This week, Israel is leaving the Gaza Strip 38 years after it conquered the small territory in a defensive war.
Those Jewish residents who have not left voluntarily are being forcibly removed. Farms, towns, homes, synagogues and even cemeteries are either being destroyed or carted back inside the 1949 armistice lines.
In order to do this, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has divided his Likud Party, forced out some of the most talented members of his Cabinet and set in motion a series of events that threatens at times to tear Israeli society to pieces.
In exchange for this angst, Israel is getting from the Palestinians nothing but the knowledge that the retreat will most likely strengthen the hands of those who believe terror is the best way to deal with the Jewish state.
Sharon has powerful reasons for the Gaza move, including the need to keep the area's million-plus Arabs outside of Israel's borders, and create a more defensible position than the current deployment of troops who defended the settlements.
But disengagement also has led many American Jews to piously hope that this sacrifice will win Israel the plaudits of the world – or at least lessen the drumbeat of criticism that can be found every day in the pages of major daily newspapers and on television news.
By giving up Gaza, they reason, Israel has confirmed its status as the certified good guy of the conflict.
But those who think that giving up Gaza will make Israel more popular are deluded themselves. It's enemies aren't impressed by its desire for peace or its willingness to give up part of its historic territory after winning wars, something no other sovereign state has ever done.
Shimon Peres, currently a member of Sharon's coalition, once famously said that Israel didn't need a smart public-relations effort to tell its story. It just needs smart policies.
By that, he meant that all it had to do was to give the Palestinians what they wanted: a state in Gaza and the West Bank. After he concluded the Oslo accords with former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and made such a state inevitable, Peres was convinced that he'd done exactly that. We all know now just how wrong he was to believe Arafat wanted peace. But what has not yet been fully discussed was just how flawed his information policy turned out to be.
Even more recently, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak – whose bold bid for peace at the 2000 Camp David summit put almost all of the territories (including Gaza) on a silver platter for Arafat – was burned as well. Not only did Arafat say no to Barak's peace offer, within months he launched a bloody terror war.
But Israel gained no credit for its peace offer, and sympathy for the Palestinian cause did not decrease because of the decision to pursue the murder of innocents on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Instead, for the first time in decades, Israel's existence and the very legitimacy of Zionism become a matter of debate in respectable circles.
Ironically, Israel's image in the West was stronger when it was led by Yitzhak Shamir, a poor communicator who made no secret of his opposition to all concessions to the Palestinians.
Yet once Arafat was installed as head of a Palestinian territory, his "police" armed and terrorists released from Israeli prisons, the false idea that Israel was a murderous occupier that killed babies became far more prevalent throughout the world, not less.
And now, even after weathering four years of heightened terrorism that took more than a thousand Jewish lives and having handed Arafat's successor – and his Islamist allies – all of Gaza without even so much as requiring them to sign another piece of paper, just where does Israel stand?
The Poison Spreads
In Europe, anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist agitation continues to grow. Here in America, liberal Protestant denominations that Jews have always considered allies now line up to denounce even passive Israeli measures of self-defense, such as its security fence, while some also endorse an economic boycott of the Jewish state via divestment.
The poison of anti-Zionism has even leeched into some anti-Iraqi war protests, which are then treated sympathetically in the mainstream press. Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier who fell in Iraq, has become a popular focus of hostility to the Bush administration through her sit-in outside the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas. But some of her views seem to have gone virtually unmentioned by the mainstream press: one of them being hostility to Israel.
Sheehan wrote on the anti-war Web site www.truthout. org that her son was killed for a "neo-con agenda to benefit Israel. My son joined the Army to protect America, not Israel."
She also said, "Get America out of Iraq and Israel out of Palestine, and you'll stop the terrorism."
The fact that she would say such things, and otherwise respectable churches would denounce Israel just as it is giving the Palestinians yet another chance for peace, has to tell us something about this dynamic.
What's the root of this madness? Historians will debate this question in the future, but the most plausible theory is that the moment that Israel's spokespeople and friends abroad began talking about balancing Palestinian rights to statehood and Israel's need for security, it started to lose the media war.
Rights can only be balanced in the public eye with other rights, not pleas for safety. If the Palestinians portray themselves as the only ones with legitimate rights to disputed territories, and Israel repeatedly fails to offer an effective rejoinder, then why won't more people consider the Palestinians in the right?
And once they've gotten editors and church leaders to think of Israel as an "occupier" and inherently in the wrong, then all Palestinian tactics – even murder – become legitimate, and all Israeli countermeasures become illegitimate. That is the challenge as we await the launch of a third Palestinian "intifada," as the head of Israeli army intelligence predicted before a Knesset committee this week.
Israelis had their own good reasons to say good riddance to Gaza, but they should expect no credit for it on the pages of The New York Times, or on CNN or NPR. Years and years of concessions have only served to reinforce the idea that Israel was always in the wrong. And nothing – not giving up Gaza, or even the whole of the West Bank and Jerusalem – will change that.
Until the day when Israel and its friends begin speaking once again of inalienable Jewish rights to this land, the most we can expect is still more of the same.
Jonathan S. Tobin is reachable via e-mail at: [email protected]