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What’s in a Word? for Backers or Opponents of Disengagement, a Lot

A lot of people aren’t happy with disengagement — the word, that is. What a speaker uses to describe the Israeli government’s plan to leave the Gaza Strip this summer — in Hebrew, “hitnatkut” — says a lot about what he or she believes it means.

Israel formally describes the plan as “disengagement, with a willingness to coordinate elements with the Palestinians,” an Israeli official said.

“There are issues of perception, whether Israel is doing it for its own interests, or whether it is retreating under terrorism,” the official said.

“Disengagement” suggests that Israel is controlling the event, the official said, while the other terms — withdrawal, pull-out and especially evacuation, referring to the 9,000 settlers who must leave their homes — could suggest a departure under fire.

“We’re not going to play into that,” the official said.

U.S. officials, including President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, also prefer “disengagement,” bolstering Sharon as the plan incurs blistering opposition from settlers and hawks at home.

For Palestinians, an opposite set of considerations apply. Palestinian Authority officials prefer “withdrawal” or “evacuation” to avoid letting Israel spin the move as it wants.

That’s because the full plan, as outlined in Israeli Cabinet documents, includes the West Bank security barrier and plans to expand some West Bank settlements, all part of the process of “disengaging” from the Palestinians.

Using “disengagement” might mean endorsing such plans, Zeinah Salahi, a Palestinian negotiator, said during a U.S. tour last month.

“The disengagement plan refers explicitly to continued construction of the wall and the strengthening of the settlements,” she said. “Obviously, those are two things the Palestinians don’t support. We’re willing to coordinate, but only the evacuation process, the withdrawal from the settlements.”

That’s also why Americans for Peace Now prefers “settlement evacuation,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director for the dovish, pro-Israel group.

“If you read the proposal as it was approved by the Cabinet, you see that it does include a deepening of the fence and Israel’s presence in the West Bank,” Roth said. “Peace Now is focused on the part of the plan we like, the settlement evacuation. Once that’s complete we will continue to take issue with parts of the proposal we don’t like.”

The APN’s ideological opposite, the Zionist Organization of America, shares its preference for “evacuation” — in the ZOA’s case, because it keeps the focus on settlers who will have to leave their homes against their will.

“They’re forcibly throwing Jews out of their homes,” ZOA president Morton Klein said. “It’s a euphemism to try to hide the truth of the forced removal of people from their homes of over a generation.”

Some major Jewish groups stick to “disengagement.” They understand the sensitivities, they say, but as long as the term has a U.S. and Israeli stamp of approval, there’s no reason to break ranks.

Some who choose alternatives to “disengagement” simply want to avoid a cumbersome word that, without plenty of additional context, is a fairly meaningless bit of jargon.

“I don’t think ‘withdrawal’ connotes leaving under fire, it just connotes withdrawal,” said M.J. Rosenberg, the Israel Policy Forum policy director who prefers that word in the analysis he sends each week to legislators and opinion makers. “People have talked about pros and cons of ‘withdrawal’ for 35 years. It’s the most neutral term.”

Then again, he may just want to disengage from the discussion.

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