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The withdrawal from Gaza never had to happen, suggests Rabbi Michael Lerner

If Ariel Sharon had been willing to negotiate a genuine peace agreement with the Palestinians in which Israel withdrew to the 1967 border (with slight border modifications along the lines suggested by Yossi Beilin in the Geneva Accord of 2003), one part of that agreement could have allowed all settlers to stay in their homes in Gaza and the West Bank--as long as they agreed to be law-abiding citizens of the Palestinian state that would be governing that area.

If they were not willing to give up their Israeli citizenship and live in peace with their neighbors, they could voluntarily leave their homes and return to Israel. That is the same choice that Palestinian Arabs faced once Israel was established in a land that they once governed, and it should have been the choice offered to Israeli settlers as well.

There never had to be the horrible scene of people being dragged from their homes. It was wrong when Israelis did that to many thousands of Palestinians in 1948, and many thousands since, and it is equally wrong when Israel does it to settlers it encouraged to settle in the occupied territories.

So why DID it happen? Because Ariel Sharon's whole plan, explicitly explained to the Israeli people by h is assistant Dov Weisglas, was to sacrifice the settlers of Gaza precisely in order to have the painful images that dominated the media, so that Sharon could argue "Of course no one can ask us to do this kind of thing to the 300,000 settlers in the West Bank, given the pain everyone has seen us go through in Gaza."

As Sharon's aides tried to explain to the settlers, the whole plan was to preserve the Occupation, not undermine it. And so, Sharon is moving ahead to finish construction of the Wall and to cut off from the West Bank the 150,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem and many other Palestinians, expropriate more and more Palestinian land, and "create facts" that will preserve most of Israel�s 300,000 West Bank settlers.

There are some who celebrate this Gaza withdrawal as the first step in the process of dismantling settlements, and some of the small settlements will in fact be closed. But Sharon has made clear his plan to hold on to close to 50% of the West Bank while offering Palestinians a state that will be neither economically nor politically viable, a state that, when they refuse it, or when they accept it and then ask for more, will be used as 'proof' that nothing will ever satisfy them. By acting unilaterally, Sharon denied Palestinian moderates the ability to show a concrete result for their non-violence and instead empowered Hamas who could claim that their armed struggle �worked��an outcome that will encourage furture Hamas political advances that will then be used by Sharon as further �proof� to Israelis and the world that allowing Palestinians freedom will be too dangerous for the Jewish state because it empowers those who are maximalists who don�t want to live in peace with Israel but rather openly proclaim their goal of destroying Israel totally and replacing it with an Islamic state.

When Hamas supporters call for an �end to the Occupation,� they mean a return not to pre-67 Israel, but to pre-48 Palestine when Jews had no national homeland in any part of Palestine. To the extent that Sharon can make it appear plausible that the elimination of Israel as a Jewish homeland is the only real alternative to occupation of major parts of the West Bank, he wins the argument both in regard to the majority of Israelis and in regard to the majority of Americans and a majority of the world�s Christians as well as Jews. For that reason, Sharon welcomes those in the Arab and Muslim world who call for �one state solutions,� �binational solutions,� and other �solutions� that involve dismantling of the Jewish homeland, knowing that it is precisely the fear of this that will continue to give the Israeli Right the political power to maintain occupation. And that is why Sharon will maneuver to help Hamas and to undermine Palestinian Authority leader Abbas.

As a Jew, I�m proud of the gentleness and respect shown by the Israeli army to the settlers they had to forcefully remove. That gentleness has been notably absent when that same army has bulldozed thousands of Palestinian homes and violently repressed non-violent demonstrations. I�m particularly outraged at the international media which has never covered the pain of Palestinians who have been dragged from their homes�not in 48, not in 67, and not today as the confiscation of Pales tinian lands and destruction of their homes continues. Indeed, if the media did cover it, the many decent Israelis whose moral sensitivities are in tact would be far more likely to become energized to support peace parties that today only generate weak support.

One good outcome of the disengagement processs: I am glad that the religious extremists in Israel have been shown to be paper tigers, and hope that this will encourage Israeli moderates to take more decisive steps to separate state from synagogue (thereby removing one of the major irritants that keeps many Israelis from appreciating the wisdom of Judaism). I�d love to see secular peace loving Jews join with the small but articulate Jewish religious peace camp to shape a new Israeli majority that insists on ending the Occupation of the West Bank.

But I cannot pretend that this withdrawal was a move toward the kind of reconciliation and open-heartedness that is the only plausible path to lasting peace. It was, instead, a unilateral move by a pro-occupation government, meant to forestall serious pressure on Israel to stop its construction of the Wall and its appropriation of Palestinian lands for Israeli purposes. How generous was it when Israel decided to destroy the houses of settlers lest Palestinians occupying those houses be seen by right-wing Israelis as a "provocation" that might lead to new acts of violence? And how generous was it when Israel still insisted that it would control the borders of Gaza, including from sea and air, thus making Gaza an enclave without freedom of access to others in the world except through continued Israeli consent. Was this what you'd call freedom?

I don't pretend that in the contemporary world it is easy to get people mobilized around a spirit of generosity toward the other in politics when they've been so indoctrinated with the message that one can never trust the other, that the world is filled with terrorists and evil people, and that one's only protection is to dominate the other before they dominate you. I can't condemn Israel�s cynical maneuvering without simultaneously acknowledging that the same self-interested maneuvering characterizes almost every country on the planet as well. Showing generosity and a genuine recognition of the humanity of the Palestinian people, would buy Israel far more security than cynically manipulating for the sake of holding on to war-begotten territories. Real security for Israel will come when Israel allows open-heartedness to replace domination and occupation as the center of its survival stragegy. For as God taught the prophets, "Not by might, and not by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts."

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine and author of ten books including Healing Israel/Palestine (North Atlantic ıooks, 2003) and the forthcoming The Left Hand of God (HarperSanFrancisco January 2006). He invites Arabs to join The Tikkun Community, an interfaith venture which advocates for a Progressive Middle Path that is both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel, and calls for a reconciliation of the heart and repentance from bothsides.

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