Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's secret visit to Sderot Tuesday morning was met with snorts of disgusted laughter. When the prime minister of Israel treats a visit to a city in Israel as a military secret on the order of an American presidential visit to Baghdad, the message he sends is clear: Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last summer was a national security disaster - and he knows it.
Olmert said he hid his plan to visit Sderot because he didn't want to give the Palestinian Authority a special reason to launch rockets against the city. That statement, like the government's decision to retake the destroyed communities of Dugit, Elei Sinai and Nisanit in a bid to halt the Palestinian rocket offensive, is a clear admission that the IDF is incapable of defending southern Israel from outside the Gaza Strip.
That is, it is a clear admission that the government lied last year when it said the IDF was in Gaza just to "protect the settlers." If anything, the Gaza settlers, by providing a friendly base of operations, protected the IDF. And just as opponents of the retreat warned, the removal of both endangered Israel's national security.
So now that the consequences of last year's retreat are clear, how is the Olmert government defending its goal of compounding the failure 20-fold in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem?
The government's line is that the withdrawal from Gaza wasn't supposed to make Israel more secure, and therefore the deterioration of the security situation in the South doesn't mean that the withdrawal was a strategic blunder.
As Yonatan Bassi, the outgoing head of the government's so-called Disengagement Authority, explained, "From a security point of view, I never thought things were going to be better" after Israel left Gaza. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, Bassi claimed that the retreat was important for strengthening Israeli democracy, which is "better... now than it was a year ago."
Amplifying Bassi's line are government ministers who claim that what is happening in Gaza is irrelevant to the government's plan to retreat from Judea and Samaria and to partition Jerusalem. Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter explains that the failure of the withdrawal from Gaza is immaterial to Judea and Samaria because there the IDF will remain in place.
According to Dichter, all the government wants to do is to orchestrate mass expulsions of Israeli citizens from their homes and to destroy their communities. The IDF, he promised in an interview Thursday with Ha'aretz, will stay where it is. The removal of the Israelis, Dichter says, will be undertaken to strengthen Israel's demographic balance and to enhance Israeli democracy.
Dichter's assumption that it is possible to expel tens of thousands of Israelis from their homes and to destroy their communities while leaving the IDF deployments in the areas untouched is delusional. The Israeli Left, on whose support the government depends for survival, and the Europeans, on whom the Israeli Left depends for survival, will not back the retention of IDF forces in Judea and Samaria in the wake of the planned mass expulsions.
BUT LEAVING aside the military consequences of the government's plans for Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem, the question arises: Is the government working to enhance Israel's demographic stature and strengthen its democratic system?
The Olmert government bases its claim that Israel's demographic standing is in need of immediate enhancement on a census carried out by the Palestinian Authority in 1997. That census claims there is near numerical parity between the Arab and Jewish populations west of the Jordan River.
Yet a study published in January 2005 by a group of independent American and Israeli researchers who examined the PA population data proved that that data was fraudulent. The researchers, who presented their findings to the government and the Knesset, showed that the PA's numbers were inflated by some 50 percent, or up to 1.5 million people.
After the study was published, Prof. Arnon Sofer - Israel's loudest demographic alarmist - quietly reduced his Palestinian population data by one million. Last month, in an interview with Hadassah magazine, Prof. Sergio Della Pergula, Sofer's colleague, reduced his Palestinian population estimate by some 900,000.
So today, Israel's two most prominent demographic sirens admit that, far from approaching numerical parity, Jews make up approximately two-thirds of the population of Israel, Judea and Samaria.
The government may well believe that a two-thirds majority is not enough. But expelling up to 100,000 Jews from Judea and Samaria and partitioning Jerusalem will not add one Jew or detract one Arab from Israel's population rolls.
The fact of the matter is that if the government was truly concerned about Israel's demographic balance, it would be working tirelessly to bring every possible Jew to Israel. Yet, not only is the government not doing this, it is subverting the rule of law to prevent Jews from coming here.
Last month, Immigration Minister Ze'ev Boim broke the law in order to block the aliya of 218 Jews from India who have been waiting, suitcases packed, for nine months to come. These Jews, members of the Bnei Menashe community, underwent conversion under the auspices of Israel's Rabbinate nine months ago. As Michael Freund related in Thursday's Post, the community's more than 7,000 members were recognized as "descendents of the Jewish people" by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar in March 2005.
One thousand community members, fully converted, are already living in Israel. All the rest, including the 218 who have completed the conversion process, want to come. But rather than helping to facilitate the aliya of the members of one of the 10 Lost Tribes who after nearly 2,800 years miraculously found their way back to their people, the government of Israel prefers to make a mockery of the rule of law.
