I’m just back from a brief post-election sojourn in the alte heim, and the mood there is not encouraging. The clear victory for President Bush did nothing to provide closure to an election campaign notable chiefly for its invective. Only the innate stupidity and bigotry of the American electorate could explain Bush’s victory, his opponents proclaim in defeat.
Two days after the election, two separate columnists on the New York Times op-ed page, linked the President and evangelical Christians to jihadists. The President is bent on jihad in America, charged the Times’ resident hysteric Maureen Dowd, so that he can wage it in Iraq. And historian Garry Wills opined that the United States has more in common with its putative enemies in the Moslem world than with the enlightened nations of Europe: "Where else do we find fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear and hatred of modernity." Wills too accused Bush of perpetrating jihad: "They [i.e., the Europeans] fear jihad no matter whose zeal is being expressed."
But my immediate concern is not with bitter divisions in my native land, but with those in Israel over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan. Israel faces an epochal decision over the Gaza withdrawal, and it is both expected and proper that the public debate should be intense. Indeed the most worrisome thing about the debate so far has been how little effort the Prime Minister has devoted to explaining why unilateral withdrawal will increase Israeli security. The fact that almost every poll nevertheless shows that a majority of Israelis support the plan, despite having little understanding of how it will work, suggests that we have not completely rid ourselves of the messianic urge to grasp at any straw that seems to offer a way out of the current impasse. Precisely such an urge led to Oslo in the first place.
Yet the truth is that both sides in the Gaza withdrawal debate not only have arguments, but compelling ones. Determining the proper course depends on an assessment of the risks of acting against those of not acting. But risks there are on both sides. That explains why numbered among the supporters of the plan are many whose security credentials cannot be doubted, beginning with the Prime Minister himself. It is crucial that both sides of the debate acknowledge the force of the other side’s position and not demonize their opponents.
At first glance, it would seem that the burden of proof should be on the proponents of the Gaza withdrawal plan. The one certainty if the plan is implemented is that over 8,000 long-time Jewish residents of the Gaza will be uprooted from their homes. And if six months later, Israel finds itself subject to a constant barrage of Palestinian missile fire and has to retake Gaza, they will certainly be entitled to ask, "What did we gain that could possibly justify uprooting not just my home but my entire life?"
That Israel might have to reconquer Gaza shortly after leaving it is hardly far-fetched. Prime Minister Sharon evidently thought that the diplomatic gains from withdrawal outweighed even the security risk of transferring responsibility for patrolling the Philadelphia Corridor separating Gaza from Egypt, and through which the Palestinians have continuously sought to smuggle arms via underground tunnels, to Egyptian control. Only the objections of the IDF forced him to backtrack on that score.
Eventually, however, there will be pressure on Israel to give up its security envelope around Gaza, and if that happens, there will almost certainly be Palestinian groups who will seize the opportunity to smuggle in more sophisticated arms, like those found on the Karine-A, and more of them. And they could train their new missiles not on sleepy Sderot but on Ashdod, one of Israel’s major ports, and thereby disrupt shipping to Israel or render it economically prohibitive.
Nor would returning to Gaza necessarily be easy. Should the Palestinians succeed in internationalizing the conflict by bringing in large contingents of Europeans to oversee the training of their security services or the rebuilding of their economy, then Israeli military activity could result in the deaths of Europeans, with all the attendant diplomatic fallout.
All agree that withdrawal from Gaza will be construed by Palestinian terrorist groups as proof of the efficacy of their tactics, just as the withdrawal from Lebanon is widely seen as having given rise to the last four years of Palestinian warfare. Sharon, unlike his predecessor, who slunk out of Lebanon in the middle of the night, can be counted on to look for any pretext to leave Gaza with guns blazing. But the Palestinians will also strive to spin the withdrawal their way. Indeed they are already busy doing so. In the three years prior to announcement of the withdrawal an average of 6 Kassems were launched against Israel per month. Last July, 300 fell on Israel.
GIVEN ALL THESE RISKS, what could Sharon possibly have in mind? The answer is probably close to the formulation of Hillel Halkin: We can’t live with the Palestinians, especially after an entire generation has been raised since Oslo to see its highest calling in life as the murder of as many Jews as possible; we can’t swallow them; so we must separate ourselves from them.
The great fear of Israeli policymakers, after Iranian nuclear weapons, is that Israel will attain pariah status in the world and face the same type of sanctions that South Africa once confronted. That is what is meant by the demographic threat. As long as Israel maintains control over all the territory from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, even as the total population in that area tips more and more to the Palestinian side, the claim that Israel is an apartheid state will be heard increasingly. At the same time, a large percentage of Israeli Jews, perhaps a majority, while willing to fight in Palestinian cities to extirpate the terrorist infrastructure, want no ongoing contact with the Palestinians.
That being the case, Sharon seeks to separate from the Palestinians on the most favorable conditions possible. And in his mind, there has never been so propitious a moment as the present, with the most favorably disposed administration in Washington D.C. that Israel is ever likely to encounter. Moreover, Sharon realizes that if he cannot push forward the disengagement there is no one else on the horizon who has the credibility with the soft Right to do so. So it is now or never.
The degree of attention that Sharon devoted to determining the route of the security fence, Halkin argues, demonstrates that he sees the line of the fence as a long-term border. (Here Sharon may not have taken adequate account of the Israeli Supreme Court, which has arrogated to itself the authority to draw a course for the security fence more to its taste.) Sharon’s goal is to maintain the Jordan Valley settlements, which he has always viewed as vital from a security point of view, and the large settlement blocs. And there is evidence that the Bush administration is not unsympathetic to this design. Sharon surely noted that the Blair-Bush summit ended with the President pushing the goal for a Palestinian state four years further into the future.
No matter what happens after withdrawal, Israel is unlikely to earn any diplomatic credit in Europe. For the Europeans, the Gaza withdrawal is, at best, nothing more than a first step to the ultimate goal of a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines. But that is not the case for the Americans. If the Palestinians show themselves incapable of establishing a functioning government in Gaza, and a civil war between rival Palestinian warlords breaks out, or they fail to stop terrorist attacks on Israel from Gaza, the Americans can likely be persuaded that the Palestinians have shown themselves unworthy of statehood any time in the near future. In that case, Israel would have much to show for the withdrawal, even if it has to reoccupy Gaza six months after leaving.
In short, Sharon has embarked on a course fraught with many risks. But it is untrue to say that he has no plan or any idea of where he is going. Israel will be well-served if both sides of the debate confine themselves to an analysis of the risks involved, and keep name calling and the attribution of nefarious motives to the other side of the debate to a minimum.