One of the most striking aspects of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal initiative is how little time and energy he has spent explaining and selling his plan to the Israeli public. Both his tactical and strategic thinking remain largely hidden from view. The plan has become something of a tabula rasa upon which supporters across the political spectrum have attached their own explanations and justifications.
Sharon’s failure to sell his initiative is no mere detail; it is fundamental to understanding the true meaning of the plan. And what it reveals about the Prime Minister’s reading of Israeli society today should concern all of us, whether we support or oppose the Gaza withdrawal.
Above all, the Prime Minister is offering the Israeli public something new – change for change’s sake. To those grown weary of the never ending struggle with the Palestinians, to the young and old alike who cannot bear the thought of another fifty years of warfare, the Prime Minister seeks to offer hope for a different sort of future.
Speaking to a meeting of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency in June, the Prime Minister stressed this aspect of his initiative: "Above all, it gives the people of Israel hope for a better future. Do not underestimate the power of hope."
And indeed the Prime Minister is correct to worry about the collective psyche of the Jewish people living in Zion. A people without faith and hope in the future is a people whose future is hopeless. That is not a mere tautology, but rather an expression of the crucial role that such intangible factors as national mood play in the affairs of nations.
At the same time, hope for a utopian future cannot be allowed to obscure very real progress. Sharon is reported to have told his cabinet ministers, "I’ve been on the job fore three and a half years, and I haven’t done a thing to change the situation. "True, he has not made out of the Palestinians a partner for peace. Only the Palestinians can do that. Since the Seder Night Massacre in Netanya two years ago, however, Sharon has significantly reduced the Palestinian terror and done away with the feeling that we are a helpless punching bag, endlessly absorbing blows without the ability to respond.
In addition, Sharon must be given credit for helping the Americans, with varying degrees of clarity, come to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a subplot of the larger battle between Islamic fanaticism and the West. The first signs that Palestinians are beginning to look to their own leaders, and not just Israel, as responsible for their suffering also owes in part to Sharon’s refusal to dance to Arafat’s tune.
Israel has never known peace since its birth, except perhaps for the brief period of euphoria between 1967 and 1973. And the latter period turned out to be a Fool’s Paradise. What is different today – indeed for the last decade and a half – is that most Israeli Jews are no longer confident that what is being built justifies the price.
Those doubts give rise to despair. Shinui leader Tommy Lapid captured this mood perfectly when he offered his principal justification for the Gaza withdrawal plan: "Things can’t go on this way."
Throughout Jewish history despair has too frequently given rise to messianic fantasies. We have been down this road before. Not just at the time of Shabbetai Tzvi, who followed in the wake of the Chmelnicki pogroms, but as recently as the Oslo Accords, little more than a decade ago. Then too, after the first intifada, the Israeli public was willing, even eager, to try anything, new and hope for the best.
We convinced ourselves that the arch-terrorist Yasir Arafat would become our defender from Palestinian terrorism. And we studiously ignored all the evidence that Arafat had neither renounced his dream of a Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean nor prepared his own people to give up that dream.
Then too we armed and trained Palestinian security forces, only to have those forces train their rifles on us during the riots that followed the opening of the Temple Mount tunnel. Under Clause 5 of the Withdrawal Plan, Israel once again undertakes to provide military training to Palestinian security forces, and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has announced that Palestinian security forces will once again be allowed to bear arms. Shlomo Miller, the Itamar security guard killed Sunday by a Palestinian policeman, is the first casualty of that new dispensation.
The gaping chasm between the flimsiness of the justifications for the Gaza withdrawal and the enthusiastic hopes pinned on the initiative by the majority of the public suggest that we are reentering a period of messianic delusion.
At the very least, we would expect proponents of the plan to answer one fundamental question: What happens if after the withdrawal, Kassams, or even deadlier missiles, continue to rain down on Israel and the IDF is forced to reoccupy the Gaza Strip. What will we have to show for the withdrawal other than having destroyed nearly twenty thriving and vibrant communities, built from the sand dunes over nearly four decades, and having uprooted nearly 10,000 Jews from their homes.
Nor is the fear of worsening attacks from Gaza merely theoretical. As Evelyn Gordon points out, since the announcement of the Gaza withdrawal plan, terrorist activity from Gaza has spiked. Thirty Kassams landed in Israel in July, as opposed to 6.6 per month over the previous 45 months.
Proponents of the Gaza plan raise very serious concerns. Where they have failed, however, is to show how the plan will solve any of those concerns. On the security front, the most that is claimed for the plan is that the IDF will save the money currently expended defending Gaza Strip settlers and those in isolated West Bank outposts. Prime Minister Sharon has specifically silenced the IDF in cabinet meetings on the grounds that the plan is diplomatic, not security, in nature.
It is theoretically possible that long-range diplomatic understandings with the United States could justify short-term security damage. The evidence mounts, however, that Sharon has received no bankable commitments from the current American administration (and certainly not from any future administration.) The hue and cry raised recently by the United States over 600 new housing units in Maaleh Adumim, a Jerusalem suburb that virtually every Israeli agrees will remain within Israel in any imaginable settlement with the Palestinians, raises serious questions about just what kind of adjustments of the 1949 Armistice Lines the United States has recognized as inevitable.
Tommy Lapid and others rightly worry about Israel becoming a pariah state much like South Africa once was. But he is crazy if he thinks that the Gaza withdrawal will dramatically improve Israel’s diplomatic situation. The reasons that Israel is so unfairly singled out for international calumny are many, but they have little to do with the rights and wrongs of the situation.
The European reaction to the initiative has been mostly a yawn followed by calls for a return to the Roadmap. At most, Europe views withdrawal as a first step towards a Palestinian state on all land captured in 1967. One presumes that Prime Minister Sharon has something different in mind.
Others worry about the effect on our collective soul of ruling at gunpoint over a people that hate us. And they are right to do so. But as long the Palestinians continue to hate us and seek all of our land, the only alternative to doing so is to pull up stakes and depart. Again the withdrawal plan will have achieved nothing on this score, if a barrage of missiles from the Gaza Strip forces the IDF to reoccupy the Strip.
The most often cited reason for the withdrawal is demographic: Within a few years, there will be more Palestinians than Jews between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. That is true. But it will be true regardless of whether Israel withdraws from Gaza or not. Palestinian calls for a one-state solution will not abate just because Israel is no longer in the Gaza Strip. (Nor, incidentally, does withdrawal offer respite from the far greater demographic threat of a hostile Arab minority in Israel constituting 30-40% of the Israeli population within a generation.)
The vast majority of Israelis have long shown a complete willingness to allow the Palestinians complete autonomy to run their own lives, and even to their own state, provided only that state does not become a center for terrorism against Israel. The Palestinians have shown no interest in such a state. Until they do, Israel is left with the unpleasant and soul threatening task of doing what needs to be done to protect its own citizens. Withdrawal from Gaza does nothing to change that calculus.
The Gaza settlers, who will bear the heaviest price of the withdrawal, deserve an answer to the fundamental question: What will be gained if Israel has to eventually reoccupy the Gaza Strip? Until that answer is provided, we are still in the realm of dangerous messianic delusions.