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Phoenix from the Ashes?

Over the last week, Israel withdrew from Gaza. While many ask what comes next in the "peace process," and what can be done to shore up Palestinian support for it, the real question now is: Where is Israeli society heading? Tension over Gaza was a proxy for a debate over who Israelis are and what they want to be. While at first that divide is expressed through the debate over territory and relations with Palestinians, it is really about the future of Zionism itself and Israeli identity anchored to it. The dispute has exposed a raw nerve and deep questions in society over the relationship between Zionism and Judaism, as well as between nationalism and religion. Ironically, the withdrawal may also be the catalyst for an emerging new consensus, but not as the proponents of withdrawal would have imagined.

This is a question about the shape of Israeli society on the day after a great national trauma. But it is also a question what will become of the settler movement and the religious Zionist camp to which they are anchored, which over the last year fought to reverse the government's decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza. For the past year this camp appealed to the hearts and minds of Israelis to convince the majority that withdrawal will endanger the state and put an end to one of its greatest accomplishments - the settlements of Gaza. Now that this camp has been defeated, what will happen to the settlers' traditional alliance with the secular Israeli mainstream?

Many in Israel who sympathize with the settlers argue that the strongly European-oriented, anti-clerical, and anti-religious animosity of the Israeli left deprives Israel of a spiritual clarity not only necessary to maintain an ethical civil society but to also uphold the national will and protect morale sufficiently to defend the nation. They see the left's eagerness to withdraw and abandon the settlement project as evidence of that feared decay. In this sense, Israel is a microcosm for the West as a whole, whereby religion continues to play a vital role for America in protecting patriotic virtue while secularism defines modern Europe. For hundreds of years the West has debated the virtues and dangers of a secular utopia. The crisis of Zionism has now become the latest chapter in this debate.

The leaders and the ideological core of the settlers who oppose the withdrawal from Gaza view the state of Israel as the embodiment of both their religious and Zionist dreams. The land of Israel, they believe, has miraculously returned to Jewish ownership after 2,000 years of exile and it is their religious obligation to settle it. In recent years, as questions pertaining to Israel's security have entered the Israeli public debate, the settlers also use security arguments to justify their actions. But building settlements is not only their contribution to the nation's defense. It has also become their way of claiming a share of ownership in the Zionist enterprise. For years they lived with an inferiority complex vis-à-vis secular Zionism. Secular Zionists argue they pioneered and built the state, established the Kibbutzim, and defended the homeland when religious Zionists did little more than pray.

While the veracity of the left's exclusive claim of credit for the state's establishment can be debated, nobody doubts that since 1967 circumstances have changed. The secular Zionist camp has lost its Zionist vigor and remained engrossed in moral dilemmas resulting from occupation. It was replaced by religious Zionists who assumed most of the heavy lifting for the Jewish state and are now building the Jewish homeland and contributing to its defense. Today, more than half of Israel's officer corps is made out of the relatively small camp of Modern Orthodox soldiers. They, and no longer the Kibbutzim, have become the bearers of the lion's share of Israel defense.

Moreover, in building settlements, religious Zionists not only re-established a modern Jewish presence in Judaism's holiest places, but they did so in the service of various Israeli governments, which sent them to define and secure the Israeli frontier. Both left- and right-wing governments deemed the settlements so important that they even provided financial incentives for those willing to live along the frontier. It may be because of this that many of the residents of the settlements lived there for financial, not ideological, reasons. But the religious-national core stayed in their homes to the last, despite the many personal sacrifices required of them. They now feel betrayed by the state. They and their sacrifices are rejected not just by left-wing Israelis but even by right-wing Prime Minister Sharon and his government. Their ideological confusion, their feeling of abandonment by the state to which they were so devoted could not be deeper or more genuine. They are now torn between their devotion to the land of Israel and their commitment to the state of Israel.

In the weeks and days prior to the withdrawal, many settlers reconciled with the ideological crisis that the planned withdrawal posed. Some settlers acknowledged it as a failure to win over the hearts and minds of the majority of Israelis. There was much truth in this explanation. Since the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995 by a settler, the settler movement as a whole was rejected by mainstream Israelis. The settlers have acquired the image of extremists who would be willing to use any means -- including violence -- to obtain their goal of a greater Israel.

For others in the settler movement, the evacuation of Gaza meant the end of their alliance with the secular Zionist camp. From their point of view this alliance was based on a shared love for the homeland and a joint commitment to see the fruition of the Zionist dream. But now, some leaders of the settlers believe this alliance was violated by the secular elite. Secular Zionism has stabbed them in the back; in the process the secular elite has betrayed its own core values of freedom and human rights. Now this group of settlers is looking to create a new alliance with the ultraorthodox public which is religious but not always Zionist.

But interestingly, the evacuation, which is viewed by the settlers as a great defeat, is in fact possibly becoming a long-term triumph for their camp. Many Israelis might still oppose the construction of settlements, but they are coming to empathize with the settlers themselves. The settlers' leadership's decision, which was followed mostly, to avoid the use of violence against the military and police who carried out the evacuation helped legitimize the movement in Israeli public opinion. Moreover, the emotional images of both settlers and soldiers hugging and crying reminded many Israelis that the embattling sides of Israeli society are, in fact, brothers who care deeply about their homeland. This reminded many in Israel that the settlers are an inherent part of Israeli society. Slowly the settlers are no longer considered as outside actors in the Israeli saga; they now embody Israel's necessity to face tragic choices. Once pariahs, they are now viewed as the salt of the earth who worked endlessly and selflessly for the good of the state and the country. The settlers may snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, since they are attaining the compassion of the Israeli center and are entering a newly established Israeli consensus. In this new consensus, the settlers will not be viewed as the extreme fringes of Israeli society, but as a significant part of its core.

For this reason, future Israeli prime ministers will find it difficult to make further concessions to the Palestinians. As the world waits eagerly for further Israeli withdrawals, Israel's future leadership will face an entirely different story. After the national trauma of the Gaza withdrawal, Israeli society is less willing and able to concede any further land. This is not necessarily a broad move of Israeli society to the right. But following the withdrawal from Gaza, many Israelis, who beforehand were greatly polarized into competing ideological camps, are reviving their national ethos and sense of unity.

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