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Israelis Berl and Smadar are on an airplane that crashes in the Pacific ocean. They paddle their lifeboat to the usual island. There are many pressing problems of survival, as well as natural urges that suggest themselves in that situation.

"What are we going to do?" asks Smadar.

"We need to give up the occupied West Bank immediately," says Berl.

"Never. We must annex Judea and Samaria immediately!" says Smadar.

Since 1967, every question concerned with Israel and with the Middle East has been answered in terms of the territories conquered in the 6-day war. Everyone who talks about Israeli national planning and strategy discusses the occupation. Everyone in Israel who discusses the problem of Islamist terror also ties it to the territorial question as well. Those who want to keep the territories are also those who insist that all Muslims are Islamists and they are all out to destroy Israel, while those who want to "end the occupation" at any cost often behave as if the Hamas and al-Qaeda are liberal democrats. End the occupation and they will all love Israel. The convenience of these stances are obvious. They are not related to any facts about the Qur'an or Islamic beliefs or Islamist ambitions. They only serve to support different theses about the territories.

In fact, every foreigner who discusses plans for the entire Middle East, from Harold Saunders to Jacques Chirac to James Baker to Rami Khouri and Hosni Mubarak, somehow invokes ending the occupation as the key to solving every Middle Eastern problem, whether it is the US fiasco in Iraq, women's rights in Saudi Arabia, sectarian feuds in Lebanon or democracy in Egypt. According to them, if Israel gives up the territories it will cure everything from trachoma to bird flu.

This series of articles (see here and here) was inspired by a typical question, by Ted Belman of Israpundit:

This is a serious enquiry or question. we both are aware of the existential dangers that confront Israel today including the pressure from the West for Israel to make concessions.

When I attempt to find the path to salvation, I want Israel to stand up to the world and to seek security if not peace through strength (zero tolerance for terror) and retention of Judea and Samaria...

It was a thoughtful question because it raised the fundamental issue of strength, as well as the perennial Jewish issue of "Salvation" - Yeshua. My answer was, as explained at length in these articles, that there is no salvation in pragmatic historical thought. Salvation can be part of a religious belief, but it has no place in national strategic planning. There is no magic action we can take, that will banish all pain and strife from our lives, vanquish the enemies of Israel forever, and make the lion lie down with the lamb. No Messiah will rescue us and end all misery and wake the dead. We can't plan that way. Every action has consequences in the real world and when planning, we must consider the foreseeable consequences, as well as take into account the inevitable unforeseeable vicissitudes of history.

History will go on and on. The strength or weakness of Israel depends on many factors. In that equation, the 2,000 square miles of the West bank are only a minor constituent, and not necessarily one that is conducive to strength. In that private letter, I also explained that, in the circumstances, it might be wise for Israel to at least respond to the Arab peace initiative, but it was a minor question for me.

Ted Belman summarized this exchange of letters in the following way:

I recently had an exchange with a prominant Zionist on the left.
He argued that Israel would be better off accepting the Saudi Peace Plan minus the ďright of returnĒ. This would involve retreat to the pre Ď67 borders and the sharing of Jerusalem in exchange for internationally recognized borders and normalization with the Arab countries.

Of course the right believes that Judea and Samaria belong to Israel by history or right of conquest and that Israel should insist on its right to keep it...

Ted Belman then linked to the first two articles in this series. His readers must have been astounded to find that those articles say nothing at all about the Saudi peace plan and not much, if anything, about giving up territories. This absurd exchange is symptomatic of the obsession of the territories, which makes it impossible to discuss anything else about Israel, or even to contemplate that there is any other question or any solution to any question that doesn't involve keeping or giving up that bit of real estate.

Another feature of the territorial obsession is the division into "Right" and "Left." In the rest of the world, "Left" and "Right" refer primarily to opinions about social concerns such as ownership of industry, workers' rights, separation of church and state, abortion etc. In Israel, and for Jews, "Left" versus "Right" means only "Ending the Occupation" versus "Keeping Judea and Samaria."

Israel has virtually no policy on any issue besides the territories. The Minister of Environment makes pronouncements about the territories. When Yossi Sarid held that post he made more statements about the peace process and the territories than about the garbage dump in Hirieh. The result is that both problems are still there. The Ministry of Infrastructure deals with the territories. The Ministry of Transportation builds roads in the territories. The Ministry of Housing builds settlements in the territories. The Ministry of Agriculture builds settlements in the territories. The Ministry of the Interior deals with immigration from the territories. The Minister of Industry and Trade has something to say about the territories. The Supreme Court spends its time deciding where to put the security fence in the territories. The Ministry of Education deals with whether or not to put the border with the territories on the maps in the schoolbooks, and of course the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry deal with the territories.

