TCS Daily

Disengagement Party

By Michael Rosen - November 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Many Israelis kept an eye carefully trained on Tuesday's election and President Bush's victory. But most people in Israel are paying far more attention to a vote taken one week earlier -- namely, the dramatic decision of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to withdraw from the Gaza Strip unilaterally.

This difficult and highly controversial plan is spearheaded by Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, leader of the right-leaning Likud Party, and longtime hawkish advocate of Jewish settlement in lands won by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

While the "disengagement" scheme has properly attracted withering scrutiny, while it may appear to reward or invite terrorism, and while it offers little reason for idealism or hope, it is nevertheless the least bad and most prudent course for the Jewish state to chart. Coupled with the opportunity presented by the demise of Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Yasser Arafat, and bolstered by the added security provided by the separation fence that is nearing completion, disengagement could even spark a renewed push for stabilizing the conflict.

To begin with, Israel is a society in political and economic recovery. Scarred by four years of relentless Islamist terrorism, the Jewish state is only now beginning to get back on its feet. Entrances to coffee shops, restaurants, and buses are manned by security guards armed with metal detectors and more. Automobile and bag searches at the airport and at shopping malls are so thorough they would make Transportation Security Administration screeners blush. Mobile police sub-stations dot the urban landscape, providing at once a sense of security as well as a reminder of that which citizens are being secured from.

But at the same time, commerce is flourishing, construction is booming, and impressive infrastructural projects are underway. Israelis are nothing if not resilient and their mettle shines through the extra precautions that have by now become routine.

On the military front as well, Israel has turned a corner in its war on Palestinian terrorism. Suicide bombings have decreased markedly in 2004 and a recent campaign targeting militants has decimated the leadership of Hamas. At the same time, Israel's victory over the intifada has coincided with near abandonment of support for the Jewish state from Europe, the United Nations, and the global left in general. The United States remains the single friend that has stood by Israel during its struggle.

And it is for these reasons that Sharon launched his disengagement initiative -- both to press Israel's advantages and to revive its flagging support.

Under the plan, Israel would remove from the Gaza Strip and from portions of the northern West Bank the entire Jewish presence currently there, including towns, people, and military bases. Israel would receive no guarantees or promises of any sort from the Palestinians but would reserve the "inalienable right" to act in self-defense. The Jewish state would no longer control the 1.3 million Palestinians living in Gaza but it would have to compensate some 8,000 Jewish settlers who would be uprooted from their homes.

From its unveiling, the withdrawal scheme has met with a barrage of criticisms. Placards, flags, and bumper stickers adorn cars in Jerusalem declaring that Sharon is tearing the nation apart. First and foremost, critics have charged, pulling out of Gaza rewards the terrorists for forcing the issue and invites further attacks. Indeed, Hamas has already claimed credit for forcing the Zionists to evacuate Muslim land. Opponents point to Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 where Hizballah -- among international terror groups, number two only to Al Qaeda -- has consolidated control. There is even evidence that the Lebanese pullback inspired the Al Aqsa intifada which began later that year.

Yet, as supporters of disengagement argue, the fundamental difference now is that Israel will be acting from a position of strength and will not be withdrawing under fire. Sharon has vowed to complete the pullback only when quiet prevails in Gaza and he has accompanied his political maneuvering with a ferocious onslaught against the Gazan Islamists. Many on the left have even scolded Sharon for imposing unrealistic constraints on the withdrawal. In short, after defeating the terrorists resoundingly, this is perhaps the only opportunity where disengagement cannot reasonably be seen as facilitating terror.

Critics also assert that withdrawal sets a terrible precedent and unjustly punishes Jewish residents of Gaza whose "settling of the land" the government -- both Likud and left-leaning Labor -- warmly encouraged. As one friend put it, if Israel concludes that protecting 8,000 Jews in a sea of 1.3 million Arabs is unrealistic, how long before the world says the same thing about Israel's 5 million Jews living among 400 million Muslims?

But the case of Gaza is fairly exceptional as, under any form of Israeli-Arab agreement, the area would almost certainly fall under Palestinian control. Partition of the region, which is about 25 miles long and five miles wide, cannot be effected since the Jewish settlements are enmeshed in Palestinian population centers. The cost of defending the Jewish areas, both in terms of money and manpower, has proven prohibitive, more so by far than anywhere else in the country.

