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Washington Jewish Week: "Round Two" by Debra DeLee, APN President & CEO

Surveys indicate that a majority of Israelis support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate settlements from Gaza and part of the West Bank, while a majority also expects even more settlements will be removed after the current round is over.

May 19, 2005

Surveys indicate that a majority of Israelis support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate settlements from Gaza and part of the West Bank, while a majority also expects even more settlements will be removed after the current round is over. Yet the latest poll in Ha'aretz found that the prime minister's approval ratings have dropped sharply. How is it that he's losing support, even as his plan remains popular?

Israeli commentator Yossi Yerter offered one explanation. "It is possible that the public considers the 'disengagement' a done deal, and Sharon is therefore no longer seen as a savior, as the only person who can carry out the dramatic step that is supported by a solid and permanent majority of the country's citizens," he wrote. "In other words, is Sharon considered by the public to be a useful instrument for carrying out the disengagement, but also as someone who has concluded his historic role once the disengagement becomes history?"

Yerter may be on to something.

There's been growing recognition during the Intifada that settlements are security liabilities-not assets-that strain Israeli military resources. This is particularly true since the U.S. invasion of Iraq eliminated the last serious threat of a land invasion from the east that the settlements were established to guard against. Violent attacks by settlers on Israeli security personnel sent to enforce the law in the West Bank have done nothing to endear the settlers to the Israeli public, either.

Further, at a time when Israelis are being asked to absorb painful budget cuts to social programs, there's resentment at the gold-plated treatment that settlers have enjoyed over the years, receiving an extra half-billion dollars annually in benefits and services just for residing in the occupied territories with a quality of life that most Israelis cannot afford.

A new study revealed that over 100 settlement outposts were established illegally with government help and funds, thereby underscoring this kid glove handling of settlers.

And there is some recognition of the decay that is eating away at Israeli morality as a result of maintaining an occupation of another people. The public testimony of Nahal soldiers about the abuse of Palestinians that they witnessed or engaged in during their service in Hebron has given Israelis cause to reflect on the high ethical cost that settlements are inflicting on the soul of the nation.

For all these reasons, most Israelis support removing settlements.

Prime Minister Sharon has been able to tap into this prevailing attitude to build support for his initiative. But as the day of implementation draws near, he has increasingly tacked to the right in his comments about the settlements that will remain in the West Bank and the prospects for resuming peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Planning to build 3,500 new settlement housing units between the settlement of Maaleh Adumim and Jerusalem, declarations about holding on to as much of the West Bank as possible, and a growing list of pre-conditions that must be met before negotiating with the Palestinians harken back to the prime minister's "pre-evacuation" days.

During periods of violence, Israelis are willing to embrace such hard-line attitudes. But when terrorism subsides-and here is the big lesson for both the prime minister and the Palestinians-Israelis are much more open to discussing issues related to peace and possible compromises. They expect their leaders to be, too.

People may have grown a bit complacent about the inevitability of the evacuation plan being carried out. Although the political hurdles have been cleared, events on the ground could still bring the initiative to a halt. With this in mind, Prime Minister Sharon does, indeed, have a unique historical role in making sure that the plan is completed. It is difficult to imagine another Israeli leader on the scene having both the gravitas and determination to do it.

Assuming that the prime minister succeeds in implementing his plan, it is imperative for his own future and the security of Israel that he adopts a more forthcoming attitude toward settlements and resumed negotiations with the Palestinians. Israelis expect that more peace initiatives, including further settlement evacuation, will be pursued in order to maintain the normalcy that they've enjoyed for the past few months. And they know that President Abbas will not be able to maintain the calm if he has nothing more at which to point on the Palestinian political horizon than limited autonomy in Gaza and part of the West Bank.

Given these realities, "Gaza first, Gaza last" is a surefire recipe for a resumption of violence. It also could be political suicide for whoever hopes to lead Israel after the first round of settlers are evacuated this summer.

Debra DeLee is President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now.