It is no wonder that our ecology is a mess, our agriculture is decaying, our cities are bankrupt and our education system is "on the face." The performance of the IDF in the last war was the direct result of a 40 year obsession with "the territories."

The paradoxical result of not attending to business, of not having a policy on any issue other than the territories, is that we don't have, and can't have, a policy on the territories either. We have to ask the United States what our policy ought to be, because we don't have the national strength to carry out any policy independently. We don't have a reasonably unified national framework in which to discuss and formulate such a policy. All we have are groups of people with different axes to grind. They are either buried in the ideologies of the past or they are looking to further some narrow economic or political interest. They argue endlessly about what the Bible said, what Katznelson said, what Ben-Gurion said, what Rabbi Kook said, and what Jabotinsky said, and about who was right about some events that happened in 1922 or 1936, with no relation to current realities, calling each other "Fascists," "Traitors," and Secular Hellenistic devils. In reality the arguments are about getting another few million dollars from the budget for a settlement or a yeshiva or a government post for a nephew. If you don't have a nation and a firm grip on reality you can't have a national policy on anything.

The United States Jewish community, on the other hand, faces serious questions of identity, intermarriage, purpose. Instead of dealing with those, most of their energies are directed, likewise, to the territorial obsession. Instead of building the US Jewish community, Jews from Missouri write to tell me all the facts about my own country, explaining that we must give up all the territories and be "compassionate." They learned the "facts" from a different Jew who lives in California. Another Jew in California or Illinois or New Jersey, who never paid a penny of Israeli taxes, never served in the army and never sent their children to the army, decides which Israeli Zionists are "traitors" and "self-hating Jews" because they believe in ending the occupation, and publishes hit lists on the Web or blasts "traitors" at their Web site. While the synagogues in the US empty out and the Zionist movement is slowly becoming an empty shell, everyone argues about the territories.

These articles are not about the territories. They are not about the Saudi Plan or the Livni plan or whatever other plan someone will float in a week or a month or a year. They are about how to achieve the national strength that Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people need to survive, and how to build the institutional and cultural infrastructure that will give us that strength. That strength will be needed to meet challenge after challenge, because history will never stop.

National strength doesn't depend on territories for the most part. It depends on things like unity, dedication of purpose, a healthy and democratic society, an open and dynamic culture, moral purpose, industrious people doing constructive work, wise investment and skilful alliances.

Ami Isseroff

Previous articles in this series:

Original content is Copyright by the author 2007. Posted at ZioNation-Zionism and Israel Web Log, http://www.zionism-israel.com/log/archives/00000322.html where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Disributed by ZNN list. Subscribe by sending a message to ZNN-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by e-mail with this notice, cite this article and link to it. Other uses by permission only.

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I don't see why stating that there is a problem (implying that solutions need to be found) entails "salvation."

If I run out of coffee (that's a "problem"), then I look for a solution. Perhaps there could be obstacles along the way (today's a holiday and the stores are closed), so then I seek out other, alternative solutions. But because I've framed this in terms of problems/solutions (goal oriented, with possible obstacles identified as "problems") -- it doesn't mean I won't run into a similar problem in the future or that finding a solution would entail the "ultimate" solution.

In terms of the Palestinian and Israeli problems (the on-going wars), if one attempts to frame it in terms of "problems" and "solutions" -- you get competing narratives. Even in terms of what is the Goal? What is the end state? President Bush seems to believe the goal is to create two states living side by side. But, I don't believe this is the goal of most Palestinians (and btw, to claim that those who want to keep the territories are the same who claim that all Muslims are Islamists, is a straw man argument and an over generalization). The Palestinians elected a terrorist organization to represent them -- and this terrorist organization has made it very clear that they are dedicated to the destruction of Israel. This is the obvious reality. Thus, from a Bush perspective, you've got a problem because the very people with whom you wish to give a state, don't believe in allowing the other state to exist. They do not believe in a two-state solution.

So, again what should the goal be? Personally I do not believe that giving a state to a people who are unwilling and unable to even appreciate what's offered to them, is a viable solution. (If anyone had a magic wand and waved it to produce a Pali state, the problems with Arabs would not abate, in fact, the "problems" in terms of terrorist assaults, murdering Israelis, and so on would probably become worse, more lethal -- they'd have a military and an army.)

So, right from the get-go, there's a "problem," virtually intractable (and hence, I believe, the current impasse -- the paralysis.) I guess we'll all just have to wait until the Islamists become "civilized" or their culture of intimidation, warfare and hate ends.

J.S., Tuesday, January 2nd

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