As tragedies go

Trouble at Amona. What's a leader supposed to do when civil war approaches?

Now, with the cops back in their faceless barracks, their horses restored to their putrid stables, the settlers ensconced in their increasingly shaken houses and everyone's wounds licked, displayed and nursed, the question arises: whose tragedy was the Amona clash, anyway? Considering that a tragedy is a story whose ending is sad and whose protagonists are overcome by forces hopelessly larger than them, the settlers were clearly the main heroes in that showdown. A self-styled avant-garde is prepared to endure many hardships, from physical isolation to enemy attacks, but nothing can be more painful for it than the realization that the people aren't with it; that the locomotive with which it was so enthusiastically dashing through the pitch darkness of the Middle East conflict had actually no carriages attached to it. The policemen at hand were also tragic heroes. This was not what they thought they would do when they enlisted, and the stones that flew in their direction starkly contrasted with the warmth with which uniformed Israelis are ordinarily greeted in settlements. Equally tragic were the settler leaders, whose failure to dissuade the thousands of youngsters on the scene from getting in harm's way made some question their impact as leaders, and others doubt their sincerity when they assume a moderate stance. Even more tragic were the lawmakers at the site, whose pompous mounting of the bulldozers at Amona so painfully portrayed them as quixotic clowns. And the most tragic of all the Israelis assembled last week in the hills of Benjamin - the very ones where three millennia ago 11 Israelite tribes slaughtered the 12th - were the medics, who suddenly found themselves piling blood-soaked bandages. Then, beyond that battlefield were the thousands of Jewish refugees who last summer lost overnight their livelihood, housing and dignity. Having argued for a decade by now (see for instance "The settler tragedy," December 19, 1997) that the settlement cause was condemned to oblivion by the messianics who had hijacked it, Middle Israel was not surprised by last week's dialogue of the deaf. As things currently stand, most Israelis have no idea where Amona is, have never even been near it, and do not comprehend the lingo, let alone accept the rationale, with which the settlers arrived at last week's confrontation. The events that led to the field day in Amona were a typically Israeli sequence of improvisations. Unlike what some suggested, the acting prime minister did not voluntarily create this crisis. It began with an appeal to the High Court of Justice by Peace Now, whose diligent scouting of the unauthorized outposts has evidently been more efficient than the state's. Having arrived at the premiership as unexpectedly as he did, the acting chief executive was on the one hand bound to a timetable dictated by the judicial system, and on the other challenged by the Yesha Council's treatment of the situation as a test of wills. Had he even momentarily hesitated or compromised, Ehud Olmert would have been seen as weak, both at home and abroad, the way Mahmoud Abbas was when he failed to impose himself on his own people's unruly components. And yet, Ehud Olmert also emerges from the Amona debris as a tragic figure. FOR ONE thing, last week's clashes are in all likelihood but the beginning of many more evacuations. None of Israel's 11 prime ministers ever entered office with such a contentious task ahead of them. Even more tragically, Olmert faces not only the prospect of dispossessing so many fellow Jews, but also of undoing the very ideology on which he was raised. Olmert's premiership has already been noted as unique in several respects: he is the first mayor and lawyer to assume the premiership (several of his predecessors had legal training, but the studied abroad and never practiced) and the first one since Golda with no illustrious military credentials, whether as a commando, general, underground leader or army builder. Yet the most unique thing about his biography is that he is a product of the Betar movement who is now well on his way to implement the very partition vision which to the historic Betar and its legendary founder, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, was the ultimate anathema. Now Olmert has a new strategic thinking. As he explained at length in an interview to Ruthie Blum and myself back when he unveiled it, Olmert fears a "one man one vote" demand by a rapidly expanding Palestinian population. Olmert also understands that most Israelis have come to see unilateralism and disengagement as supreme values almost on par with "Honor your father and your mother." And yet, with all due respect to strategy, Olmert must also take stock of the tragedy in which he is fast emerging as a major actor, and engage its Israeli victims. Back when he first unveiled his plan, Olmert chose the annual Ben-Gurion memorial ceremony at Sde Boker, where he spoke of the urgent need in "Ben-Gurionesque choices." In the narrow sense, he was right; it takes a Ben-Gurion to grasp the bull by its horns and do things like endorse the partition idea, as he did already in 1937, or declare the establishment of the Jewish state even with seven enemy armies ready to invade it. Yet Ben-Gurion was not only a man of grand visions, but also a very small man of passionate hatreds and eternal quarrels, the man who ruthlessly sank the Altalena arms ship, split the kibbutz movement, and shunned his former No. 2 Levi Eshkol's funeral, saying "I am not going to his and he shouldn't come to mine." Olmert should avoid this kind of acrimony, and borrow instead a page from Eshkol's book of leadership, which was a masterpiece of national reconciliation that began with the reburial of Jabotinsky in Jerusalem and culminated in the inclusion of Menachem Begin and the Herut faction in the government. IT'S NOW been some 16 years since my longtime professor Emanuel Etkes's son, Dror, stayed with me for several lovely weeks in my rented apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Emanuel, a historian of Jewish thought and the Vilna Gaon's biographer, had been my professor and friend; we used to go together to movies in Manhattan, and when he came to my wedding it turned out he was among the founders of Nurit's kibbutz, Sa'ad. It was only natural that I also become friends with Dror, then a newly discharged soldier and a backpacker en route to Central America. Incidentally, in those very days my niece, Aluma, was born, and immediately taken to the settlement of Michmash, where she lives to this day. Dror has since then returned here, got married, settled down in Jerusalem where he and his wife now raise their two daughters, and - as would befit the principled idealist I met in '89 - became Peace Now's settlement scout. It was his drive that generated the Amona High Court appeal that touched off the chain of events that culminated in last week's showdown, where hundreds of religious youths, already deeply frustrated by the Gaza refugees' perceived humiliation by the state, were trampled over by what they saw as Olmert's cavalry. One of those youths was Aluma, now a slender 11th grader, who this week was in the hospital after having been clubbed in the stomach and the back. Why is all this relevant? Because these are the makings of a civil war. And since that is what's at stake, the next prime minister must understand that while his tragic destiny might be to take sides in this war and win it, his historic duty will also be to somehow rise above the abyss that currently yawns between Dror and Aluma, and save the Jewish state from following them into it.