But he cannot stop. He must continue. Slowly his luck changes. The heap in front of him is getting steadily smaller. He can still leave and avoid disaster. But he is a compulsive gambler. He must go on, until the last jeton is swept up by the croupier, together with all his earthly possessions.
In the novel, the man gets up and totters out. In the casino garden he draws a pistol and blows his brains out.
I used this metaphor in an article years ago, when describing the danger inherent in the settlement policy. I remembered it again just lately, when reading a right-wing commentator, one of those that opposed the Gaza withdrawal. He prophesied that, after this one, more withdrawals will take place. We shall withdraw and withdraw, he warned, and when we reach the Green Line we shall not be able to stop anymore. The very existence of the state will be in danger.
This has happened before in the history of this country. Many years before Osama Bin-Laden coined the slogan "Crusaders and Zionists", I wrote a series of articles with this title. I pointed to the many similarities between the Crusades and the Zionist enterprise. I did not intend - God forbid - to say that our fate would be like that of the Crusaders, but I wanted to warn against a repetition of their mistakes.
After the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, in the year 1099, they continued to enlarge their dominions. At the height of their power, the Crusader kingdoms extended from Rafah in the south to today's Turkey in the north. They established themselves on the east side of the Jordan, too. After some 50 years, they also succeeded in capturing the Gaza Strip, including Asqalon, from the Muslims.
And then, slowly, the wheel turned. Instead of expanding more and more, the Crusaders' Kingdom of Jerusalem started to contract. Fortress after fortress fell into the hands of the Muslims, until the legendary Kurdish warrior, Saladin (Salah ad-Din) routed the Crusaders near Tiberias in the year 1187. The whole country fell into his hands, except Acre - which held on and enabled the Crusaders to regain their control over most of the country. But in 1291 Acre fell too, and the last of the Crusaders were - literally - thrown into the sea.
Of course, there is a huge difference between that period and ours. But every Arab child learns this history and compares us with them. It was the opinion of one of the greatest experts on the history of the Crusades, the late Steven Runciman, that the Crusaders missed the opportunity to conciliate the Muslim world and make peace when they were at the height of their power, and so condemned themselves to annihilation as the wheel turned.
This week I had the opportunity to have a debate with one of the leaders of the settlers in front of an audience of high school students, aged 16 or 17. It was a rare opportunity, because the nationalist Ministry of Education generally uses its fearful power to prevent people like me from being invited to school debates. After a shower of the settler's demagogic phrases - "Jewish blood", "All Arabs are animals", "Mahmoud Abbas is a bastard like Arafat", "The Arabs understand only force" - I conveyed a simple message: Let's make peace while we are strong.
Instead, we are doing the opposite. The withdrawal from Gaza, which could have been a major step towards peace, was carried out without speaking with the Palestinians, without an agreement, almost as an act of war. Ariel Sharon has turned "unilateralism" into a principle, almost an ideology. The result was not late in coming: Only two weeks after the withdrawal, a new cycle of violence has started - arrests, mortar shells, targeted assassinations, Qassam missiles, Air Force and now artillery bombardments.
There is no doubt at all that Israel will withdraw further, irrespective of which party or which leader is in power. The historical circumstances that compelled us to withdraw from Gaza apply to the West Bank, too. The demographic considerations oblige a Zionist Israel to get out of densely populated Palestinian areas. American interests demand the promotion of Palestinian democracy in the framework of "Two States for Two Peoples". The international community is fed up with the endless conflict and demands a solution. And, last but not least, the Israeli public itself is tired of the war and is longing for a normal life in peace. The settlers are unpopular, and their hold on the public is weakening. This was proved in Gush Katif as well as in the Likud Central Committee.
Sharon knows this, and he is prepared to evacuate the settlements that are dispersed in the heart of the Palestinian territories, hoping to hold on to the large settlement blocs. But he intends to avoid negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. He knows that in such a dialogue he will be compelled to give up most or all of the settlement blocs. That's why he insists on "unilateral" steps.
This is a very dangerous policy for Israel. The Palestinian outburst of joy that took place in Gaza after the withdrawal reflects the belief that this is a triumph of the Palestinian resistance. The Palestinians are convinced that Israel has fled in face of the Palestinian heroes who sacrificed their lives for their people, the suicide bombers and the fighters who shoot the mortar shells and the Qassams, much as they had fled five years ago in the face of the Shiite guerillas in the south of Lebanon. "Israel understands only the language of force".
Every further "unilateral" withdrawal by Israel will reinforce this belief. This way we shall reach the Green Line not in the framework of "Land for Peace", but in a war situation. Israel itself will fulfill the dark prophesy that has been draping us in its shadow for many years: that the Palestinians adhere to a "strategy of stages". Meaning: every withdrawal is but a stage leading to the next one. Israel will resemble a salami sausage that is cut slice after slice. Salami instead of Salaam.
The "unilateral" process is a March of Folly. We shall pay the full price of peace, without achieving peace. But there is a simple alternative: to enter negotiations with the Palestinian leadership now, in order to fix the final border between Israel and Palestine, make peace and enable the two peoples to enjoy its fruits immediately, so that they will be interested in keeping it. This is possible, and all the experts in the country and throughout the world know it well.
Time is not working in our favor. In the school debate I told the students that we are now at the height of our power. We have a vast technological, economic and military superiority. The sole super-power in the world is our close ally. The Arab world is split, its countries are governed by corrupt and inefficient regimes that do not give a damn for the Palestinians. Most of the Palestinian people want peace, exactly like most of the Israelis. After 120 years of conflict, reconciliation is still possible.
But, I added, power does not last forever. The Arab peoples will progress. The balance of power will start to change. The nuclear bomb will become common property in our region. The United States will cease to be the only super-power, China and India will start to compete. In the Arab world, a fundamentalist Islamic revolution may take place, eliminating the corrupt regimes and uniting the region around us. The Palestinian people may also adopt a fundamentalist Islamic regime. Will it be easier to achieve peace then?
"I don't want to frighten you. Fear is never a good advisor. But I beg you to consider the importance of this moment: we are strong, we can act with self-confidence and sober calculation, we have something to give to this region, the Palestinian people are ready for peace. Up to now we have had incredible luck. Let's stop gambling with the future of our state."
The Gaza withdrawal has taught us just how dangerous the "unilateral" approach is. We have evacuated territory, uprooted settlements, and not come one step nearer to peace.
Even the most outstanding genius has not yet invented a unilateral peace. Peace is a tango - it takes two to perform. Two who respect each other.
That is what it's all about.