Disengagement is a fact. It may herald the beginning of a new chapter in Israel's history or it may serve to further intensify the ideological polarization and social fragmentation that it has magnified in recent months. This period of transition is critical: The patterns that emerge at this juncture will dictate the parameters of Israeli life for some time to come.
Two diametrically-opposed scenarios are possible. The first points to the continuation of deterioration internally along with the perpetuation of the conflict externally (albeit in a more confined geographical area). The second holds forth the prospect of social and political reconfiguration domestically, coupled with a renewed effort to reach a just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian settlement.
The decision about the direction of the unfolding future is not a matter of chance; it is a conscious one that lies in the hands of each and every Israeli.
At the moment, the stagnation option is clearly the most dominant. This trend rests on the perception of the withdrawal from Gaza as the (highly emotional) formative experience that will continue to define the shape of the contemporary Israeli experience.
If this should happen, then Israel will embark on a collision course with itself. The rift between the upholders of a state-centered democratic Israel and the proponents of a land-based form of Jewish messianism has never been as apparent as it is today. All domestic issues – from poverty, inequality and corruption to education, domestic violence and personal status – have either been subjugated to the growing conceptual divide or relegated to the sidelines of public discourse. The next elections, if held in this atmosphere, will further entrench these contradictory poles.
Should this eventuality become a reality, no additional movement will be recorded on the Palestinian-Israeli front in the foreseeable future. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, if only for electoral reasons, will engage in a familiar series of foot-dragging measures, while placing the entire onus for progress within the framework of the road map on the Palestinian Authority. Unilateralism will be cemented as the binding principle of Israeli policy.
The force of these trends cannot be underestimated. Powerful groups are now vying with each other to capitalize on their currents. At the same time, too many Israelis, tired and confused, are evincing real signs of loss of energy, if not of resolve, and may do nothing to halt these developments. The realization of this option is a prescription for slow but steady political breakdown and social collapse. It can, however, be countered by a concerted effort to redefine national goals and commence their implementation.
In this scenario, disengagement from Gaza is not seen as a one-time event, but as an essential part of a process leading to the end of the occupation and the consolidation of Israel's identity as a truly democratic state with a Jewish majority.
The Gaza pullback is thus a seminal turning point which, if handled properly, can enable Israelis to reorder priorities and confront festering problems that threaten to rupture the country from within. The burning questions of social equity, educational transformation and governmental reform must be tackled if Israel is going to maintain its internal coherence and retain its pride of place in the developed world.
Such a reorientation requires a far-reaching rearrangement of the political map – one which no longer uses attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the primary determinant of party affiliation. It also involves the vigorous reaffirmation both of civil liberties and the supremacy of the rule of law.
This forward-looking scenario links domestic well-being to the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. It is now evident that the success of the Gaza pullback, like any further moves, hinges on bilateral agreements. Ongoing coordination efforts, however belatedly, have reopened channels of communication. These must be expanded soon to full-fledged talks.
Most Israelis privately subscribe to the hope and possibilities inherent in this option. There is no middle ground between these diverging roads. Israelis, by opting for reasoned change, can now take control of their destiny. It's in their power to avert total breakdown and begin the construction of a just society at peace with its neighbors. They must seize the opportunity; it will not recur.
Naomi Chazan is a former member of Knesset for the Meretz Party.