Israel’s Finest Moment

Based on what I’d been hearing and reading for the previous six months, when I arrived in Jerusalem in August I expected to be walking into the middle of a civil war.

But there was no civil war.

On the contrary, what I saw was the triumph of democracy and an example for people in the Middle East and throughout the world.

The democratically elected government of Israel made a painful and risky decision to disengage from Gaza. It did so with the approval of the popularly elected parliament, and the support of a majority of the public.

The minority exercised its right to protest and tried to change the decision by petitioning their representatives in the Knesset and lobbying members of the cabinet. They took their case to the independent judiciary and were heard by the nation’s highest court. The opponents of disengagement used their rights of free speech and assembly to demonstrate. Thousands of people exercised their freedom of religion at the Western Wall and tried to go over the head of the government to a higher authority.

When it was time to implement the disengagement, it was carried out with professionalism and sensitivity. Instead of taking two months, as the original plan called for, it took less than a week. The operation went remarkably smoothly, with the exception of a few instances of agitators from outside Gaza who ignored the wishes of the residents and engaged in activity that crossed the line of legitimate protest.

The settlers literally made the desert bloom with flowers and fruits and vegetables in areas where the Arabs have produced little more than discontent. And the settlements themselves were beautiful. I went to a place called “Miami Beach,” and if I showed you a picture of it, you'd think it was in Florida – if not for the armored personnel carriers the army had moved into the beachfront hotel.

In the northern settlement of Eli Sinai, we went into the home of a man who had been evicted from Yamit in 1982. He lived in a magnificent house with a spectacular view of the sea. Anywhere else, it would probably be a multimillion dollar villa, but in Gaza it was a target.

Around the corner was a woman who had lived in the settlement for 18 years in a house she and her husband had built with their own hands. She was packing all her possessions. The Keren Kayemet took one of her trees – each family was allowed to have one tree transplanted to Israel – and she was now trying to figure out what to do with her birds. She had an aviary with dozens of birds and no idea what to do with them.

In Netzer Hazzani, I spoke to a nice grandmother who had come to Gaza 30 years earlier, when there was nothing there but sand dunes. She couldn’t understand why she should have to leave.

In Neve Dekalim, I spoke to two young women who assured me they wouldn’t have to move because the messiah was coming. It reminded me of the scene in Fiddler on the Roof when the residents are leaving Anatevka and one man asks the rabbi if it would be a good time for the messiah to come and the rabbi tells him they’ll have to wait for him somewhere else.

Down the road was the cemetery where the graves of 48 Israelis – including several terror victims – were lying in peace. They had to be dug up and moved into Israel, and the families of the dead had to go through a new period of mourning.

I’m not sure Americans fully appreciated how traumatic it was for Israelis to uproot Zionist pioneers. In a country as small as Israel, nearly everyone had some connection to the settlers; they were friends, relatives, comrades in arms.

It was surprising to find that Jews who never thought the settlements should be there in the first place sympathized with people who were encouraged by their government to live in one of the most dangerous places on earth. And every Israeli was aware that the Jews in Gaza were at risk for one reason – because they were Jews.

Make no mistake about the risk Israel has taken. Now more kibbutzim and moshavim, as well as the power plant in Ashkelon, are within rocket range.

Think about the incredible courage it took for Ariel Sharon to do what he thought was necessary for Israel’s security. The father of the settlements looked at the facts on the ground and concluded it was in Israel’s interest to disengage from Gaza, even at the cost of uprooting Jews. This was Sharon's Abraham Lincoln moment. He decided to have a more perfect democratic Jewish state, he had to risk civil war. Fortunately, the society proved its commitment to democratic values.

Now it is Mahmoud Abbas’s turn. If he wants a more perfect union of Palestine, he must stop the violence, disarm the terrorists and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. If he can do it without firing a shot, kol hakavod, but if it requires a civil war, then so be it.

Some say that Israel must help Abbas, but Israel has done enough. The time for Palestinian excuses has past. It is time for Abbas to show a scintilla of the courage that Sharon demonstrated by risking his political future and his life in the interests of peace for Israelis and Palestinians. It is time to put Palestinian society to the test.