Boim claims that he decided to violate the Law of Return and block the aliya of the 218, whose status as Jews is not in dispute, in order to consider how to best deal with the Bnei Menashe as a group. And how is the government now dealing with Bnei Menashe as a group? By freezing all of their conversion activities until further notice.
In a similar vein, today some 20,000 members of the Falash Mura community in Ethiopia are living in a refugee camp in Addis Ababa, waiting to make aliya. The conditions in their camp are reportedly unspeakable. These same Falash Mura have relatives in Israel who have been waiting for 15 years to be reunited with them.
In January 2005, the government decided to double the monthly quota of Falash Mura allowed to enter Israel, from 300 to 600. It then proceeded to do nothing. In September 2005, camp residents opened a hunger strike in hopes of forcing the government to implement its own decision, but to no avail.
Last month, the ministerial committee charged with handling the Falash Mura canceled the 2005 decision. Committee chairman Interior Minister Roni Bar-On justified the move by claiming that Israel lacked the money to bring them and that even if Israel had the funds, the Falash Mura would cause social problems once here.
No one seems to have thought of asking the Falash Mura whether they would prefer to come to Israel and forgo welfare assistance or remain in the camp in sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, Diaspora Jewry has already raised the money to bring 600 Falash Mura a month to Israel. The government simply refuses to use it.
Then there is the government's discriminatory policy towards New York's Yeshiva University. A year ago, it came to light that the government does not recognize bachelors degrees from YU. As a result, graduates of the Orthodox university's undergraduate program who live in Israel and work in government jobs are paid as if they only graduated from high school, even if they went on to receive advanced degrees and now work as heart surgeons in government hospitals.
A year ago, the Education Ministry promised to end this discriminatory practice. Yet the government has done nothing.
As Richard Joel, president of YU, put it to New York's Jewish Week, "On the one hand, Israel is saying we want everybody to make aliya and build the state, and on the other hand it is actively discouraging people from thinking that way by engaging in outrageous minutia. We all spend such energies encouraging people to make aliya, we can't have the State of Israel fighting us."
THE GOVERNMENT'S behavior indicates that it does not give a hoot about demography. But what about strengthening Israeli democracy? Is strengthening Israeli democracy an aim of the Olmert government?
Last month the government submitted to the Knesset a bill to change the sections of the criminal code relating to the crime of incitement. In the bill's explanatory notes, the government claims that there is a need to broaden the scope of the statute to "prevent the 'pollution' of the public debate." The government also claims that freedom of speech must be constricted "to prevent an atmosphere that threatens the members of society and its leaders [and so prevents] them from forming their views and expressing them freely."
Dr. Avi Bell, a constitutional law expert from Bar-Ilan University's Law School, explains that the explanatory note reveals the amendment's anti-liberal intentions. "Rather than adopting the liberal assumption that people should be free to do whatever they want unless there is a compelling reason for the government to abridge their freedom, it adopts the anti-liberal assumption that people are free only to do what the government permits them to do, and, in this case, the government should not permit them to speak in a way that produces a 'violent' and 'polluted' public discourse."
The same anti-liberal tendencies are evident in a bill the government pushed through a first reading in Knesset on Wednesday that would make it illegal to publish opinion polls in the three weeks leading up to national elections. Here too, the government's claim to champion democracy is undermined by its actions. Indeed, its actions empty the term "democracy" of all meaningful content.
The government's illiberal tendencies were similarly exposed by its decision this past month to restrict the freedom of movement of more than 20 citizens in Judea and Samaria. According to the Attorney General's Office, although none of these people have been indicted on any charges, they are all "dangerous."
All these citizens live and work in Judea and Samaria, and so the consequence of the restraining orders issued against them is that they are prohibited from living in their homes, seeing their families or going to their jobs. While the government does not have enough evidence to arrest any of these supposedly dangerous people for any crime, by issuing the restraining orders, the police are free to arrest them if they dare to enter their own homes.
No self-respecting liberal democracy would accept this sort of behavior, yet in Israel, the government justifies its trampling of democratic norms in the name of democracy.
An Israeli government that was interested in strengthening Israel's Jewish majority and its democratic system would be making use of the ample and readily available opportunities for doing both. Rather than doing so, the Olmert government is ignoring and indeed undermining these opportunities while, in the name of democracy and demographic stability, it is advancing a policy that will turn Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Netanya, Ra'anana, Kfar Saba, Afula, Hadera and Tiberias into frontline communities just like Sderot and Ashkelon.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.