeeded in its immediate objective
— to push the Geneva Initiative off the news. It was replaced by endless
speculations as to Olmart's intentions and especially, in how far his
statement should be seen as unofficially representing the views and
intentions of Sharon himself.
Then, another master PR stroke: it was disclosed that the
PM would clarify his intentions two weeks ahead, in a major policy speech to
be delivered at the Herzliya Conference on National Security. This ensured
that for the entire two weeks the public agenda was preoccupied with more
and more speculations on precisely what Sharon was going to say, as well as
with the scramble of other Likud leaders to take up positions in the
developing power struggle.
The Sharon speech, when at long last it arrived, had
little new except for introducing a new term into the public discourse —
"The Disengagement Plan." This was, in essence, a watered-down and rather
clumsily phrased version of the Olmart program: 'The redeployment of
[Israeli] forces along new security lines and a change in the deployment
of settlements' so as 'to reduce the number of Israelis living among
Sharon presented a kind of ultimatum to the Palestinians:
this 'disengagement' would be unilaterally implemented in mid-2004, unless
the Palestinians agreed until then to 'implement the Roadmap'. By Sharon's
definitions, 'implementing the Roadmap' means that the Palestinian Authority
would 'dismantle the terrorist infrastructure' — i.e., engage in all-out
civil war with Hamas and the other radical factions. Israel's reciprocal
obligations would be limited to removal of 'unauthorized' outposts — a
rather elastic term, since a single document signed by a Defence Ministry
official can overnight transform an 'unauthorized' outpost into a fully
Meanwhile, unofficial leaks from Sharon's bureau told of
the PM considering the possibility of evacuating the Gaza Strip settlements,
whose retention was becoming increasingly unpopular.
That week, for the first time in many months, the polls
showed an upward swing in Sharon's popularity — from 33% in the previous
week to 38% (Ma'ariv, December 26).
Three days after the Sharon speech, speculations about
what he exactly meant were cut short when the headlines were once again
captured by a refusenik initiative: a letter signed by 13 veteran fighters
of Sayeret Matkal, the IDF's crack commando unit — an outfit sharing with
the Air Force pilots the reputation of being the best of the best, the glory
of such fabulous actions as the hostage-freeing raid at Entebbe, Uganda, in
The reactions followed the by now familiar pattern: the
fury of the right-wing and the army command, the attempted ostracism of the
dissidents, the expulsion from the ranks of the elite — but it was all
rather weary, and no longer with a real expectation that the phenomenon
could be crushed. 'Refusal is no longer a marginal phenomenon, it is here
to stay whether we like it or not' wrote Yediot Aharonot's respected
military correspondent Alex Fishman.
News abounded of refusers cropping up also in the equally
elite commando units of the Navy and the Air Force, and a new refusal letter
was rumored to be in the making by officers of Military Intelligence. The
captain of a gunboat had been sacked for refusing to take part in the
blockade of the Gaza Strip, in the course of which sailors are conducting
humiliating searches of Palestinian boats and often tear up their fishing
nets. And meanwhile at a Tel-Aviv high school, teachers were shocked to find
no less than 20% of the pupils declaring their intention to refuse service
in the army. "We give enhanced courses in art in addition to the normal
curriculum, so we get a lot of sensitive children. It's a real problem" the
school principal told the Tel-Aviv weekly (Dec. 26).
The papers that carried headlines on the Sayeret Matkal
refusers also told of a five-year old Palestinian boy killed in an army raid
on Nablus. Also killed in the same raid were two senior members of the
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which vowed revenge. And so,
the undeclared cease fire dissolved in yet another swirl of the sickeningly
familiar cycle of blood: two Israeli officers shot to death at a Gaza Strip
ambush; nine Palestinians, including five civilians, killed in a raid on
Rafah. And then a strange coincidence (if coincidence it was): at nearly the
same hour, the first assassination from the air in months claiming five
Palestinian lives at Gaza, and the first suicide bombing in months killing
four Israelis in the suburbs of Tel-Aviv.
And then — a quite unexpected, ghastly turn: Israeli
soldiers opening fire on peace protesters in the West Bank; Gil Na'amati, a
young protester who but a month before had been himself a soldier serving in
the same West Bank, got severely wounded, barely escaping with his life. The
Israeli public and media and political system were all deeply shaken now
that it had happened to an Israeli, son of a Kibbutz leader, just after his
three years in the army. Palestinians also seemed impressed. Could all this
be more than a moment's pause in the plunge into the depths?
It is at this ambiguous point that this account ends. It
is by no means easy to predict what the near future holds in store for this
country and region. Some very dark scenarios can be easily envisaged, but
also a few brighter ones.
One thing can be stated with a fair degree of certainty:
no longer does Ariel Sharon bestride unrivaled the Israeli scene. The
opposition is gathering, the peace movement has reemerged — but still,
nothing can be taken for granted.
The Other Israel, POB 2542, Holon