The Gap is planning to open its first two stores in Israel, one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv. And this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine included a full-page color ad highlighting a family in Israel that has, for several generations, championed the sport of surfing in Israeli waters.

For better or worse, Israel wants to be a “normal” country. That she is succeeding is beyond doubt. Israel’s economy is relatively strong at a time when markets around the world are collapsing; she continues to make great strides in science, technology, and the arts; and her universities draw leading scholars from around the world.

The ongoing dispute in the west bank – with settlers challenging the government’s right to make decisions for the entire country – threatens that normality. Indeed, it threatens the very existence of the Jewish state. (See pages 28-31.)

Given the sensitivity over the status of Hebron, it is not surprising that tempers are running high. But the American Jewish Congress – which has called on Israelis to rally firmly behind the rule of law and the democratic process – has it right when it says that “honorable people can disagree, and vigorous debate does not threaten the fabric of a democratic society.” Even more, “It would be a tragic irony if actions motivated by Zionist attachment to the land of Israel undermine the great achievement of the Zionist movement – the creation and the sustaining under great pressure of a democratic state based on the rule of law.”

Let us make no mistake: This threat to Israel’s security is as great as that posed by an outside force. The fact that Israel is a democracy is what makes her unique among Middle Eastern nations, drawing the support and respect (if sometimes lukewarm) of democracies in the West.

The Israeli government says it fears that unchecked settler violence could, according to JTA’s analyst, “spark a new Palestinian intifada, enrage the Muslim world, and compromise Israel’s international standing.”

The settler rampage raises moral issues as well.

Take a look at the photo on page 29. An Israeli soldier is guarding a grave that has been desecrated – but not in your garden-variety vandalism against Jews. The tombstone is a Palestinian’s, and the symbol spray-painted on it is a star of David.

That is a desecration, all right – a desecration of the symbol, of our principles, and of our honor. How dare that undiscovered vandal besmirch not only a tombstone but the Jewish people?

All of us know that Palestinians have perpetrated attacks against Israelis – particularly from Gaza, against Sderot. But while we wholeheartedly condemn those, we must also condemn unacceptable behavior by Jews, and we are proud of Israel and of many U.S. Jewish groups for lining up against it.

This honorable stand is in sharp contrast – and a lesson – to the Muslim world, which scarcely voices an objection when Koran-quoting terrorists attack Jews. (Actually, some – although very few – voices are being raised; see http://www.rediff.com/news/2008/dec/04mumterror-absolute-perversion-of-islam.htm.)

Some, but not all, of the settlers seem to have emotionally, at least, separated from Israel. Do they want to secede? Should there be a Kingdom of Judea, as has been suggested? Who would defend it?

Cooler heads need to prevail. So it is not helpful that the Likud Party chose hard-liners – in particular, far-right candidate Moshe Feiglin – over more moderate candidates for its Knesset list. (See Josh Lipowsky’s blog on jstandard.org.)

Let us hope the overwhelming majority of settlers – who have not joined in the violence – will be able to control the extremists among them.

L.G., RKB