Israel's war of the colors

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 22-Jul-05 | Author: Uri Avnery| Source: International Herald Tribune

Opponents to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan (L) and Israeli police forces (R) stand on both sides of the main gate to Kfar Maimon July 19, 2005.
TEL AVIV The Middle East

A visitor to Israel might get the impression that the country is in the throes of a contest between two soccer teams - orange and blue. While a majority of cars in fact don't betray which team they support, thousands are flying ribbons from their antennas, with the orange outnumbering the blue by about 2 to 1.

But while blood is spilled only rarely in the sports stadium, the Israeli struggle between the orange and the blue is a very serious affair. On the face of it, it is about the Gaza Strip withdrawal. In reality, however, it has assumed a much deeper significance and concerns the very character and future of Israel.

Those who fly the orange ribbon know this perfectly well. They swear to "paint the country orange" and aim to change its way of life from the bottom up. As they see it, the laws of Israel's Parliament are invalid if they conflict with religious law as interpreted by the "nationalist Zionist" rabbis, a nationalist-messianic faction with a fascist fringe. Government decisions are null and void if they are opposed to the will of God. And God, as is well known, speaks through the mouths of the settlers' leaders.

Those who fly the blue are struggling for a different vision. Some have a thought-out conception of a democratic, liberal and secular Israel, living at peace with the Arab world. Others have a more general vision of a sane and decent Israel, where a majority decides through the Knesset. Either way, the difference is striking and unmistakable.

Today, less than a month before the planned evacuation, public opinion polls show that two-thirds of Israelis support the Gaza withdrawal. If that is so, why is there no solid majority of blue ribbons on the highways? The first reason is unsurprising: A fanatical minority with a strong emotional motivation has an advantage over a "silent majority" that always tends to be passive and weak-willed.

The settlers and their allies also have a distinct logistic advantage. They live in their own communities, so it is easy for them to mobilize thousands of children and youngsters, who disperse throughout the country and attach their ribbons to the cars. The religious Jews, almost all of them supporters of the settlers, are concentrated in their seminaries and separate townships, where they can easily be called to action.

But these advantages would not have been so manifest, were it not for the weaknesses of their opponents. Many citizens are simply anxious. They are afraid that if they fly the blue ribbon, their cars will be vandalized by right-wing hooligans, in a classic attempt to paralyze the law-abiding majority.

Another reason springs from the character of the democratic public, many of whom just want to be left in peace and do not like to trumpet their convictions. They are not concentrated in specific neighborhoods, so many feel isolated in their thoughts and feelings. This no doubt helps give rise to another phenomenon: While almost all of the orange faction fly their ribbons proudly from the antennas atop their cars, many of the blues hang theirs lower, from the side mirror or door handle, where they are less conspicuous.

As trivial as it may seem, the struggle of the ribbons is important, because the prevalence of orange creates the impression that the settlers rule the streets, that they are the real majority in Israel, even if the polls say the opposite. This raises their morale in their fight against the Israeli democracy and lowers the morale of the democratic public.

This influences, consciously or unconsciously, the politicians and media people, who, in their turn, mold public opinion. The Israeli media, almost without exception, have already become a mouthpiece for the settlers. Even a liberal paper like Haaretz, which is (erroneously) considered "left wing," carries news pages (as distinct from the editorial pages) that often look as if they have been lifted straight from one of the settlers' media organs.

If the blue ribbon were to overcome the orange, it would have a big impact on the entire political system. It would lend new courage to the parties that support the withdrawal and to the security forces that will have to enforce it. The opposite situation would be fraught with danger to the future of the state.

In addition, the blue ribbon is a unifying symbol. Forces of different shades are working together in this campaign, from those who support Ariel Sharon and withdrawal from the Gaza Strip only, to those who want to turn this withdrawal into an instrument for the achievement of a general peace.

To belong to this camp is respectable, for it is a camp with a liberal and peace-loving culture, a camp that believes in equality between the citizens of both genders and of all ethnic and national backgrounds. In short: the opposite of what the settlers believe in.

The victory of the blue ribbon would restore to many people a sense of power. For those who have sunk into despair, who have come to believe that they are few and weak and that "everything is lost," the blue ribbon will give a sense of belonging to a large and influential community.

The struggle is having yet another interesting effect. In recent years, the right wing has succeeded in securing a near monopoly over the display of the Israeli flag. A part of the left has distanced itself from the blue-and-white banner, because for them it symbolizes the occupation and the settlements. In demonstrations against the occupation, the Israeli flag is seen only on the signs of the Gush Shalom peace movement here, which combine the flags of Israel and Palestine. (Palestinians, too, carry these signs willingly.)

Since the settlers have adopted the orange color (swiped from the Ukrainian uprising), their opponents quite naturally adopted the blue color, or even blue and white, taken from the flag of Israel.

The importance of this is more than symbolic. More and more people are becoming convinced that the current struggle is essentially one between the State of Israel and the "State of the Settlers" - a democratic state on the one side, a nationalist-messianic state on the other. That is an important conception, which may have far-reaching implications for the future. It is the start of the real separation - that between the State of Israel and the settlers.

For that, too, it is important that the blue now win the war of the colors.

(Uri Avnery heads the Israeli peace movement Gush Shalom.)