President Moshe Katsav has hurried to deny reports that he is advocating a referendum on Ehud Olmert's "convergence" plan for a major unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. In fact, the idea for such a referendum has been energetically championed at the president's residence - but not by Katsav.
Among the admirable and resolute efforts at dialogue pursued by the president is his interaction with rabbinical leaders of the settlement movement. One such session, attended by more than half a dozen prominent such rabbis, was held in the shadow of the violent police-settler confrontation at the dismantling of the Amona outpost near Ofra, about a month ahead of the elections that brought Olmert to power.
Rabbi after settler rabbi leveled a litany of accusations at Israel's political leaders and its media for, they alleged, misleading and confusing the public to the extent that voters really wouldn't know what they were voting for on election day. The only solution, one of them posited, was for the president to take a stand. Katsav, said this rabbi, should "announce that every fundamental decision setting borders, heaven forbid evicting Jews from their homes, relinquishing territory, even unpopulated territory - any decision like that must be taken by referendum and otherwise has no legitimacy."
Katsav's response, somewhat rabbinical in its complexity, boiled down to this: In principle, he empathized with the idea of a referendum on existential issues, but he felt that the then-looming election would constitute precisely such a vote. "You can demand a referendum between elections," he said, "but not on the eve of the elections."
Instead, he urged the rabbis to use their influence to try and secure ballot-box success for those parties that oppose further relinquishing of territory. And if they proved unable to win over a majority of the public to their point of view, he said, they would just have to concede. Israel could hardly have the settler rabbis as its ultimate authority.
As with Katsav's ongoing discussions and debate with various Israeli Arab leaders, his interaction with the rabbis, more depressingly since all around the table are members of the same faith, is largely a dialogue of the deaf, or at least the extremely hard-of-hearing.
Inflamed and infuriated by the clashes at Amona, more than one of the rabbis spoke of "a pogrom," one of them called it "the worst violation of God's name in hundreds of years" and another said that he had only survived because a quick-witted youngster alongside him pulled down a shutter just in time as a policeman moved to hurl a rock through a window at him. The aim was "to kill, to kill," this rabbi alleged.
Katsav responded that such allegations against those in uniform needed to be investigated, but asked, to next to no avail, why none of the rabbis similarly condemned those protesters who had used violence against the police. Only a small handful of youngsters had initiated trouble, responded one of the rabbis, and that handful paid no heed to anyone, rabbis included. If only the police had focused on them, rather than the innocents, he mused.
IN AN Independence Day interview with this newspaper, Katsav said that he believed the political rifts here have been narrowing. His dialogue with the rabbis suggests a very different reality.
Far beyond the specific recrimination and counter-recrimination surrounding Amona, a prominent theme of the rabbis' presentation was the assertion - which some made in their own name and others in the name of the Torah-observant public - that Israel's political and legal hierarchy is bent on nothing less than the destruction of the national religious camp.
"There is bitterness in our community, a loss of faith in the leadership of the country," inveighed one of the rabbis, "to the point where the public and its representatives don't even want to meet with government representativesâ€¦ Our public feels that the government follows a hostile policy against settlement in Judea and Samaria in general, and especially against the Torah-observant public... We feel there is a war against the Torah of Israel here, and a desire for violence so that the Jewish identity of the state can be forcibly blurred. It finds its expression today in the deportation of Jews from the Land, but it is a much wider struggle."
Israel's politicians want "to wipe out" the national religious constituency, echoed one of his colleagues, "to put it into a museum."
Katsav protested that this was not the case, again without noticeable impact.
What the president told the rabbis he found most troubling, however, was the intimation that withdrawing from parts of the Land of Israel constitutes an existential threat, cannot be condoned under Halacha and must be resisted, even at the risk of loss of life.
"If a Jew is forced to banish somebody from the Land or tear down his house or relinquish the Land to an enemy, that is against our Torah," said one rabbi.
Another of the delegation urged the president to "invite the people from Amona here - the trampled girls and boys. They'll say 'We want the Land of Israel. Beat us, flatten us, smash our heads in. But we want the Land of Israel.' And that faith, nobody can wipe out. No prime minister, no minister, no regime... The youth will come in their thousands, tens of thousands [to oppose further pullbacks]."
Katsav, in response, was by turns adamant and imploring: "I refuse to view the evacuation of Gush Katif and Amona," he said, "as a danger to the existence of Israel." If there is an existential danger, he said, it lies in the unraveling of "our internal unity." And therefore, he pleaded, "don't put the laws of the State of Israel up against the laws of Halachaâ€¦ If you do," he went on, "the rift will come. The rift will comeâ€¦ And our aim must be to maintain the State of Israel at all cost, to maintain the unity of Israel at all cost."
EHUD OLMERT, in his maiden Knesset speech as elected prime minister, pledged to move ahead toward a further "partition of the land" only via "continuous dialogue with the wonderful settlers in Judea and Samaria." To judge by the alienation and the disconnect exemplified in the president's discussion with the settlers' spiritual leadership, it will be an arduous dialogue indeed.
"We are brothers and we will remain brothers," Olmert went on to say.
But at Beit Hanassi one of the rabbis had sorrowfully reported on a recent discussion a teacher-colleague had held with Orthodox students at an educational institution in the territories on the dangers of civil war. Sorrowfully he quoted those students as saying "These are not our brothers."
Which Israelis the students meant by "these" was not entirely clear. What has never been clearer, however, is the immense scale of our social challenge.