Furthermore, if anything, Sharon has designed this pullback to forestall, not to inspire, further withdrawals. As Sharon stated on the floor of the Knesset, "if we do not want to be pushed back to the 1967 lines, the territory should be divided." In other words, if Israel wants to avoid the pitfalls of withdrawal to the indefensible borders that prevailed before the Six Day War -- as well as absorbing millions of Palestinian "refugees" and dividing control over Jerusalem, as contemplated by the European Union and the United Nations -- the Jewish state must pro-actively divide the lands conquered in 1967 on its own terms. To be sure, this will involve painful sacrifices; the settlers who will be forced from their homes must be compensated fairly and generously.

Opponents of the plan also contend that disengagement represents an empty farce because Israel will quickly find itself taking action in Gaza, especially as the Islamists continue to smuggle weapons and explosives through tunnels from Egypt and to fire Qassam rockets into pre-1967 Israel. But Egypt, which will coordinate closely with Israel during the disengagement, will have every reason to shut down the tunnels once and for all. And if Israel does have to reassert itself to stop missile attacks, its actions will earn far less global criticism than they do today.

A final criticism comes from religious authorities who have argued that turning over control of the Land of Israel to enemies of the Jewish people contravenes Jewish law. Leaving aside the accuracy of this interpretation of history and religion (according to most historians, the ancient Israelites never exerted control over Gaza, an area that instead was inhabited by gentile nations like the Philistines), this argument, while sincere and deeply felt, cannot form the basis of coherent policy in a democratic state. Sharon has made this clear to the settlers and the rabbis -- groups he once nurtured and inspired.

Yet the most telling counter-argument to disengagement's critics is simply that they have yet to propose a workable alternative. Simply doing nothing carries serious risks; while Israel's military vanquishing of the intifada has been impressive, the Jewish state has suffered a diminution in global support.

Of course, this alone can be written off to the cravenness of the EU's foreign policy and the moral bankruptcy of the UN General Assembly. But support from the United States has been critical and the U.S. has strongly pushed disengagement as a quid pro quo for the nearly unqualified friendship it has provided Israel over the past few years. In his second administration, President Bush may well step up efforts to stabilize the conflict.

Moreover, the Palestinian population continues to multiply at a rate that far outstrips Israel's. By excising Gaza from the equation, Israel will put itself in a far better demographic position in the long-run.

Sharon's disengagement plan is of a piece with the separation fence, which cuts into the West Bank and consolidates the Jewish presence in the area while securing that population from terror attacks. The overarching idea is to separate Israelis and Palestinians with an eye toward stabilizing the situation before beginning long-term negotiations.

This idea could be furthered by the long-awaited emergence of new leadership in the PA. With Yasser Arafat dead or nearing death, a moderate successor may take the reins, someone like Mahmoud Abbas or Ahmed Qureia -- both of whom have publicly clashed with Arafat. A pragmatic Palestinian leadership may be receptive to the basic idea of disengagement because it bestows benefits on both peoples.

Still, carrying out disengagement will not be easy. Although the plan scored a 67-45 victory in the Knesset, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce rival of Sharon's within Likud, has threatened to resign his post if Sharon does not submit the scheme to a popular referendum. Losing Netanyahu could cripple Sharon's coalition (it would also spell disaster for the economy which the MIT-educated Netanyahu has worked to deregulate and privatize with great skill) but it could also open the door to a unity government with Labor.

In addition, several prominent rabbis issued a legal ruling forbidding religious soldiers from evacuating Jewish settlements. Not to be outdone, another group of rabbis countered that while they disagreed with the disengagement plan, an army in which soldiers could pick and choose their battles, so to speak, would be entirely unworkable.

In any event, formidable challenges confront the withdrawal plan. The scheme itself is a disappointing bow to realism and a terrible upheaval for thousands of men, women, and children. But one Israeli I spoke with said she's eagerly awaiting "peace and quiet, but only a real peace and quiet." Until anything better comes along, disengagement is probably the best way to ensure genuine stability.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, is an attorney in San Diego.


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