Collective punishment

The Israeli vote for a disengagement by another name may be the death blow for far-right extremists.

m j rosenberg 88 (photo credit: )
m j rosenberg 88
(photo credit: )
Imagine if there was a small but significant minority of Americans whose loyalty was not to the United States but to the land that constitutes the United States. In one way it is not that hard to picture. Think of Wyoming, Vermont, California and those other states that just knock your eyes out with their natural beauty. Nobody who visits those places can feel anything other than wonder and pride that such splendor exists in our country. But take it a step further. Imagine that there were Americans who said that they felt no attachment to the United States and no loyalty to its government or Constitution but only a religious connection to those "mountains, prairies and amber waves of grain." Not only that, they despised the government - not just its policies but the government itself - and considered it illegitimate. First off, let me say that such people do exist in the US. Some of these extremists were responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, the Atlanta Olympics explosions, the bombings of abortion clinics and gay nightclubs. These guys are dangerous. But every country has them. The United States can surely withstand any threat they pose. Israel, on the other hand, has an even more significant problem with a far-right fringe. During last month's Israel Policy Forum mission to Israel, we repeatedly heard from government officials, journalists and other analysts that Israel's very existence as a democratic Jewish state is threatened by a growing minority of ultrareligious and ultra-nationalist Jews who reject the State of Israel in favor of Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel). EHUD OLMERT ran for prime minister on a platform promising more disengagement. And, on that platform, he won. Running second in the election was Amir Peretz and the Labor Party, which favors even more territorial compromise than Olmert. Likud, and the champion of the anti-Gaza activists, Binyamin Netanyahu, tied for third. For the Greater Israel crowd, this was the worst possible situation. It was now clear that disengagement was not Ariel Sharon's one-man crusade but the preferred policy of the majority of Israelis. These are bad times for Israel's extremists, all too many of them former Americans, still carrying US passports. They have lost the battle over Israel's future although they won't go down quietly. People who have no problem attacking Israel's own soldiers are not shrinking violets. They are down but not out. There is one way they can come roaring back. That is if Hamas, which now runs the Palestinian Authority, resumes the suicide bombings that ended in late 2004. This is the possibility that Israelis most fear and it is the only one that could rejuvenate the fading Greater Israel movement. As usual, Israel's extremists and Palestine's have a symbiotic relationship; each sustains the other. Most Israelis can live with Hamas's rhetoric. They don't much care whether or not Hamas accepts them. But they cannot and will not tolerate terrorism. THAT IS why there is virtually no support in Israel for the various Congressional proposals - the House votes next week on one - to prevent aid from reaching the Palestinian people. No, Israelis do not want any international aid going to Hamas. But they do not want ordinary Palestinians to suffer and not because Israelis are such humanitarians (although many are). They do not want to punish Palestinian people because they know that doing so is one of the surest ways to radicalize the near-majority of Palestinians who do not support Hamas. They fear that depriving ordinary Palestinians of their livelihood will result in the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the need for Israel to support a Palestinian population almost the size of the Israeli population. Most fearsome of all, they believe that the punitive measures being considered in the United States Congress will lead, almost certainly, to the resumption of the suicide bombing by a population turned both more desperate and more radical. Israelis, enjoying relative security for the first time in years, do not want that. Accordingly, our group was queried by some Israelis as to why Congress won't allow President Mahmoud Abbas to serve as a conduit for aid - or to directly funnel it to non-governmental organizations. The Bush administration has reportedly asked Congress not to pass further legislation on the issue. Anyway, current US law prevents aid from going to Hamas or any entity controlled by it. So what is the big urgency about enacting legislation that would, in its current form, be counterproductive - harming Israelis as well as Palestinians? You have to wonder. Why is it that Israelis, not the lunatic fringe but the vast majority, reject the collective punishment proposals that some in Washington so proudly tout? Maybe it is the same reason that mainstream members of Knesset feel free to advocate strategies to achieve peace with the Palestinians that, if advocated by a US senator or representative, would cause a horde of lobbyists to break down her doors. The reasons are obvious. The first is politics. It is an election year and some members of Congress mistakenly think that this is what the pro-Israel community wants. That is not true. Washington lobbyists want this legislation - not the pro-Israel community at large which is interested in protecting Israelis, not beating up on ordinary Palestinians, and certainly not endangering Israelis. The second reason is geographic. The suicide bombers, if they come back, are not going to blow up buses in Washington. They will confine themselves to attacking Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.