Opinion » Viewpoint

Israel in Crisis

With the Zionist dream in tatters, Sharon must change course.

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In the perpetual war against Israel, its enemies are winning. The economy is awful. Parents do not want their children to go out. The beach is presumed safe, but not a cafe or restaurant. A commute on a bus (I have done it) is gut-wrenching. You watch everyone. What does a suicide bomber look like? The last one, the one who blew up a Haifa restaurant, was a 29-year-old woman, a law school graduate. She killed Arab and Jew alike. Even safe places are no longer safe.

So I cannot blame Israel for striking back. It assassinates Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders and militants. It razes the homes of suicide bombers. It has Yasser Arafat bottled up and may, as threatened, deport or kill him. It has bombed purported terrorist camps in Syria. But nothing Israel has done has brought it peace and security.

If you read the Israeli press, the despair is palpable. To some, especially those on the left, Israel has become virtually a dysfunctional society. The government can't protect its people. Corruption is endemic. Religious zealots have inordinate influence and their vision, a Greater Israel, compels the building or thickening of West Bank and Gaza Strip settlements. With every suicide bombing, the rational course -- a withdrawal from Palestinian areas -- seems like weakness rather than wisdom.

Israel must return to the so-called Green line -- the border before the 1967 Six Day War. It must dismantle most of the settlements. It must do this because occupation is corrupting and, in the long run, impossible. The more Israel expands or retains settlements, the more it gets stuck in a quagmire where the enemy is everywhere. From September 2000 until recently, about 17,400 attacks were recorded in the territories -- and 40 percent of all fatalities. Even when terrorists struck in Israel proper, they invariably came from the West Bank.

Yet Ariel Sharon recently decided to include two major settlements on the Israeli side of the fence that is being built to separate the Jewish state from the West Bank. (A similar fence already separates the Gaza Strip from Israel, and it has proved effective in keeping out suicide bombers.) By extending the fence to encompass the settlements, Sharon is only ensuring the continuation of his problem. He needs to get out.

For a people of the book, for a country created by history as well as by men, Israel acts as if nothing that went before has any bearing on what is happening now. But history admonishes Israel. The only places where a Western culture has successfully transplanted itself are those where great population pressure and genocidal methods were used to extirpate the indigenous peoples. This is what happened in the United States.

Genocide is out of the question. Neither the world nor Israeli morality would permit it. Yet Israel keeps lengthening the odds against itself. Instead of withdrawing to where Jews are a clear majority, it continues to cling to settlements where Jews are outnumbered. Every settlement, every day of occupation, puts Israel in greater and greater danger. Each settlement is a provocation. The deportation or killing of Arafat will do nothing but make him a martyr and exacerbate the chaos. The man himself is only a symptom of Israel's problem.

The Zionist dream is in tatters. No one wants to go to Israel. On the contrary, people want to leave. For every suicide bombing, countless others are thwarted -- 22 in the last month, according to Zeev Schiff, the esteemed military correspondent for the newspaper Haaretz.

Israel thrashes out. It has now bombed Syria. What next? Iran? This is not strategy. It is fury. n

Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group.

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