Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Monday, October 21, 2002
I don't know how much people out there are following developments in Israel. The big news over the past few days (now somewhat eclipsed by the latest bombing, in Pardes Hannah - eight dead so far, and what else is new) was the fight over the illegal outpost known as the Gilad farm. Basically, the settlers claim that they had come to a compromise with the government, and that Fuad, the defense minister, broke the deal and brought in the army to dismantle the place. What followed was something of a mini-riot as well as a crisis in the cabinet between the NRP and Labor.

The crisis has three components. First, there is the issue of the supposed broken promise. This is hard to evaluate; no one independent of the matters at issue can affirm that there was any such deal. Second, there is the particular issue of Sabbath desecration. The Israeli Defense Forces includes a substantial contingent of observant Jews; I've read estimates that they form 40% of the officer corps, for example. In general, these soldiers are allowed to be Sabbath-observant - with the attendant restrictions on work - unless they have to go on a mission that requires Sabbath-breaking (as pretty much any mission would). The presumption is that all missions are for the saving of life, and this takes precedence over the Sabbath. (A religious Jew would not, for example, be required to do a training exercise on the Sabbath, but would be required to join a combat operation). So how does this mission fit the bill? Is it an operation "necessary" for the saving of life or is it discretionary? This should not be something that individual soldiers question for even an instant; they should be able to rely on rabbinic rulings that they must trust their commanders and obey orders. And, indeed, that's what the soldiers did - but the rabbis are now angry that they were never consulted on the operation, and saying that they would have rejected it if they had been. The problem with that is that the army doesn't trust the rabbis to make a neutral halachic judgement on the matter, because the rabbis in question (those affiliated with the settlement enterprise) are in favor of these illegal outposts and against their demolition, and therefore will rule that the removal is not necessary for the saving of life not because that is the only reasonable halachic stance (in general, the rabbis show great deference to the IDF's determination of what constitutes a necessary operation, as well they should) but because that is the conclusion that best accords with their political views.

And this brings us to the third and most important reason: politics. The left - even that portion of the left that agrees with the necessity of the current war - views the settlers as an obstacle to peace. The right, meanwhile, is divided between those who view the settlers as an important bargaining chip and those who view the settlement enterprise as an essential good in itself. (An analogy that readers might recognize: the SDI debate of the mid-1980s. There were those who believed that the pursuit of strategic missile defense was in and of itself a threat to peace, and should be abandoned. Most of the Democratic Party stood on that ground, and much of it still does. There were those who thought that the pursuit was a positive because it put pressure on the Russians, and would force them to make concessions in other areas like intermediate-range nuclear weapons; much of the GOP stood on this ground. And there were those who thought that the pursuit was a positive because it would lead to deployment and thus would protect our country from nuclear missile attack; that's what Ronald Reagan believed, along with his strongest supporters, and it's where much of the GOP stands today. Similarly, the Labor party in Israel and everything to its left is against the settlements per se, but some Labor leaders (including Fuad) believes that it is important not to concede on the settlements in the absence of a more general agreement. Meanwhile, part of the Likud and everything to its right believes in the settlement enterprise for its own sake, but a good portion of the Likud leadership (possibly including Sharon; it's hard to know) believes that the settlements are useful mostly because without them the Palestinians would never agree to anything.

So the right charges that Fuad called in the army to break up the Gilad farm because that was the only way to fend off attacks from Chaim Ramon, who is challenging him for the party leadership. Taking on the settlers would show his independence from and influence on the government, which is important for him to demonstrate since he is the only Labor leader running who is in favor of the national unity government. Meanwhile, the left points out - correctly - that the outpost was unauthorized and that these outposts put the IDF in danger, since the army has to defend them once they are in place. The settlers, thereby, steer government policy by themselves, which, it is alleged, has been leading to disaster. Moreover, it is charged, now the settlers are escalating the matter by rioting against the IDF and charging that religious soldiers can no longer trust the army command to deal with them honestly.

I think both sides have a point, but I think the left has the better of this particular argument. The settlers are indeed setting national policy by establishing these outposts, and they need to know that they are subject to the state's needs, not the drivers of it. And the rabbis need to restrain themselves on this business of Sabbath desecration. It is for the army to decide what is a critical operation for the saving of lives, and not for the rabbis; if this operation fell into a grey zone - and it clearly did; there was no imminent threat to anyone's life at the Gilad farm - then the rabbis have to give the benefit of the doubt to the army. If the army didn't inform the rabbis in advance, that's a breach of ettiquette, not the basis for a major crisis. Whether Fuad acted from base motives, well, the right may be right about that, but the place to settle that particular score is at the polls. There is no excuse for damaging national institutions when there is a democratic basis for settling the dispute.

The left is rightly afraid of the latent violence on the Israeli settler right. And the right-wing settlers are rightly afraid that the Israeli political leadership, and a good section of the public, does not support them, even though they live on the front lines of the current war. But who on the right thinks that the solution to this problem is to undermine national institutions like the IDF? There is a part of the right in Israel that considers itself more legitimate than the state. That's not an acceptable stance; it's a stance that, carried to its conclusion, ends in civil war. The last time such logic was followed to its conclusion, the Second Temple was destroyed. That ought to be enough of a caution to get Effie Eitam to calm down.

The only winner in this dispute, meanwhile, is Sharon, who is above the squabbling of his ministers and can make a big show of bringing them both to heel.