Israel's Orange-Blue Divide

America has its red-blue divide, Israel its orange-blue. Orange is for those opposed to the historic pullout of Jewish settlers from the entire Gaza strip and four West Bank settlements, a process expected to start next week. Blue is for those who support Israel's planned pullout from those Palestinian areas.

But America's ideological gap is a mere gully compared with the chasm dividing Israelis. For rippling in the wind with the orange and blue ribbons attached to baby strollers and car antennas is a fundamental identity question about the future of the Jewish state - about its borders, its relationship with the Palestinians, and the influence of religion on government decisions.

Fortunately, this is no fifty-fifty split. A clear majority of Israelis (55 percent compared to 39 percent), support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral "disengagement."

In the days and months ahead, it will be important for the Israeli government to hearken to this majority voice - which appears to favor trading occupied land for peace with the Palestinians, and rule of law over rule of religion.

Yet at this critical juncture, the minority is gaining in decibels, reaching a dangerous level. Last week, for instance, a deserter from the Israeli army went on a shooting rampage killing four Arab Israelis in a bus before being lynched when his ammunition ran out. The soldier strenuously opposed army orders to remove Jews from their settlements, because he viewed their land as God-given.

A nonviolent but potentially louder explosion from Israel's minority was heard when former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu quit the Cabinet Sunday. Mr. Netanyahu, who is Mr. Sharon's main rival in the Likud party, says he resigned to protest the pullout. But his political intentions appear to be more ambitious: to take over the leadership of the party and the country, and to forestall further settlement withdrawals.

That might work in the short term, especially if his move helps to precipitate early elections, which would mean a detour from the road map to Palestinian statehood and a final peace deal.

But still, there's no denying that majority voice. It may not be as loud as the minority, but Sharon (who himself once opposed dismantling settlements) has had to respond to it.

He can be commended for steadfastly refusing to be swayed by the minority: for labeling the Israeli deserter a terrorist, and for forging ahead with his plan. Israel is still a democracy, and as long as that continues, the majority must be heeded.

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