JERUSALEM, July 26 (JTA) Ami Ayalon is on a journey. A former head of Israel’s navy and its Shin Bet security service, Ayalon on Sunday addressed a convoy of a few hundred Israelis kibbutz youth, former security officers, politicians and others before leading them on a weeklong trip across Israel to spread their slogan, “Leaving GazaReturning to Zionism.” The convoy began in a mall parking lot near Tel Aviv, made its way north to Kiryat Shmona and was scheduled to end Friday at Jerusalem’s crowded Mahane Yehuda outdoor market. Along the way, the “Blue and White Voyage” will stop in cities and towns where Ayalon and associates will meet with passersby and try to drum up support for Israel’s planned withdrawal next month from the Gaza Strip. Ayalon said the journey is one of the most important missions he ever has undertaken. “What’s at stake today in Israel is the future of this country as a Jewish and democratic state the future of Zionism itself,” Ayalon told JTA. “The viability of Israel depends on a Jewish majority living in a land with clear and secure borders. The disengagement from Gaza is a vital step toward achieving this vision.” Withdrawal from Gaza ultimately will put Israel in a position of greater strength, he said. “It’s not just a question of stronger borders although the borders will be stronger and more defensible. The issue is who are we as a nation and where are we headed. If we don’t take concrete steps to preserve the Jewish and democratic nature of the state, then eventually we’ll have nothing left to defend.” Ayalon was joined by the mayors of towns from Haifa to Yeroham, the leaders of various political organizations, as well as former Israeli Defense Forces generals. “The security analysis says that we cannot afford, in the long run, to have our soldiers protecting a few thousand settlers in Gaza,” said Gen. Danny Rothchild, president of the Council for Peace and Security, an organization of former security officers committed to influencing Israeli security policy. “The fact is that we can much better deal with the security issue when we are outside than when we are inside Gaza. The P.A. will be able to deal with their radicals without looking like collaborators,” he said, referring to the Palestinian Authority. “And in the end, neutralizing Hamas is very much in their own interest.” A major motivation for the cross-country voyage, Ayalon told JTA, is to do what he says Israel’s leaders have failed to do: explain and defend the rationale of disengagement from the Palestinians to Israeli citizens. “The leadership in this country has not explained the ‘why,’ nor have they given a clear idea of what the ultimate vision is,” Ayalon claimed. “Our government sent the settlers out there; the least they could do is explain to them and to the nation why it’s crucial that we bring them back.” The Blue and White Voyage is not Ayalon’s first foray into populist politics. Recently, Avalon who also is trying to get involved in parliamentary politics through the Labor Party took on a joint project with Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University, the Arab university in Jerusalem, to collect signatures from Israelis and Palestinians supporting broad principles for a resolution of the conflict between the two sides. For some, the Blue and White Voyage is an opportunity to counter the images of orange-clad protesters who oppose the withdrawal plan. Dressed in blue the color adopted by the pro-withdrawal camp Yoni Barnea, a high school senior from Haifa, said Avalon’s venture was long overdue. “Orange is a loud color, and the anti-disengagement people are a passionate and well-organized bunch,” he said. “But I believe that they are a misguided minority. Most of us want this. We just haven’t done a good job of making ourselves seen and heard. It’s up to the youth.” In a short speech , Ayalon said it was appropriate to begin the voyage Sunday the 17th of Tammuz because it traditionally is a day of reflection and fasting, marking the day the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Shortly after beginning his trip, Ayalon walked into a McDonald’s to spread his message. “It’s important to meet people where they are,” he said. Though many of the participants in the cross-country trip are secular, a contingent from the Movement for Realistic Religious Zionism joined the group. A Jerusalem resident, Itai Gorov, wandered into the fray by accident. A religious Jew who hadn’t heard of either the Movement for Realistic Religious Zionism or the Blue and White Voyage, Gorov was intrigued. “A lot of people I know are against the disengagement on religious grounds,” he said. “But I’m in favor of it on religious grounds. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone.” The last stop for the convoy will be Jerusalem, where many residents oppose the withdrawal plan. Ayalon and company said they’re looking forward to taking their message directly into the heart of the opposition. “Our mission here is discussions, not demonstrations. If, as a country, we can’t have a real debate on the issues that affect our future, then we are already lost.”
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