Evelyn Gordon, THE JERUSALEM POST Dec. 27, 2004

The Yesha Council’s decision to oppose disengagement via civil disobedience has elicited predictable responses. Alongside demands that council members be indicted, opinion leaders have charged, inter alia, that civil disobedience is only justified under a nondemocratic regime, that it will encourage violence, and that it will split the nation and destroy the country.

Some of the charges, such as the claim that civil disobedience is unjustified in a democracy, simply betray the speakers’ ignorance. In fact, the seminal work on this subject – Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience – was written precisely to justify civil disobedience in a democracy.

To Thoreau, civil disobedience was not a way to protest undemocratic decisions, but a way to protest democratic decisions that the protester considers morally wrong (in his case, the American government’s declaration of war against Mexico).

Many settlers believe that the forcible evacuation of settlements is morally wrong, and the fact that most Israelis disagree does not negate their right to follow their own consciences.

The fear that civil disobedience will lead to violence is more serious, as violent lawbreaking is clearly an easier step from nonviolent lawbreaking than from complete obedience to the law. Yet history shows that violence is most likely to erupt when a passionately committed minority believes that it has no alternative.

Civil disobedience provides an alternative: It enables the minority to try to influence events nonviolently. Thus on balance, civil disobedience is more likely to channel energies away from violence than to provoke it.

The one really serious charge is that mass civil disobedience could tear the nation apart. That danger is never to be taken lightly. Yet it seems particularly inapplicable in this case, because Yesha’s campaign is not directed solely against disengagement: It also seeks to force the government “to allow the nation decide on such a fundamental issue, whether through elections or through a referendum.”

And that is a goal that every Israeli who cares about this country should support – because it is the only way to ensure that the nation is not torn apart.

What the council – unlike most of our so-called democrats – understands is that on an issue so divisive, legality is not enough: You need the broader legitimacy that comes from a clear public mandate.

That is precisely why Charles De Gaulle, when he decided to abandon Algeria after having been elected on a platform of Algerie francaise, said that he would do so only if he won a public referendum – and with “a massive majority.”

He did not need a referendum to get the pullout through the French legislature. But he understood that withdrawal opponents would accept the move more readily if they understood that it was truly the public’s will rather than his personal whim.

ISRAELI POLITICIANS, however, have always chosen the opposite approach. Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, was elected in 1992 after promising unequivocally not to negotiate with the PLO. Yet a year later, he signed an agreement with the PLO – without seeking a new public mandate. And that turned a merely controversial policy into a bitterly divisive one.

I will never forget a centrist colleague, who supports “land for peace,” telling me why she identified with the then prevalent cries of “Rabin is a traitor.”

She explained: “I voted for Rabin because I believed his promises – and I feel betrayed.”

That sense of betrayal is precisely what made Oslo so devastating. Yet Rabin could have avoided it by the simple expedient of going back to the people and seeking a clear mandate for his new policy.

The feeling of betrayal reached a peak in 1995, when Rabin obtained a 61-59 Knesset majority for the Oslo-2 Accord by openly bribing two MKs from a right-wing party to switch sides in exchange for a ministry and a deputy ministry, and then retroactively amending the law that made this illegal.

After that, Rabin not only lacked a clear public mandate, he did not even have a Knesset mandate that any honest person could consider legitimate. And that made Rabin’s assassination a few weeks later almost inevitable: If the prime minister is willing to use any means to achieve his ends, some maniac with a gun will inevitably feel justified in doing the same.

NOW, ARIEL SHARON has adopted the same disastrous approach to disengagement. He campaigned against unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, but after being elected, he made unilateral withdrawal his key policy initiative, without seeking a new public mandate.

He did seek approval from his party, via a members’ referendum, but when he lost by a 60-40 majority, he immediately reneged on his promise to honor the results.

Thus pullout opponents are not merely unhappy over the disengagement; they feel cheated and betrayed – and that is a recipe for disaster.

So when Yossi Klein Halevi accused the Yesha Council in these pages on Friday of “inadvertently encouraging” another assassination, he had the matter backward: It is the lack of a clear public mandate for disengagement, and opponents’ consequent feelings of betrayal, that makes another assassination so likely.

And the best hope of averting this scenario is a successful campaign to force Sharon to seek such a mandate.

As for Larry Derfner’s argument on Thursday that no prime minister has ever sought public approval for anything he had the power to force through the Knesset – that is not a justification; it is precisely what is wrong with this country.

Disengagement supporters, like Oslo supporters before them, keep insisting that “the polls” show that the public is behind them. If so, why are they so afraid of putting it to the test? Granted, a referendum or elections might delay the pullout.

But a few months’ delay is a small price to pay for enabling it to occur without tearing the nation apart.