Pullout Focuses Israel on Its Future

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 13, 2005

JERUSALEM, Aug. 12 -- As a young member of Israel's parliament in 1978, Ehud Olmert had the opportunity to vote in favor of the historic Camp David peace accords, which returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and brought Israel peace with its most powerful enemy. Olmert voted against it.

"I voted against Menachem Begin," Olmert, now Israel's finance minister, said this week. "I told him it was a historic mistake, how dangerous it would be, and so on and so on. Now I am sorry he is not alive for me to be able to publicly recognize his wisdom and my mistake. He was right and I was wrong. Thank God we pulled out of the Sinai."

In two days, the Israeli military will begin the first evacuation of Jewish settlements since the Sinai pullout, abandoning 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and the network of military installations that protected them for nearly four decades. This time, Israel will not receive anything in return for the land it is leaving. Olmert has been one of the plan's most vocal supporters.

The unilateral decision to leave Gaza, pushed for more than a year by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at great political expense, has left Israeli society at odds over the future character and shape of the Jewish state.

After Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war, Israeli Jews moved to settle the newly occupied territories. From about 5,000 in the late 1960s, the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza has grown to about 258,000 today, not including those who live in East Jerusalem neighborhoods that Israel annexed following the war.

But over the past year or so, the dream of settling the territories has collided with Israel's demographic challenge -- how to survive as a democratic Jewish homeland -- convincing most Israelis that the state must give up land to protect its Jewish majority. At the same time, the violent Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000 was claiming thousands of Israeli and Palestinian lives.

Sharon, an architect of the settler movement, has long supported the notion of a Greater Israel stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. But he has scaled back those territorial ambitions. Even though disengagement amounts to the first time outside the framework of peace negotiations that Israel will withdraw from what many Jews consider part of the Land of Israel described in the Bible, Sharon has cast it as a step toward creating a state that has more defensible boundaries with fewer Arabs inside them.

A recent poll conducted by Tel Aviv University showed that 57 percent of Israelis support the plan, a majority that has remained relatively constant throughout the tumultuous debate.

The same poll showed that 36 percent of the population opposes Sharon's plan to evacuate Gaza and four small West Bank settlements. Many of the opponents are from a younger generation, energized by a summer of protest, who have become the foot soldiers of a more politically assertive religious minority.

Whether the evacuation unfolds smoothly will probably determine Israel's immediate course on matters of peace with the Palestinians, the role of settlers in Israeli society and the outcome of general elections that must be held by November 2006.

"If this is done properly, there are a lot of options open to us," said Eyval Giladi, Sharon's director of strategic planning. "If we fail, there will be a lot fewer."

A Demographic Race

For nearly 40 years, Gaza has proved to be a difficult place to defend and an even harder one to leave. The government initially encouraged Israelis to move into its dunes for strategic reasons -- to create a bulwark against an Egyptian invasion and divide the Palestinian population. The settlers, a mix of religious and economically motivated Israelis, developed farms and greenhouses, staffed by cheap Palestinian labor.

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