ISRAEL'S RELUCTANT WARRIORS

When Dick Cheney arrives in Israel next week, he'll find himself in a country all but paralyzed politically. As the body count mounts and the region slides toward war, Ariel Sharon seems unable to offer any solution other than bloody reprisals for Palestinian attacks. The Israeli left remains stunned and virtually silent, as it has since the collapse of the peace process and the start of the second intifada almost 18 months ago. Indeed, the only dramatic initiative of late has come from outside the country: from Saudi Arabia, which has floated its own version of a peace deal.

Israel's political scene has not been entirely moribund, however. A growing group of young reserve officers has announced its intention not to serve in the territories, galvanizing debate in the process. The movement began in mid-January when 50 reservists sent a letter to an Israeli newspaper accusing the Army of "ruling, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people" in the territories and announced that henceforth they would refuse to participate. Within 10 days their ranks had grown to over 150; by now, the group is estimated to include 260 soldiers--though in a gesture known as "gray refusal," many more reservists are using medical deferments to avoid service, and some 400 others have announced that they'll refuse to comply if called.

It's still too soon to say just what impact this "refusenik" movement will have. Yet the media attention and public outcry have already been intense, not least because similar stirrings during the Lebanon campaign years ago contributed to a unilateral Israeli withdrawal in May 2000.

One way to determine just what the movement augurs is to look outside the country for parallels. The best comparison lies in South Africa, where a small anticonscription drive helped turn the tide against apartheid in the 1980s.

Although Israelis and many other Jews hate to admit it, there are pronounced similarities between the two situations. Like white South Africa, Israel is relatively small and beleaguered; both nations have mythic, highly trained armed forces, sources of intense pride among citizens who rely on them for their survival. Refusal to serve--rare and highly stigmatized--is thus the most dramatic form of protest.

In South Africa, when white soldiers started refusing to serve in the townships in the 1980s, the government reacted with fury. But as black resistance to the government grew, more and more whites were needed to keep order--and the number of white objectors increased. After finding itself unable to intimidate them, the South African government tried to co-opt the young officers by offering alternative forms of service. In the end, however, the fact that a number of white soldiers were willing to take such a dramatic step--and were ready to pay the price for it--helped convince Pretoria that its apartheid policies were simply unsustainable. Talks with the ANC soon followed.

Of course, Israel is not South Africa. It is a democracy, for one thing, not an authoritarian government. White nationalism in South Africa necessarily involved the oppression of blacks; there is nothing inherently oppressive about Zionism, which is a perfectly legitimate national movement. And Israel has in good faith tried to negotiate peace with the Palestinians.

Still, certain parallels exist. Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza may have started for legitimate strategic reasons; however, its rule has become increasingly oppressive in response to Palestinian terror--to the point where it now bears uncomfortable similarities to South Africa's rule of the townships. This is something that many Israelis are all too aware of. And though many of them are now skeptical about Palestinian intentions, they may nonetheless identify with a movement seeking to end the occupation and the conflict it exacerbates. This is all the more likely if violence in the territories continues to escalate and more and more reserve officers--as opposed to young conscripts--are required to serve there. Reservists in their 20s or 30s tend to be less patriotic and compliant than 18-year-old draftees, and the number refusing to serve will grow.

It's even possible that the refuseniks will re-energize the Israeli left, which has lacked direction since the intifada began. So far, that remains a long shot. All of Israel's mainstream politicians have condemned the dissident soldiers. But at least the refuseniks have laid a new option on the table and restarted debate. And the Army has reportedly tried to address their complaints by investigating misbehavior by its troops on the line--another positive development.

There's one other precedent to consider. In 1978 a similar group of young Army officers started pushing the government to make peace with the Arabs. Those officers, though dismissed at first, ended up forming the core of Peace Now, which grew into one of the largest and most vibrant forces on the Israeli left. And a year later, Israel signed a treaty with Egypt.

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