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Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 520     12-26 Tammuz 5764 / 1-15 July 2004

ISRAELI DISENGAGEMENT, U.S. RE-ENGAGEMENT

Zalman Shoval



  • A modus vivendi that could give both Palestinians and Israelis an opportunity to start going their separate ways in relative normalcy may result from Israel's disengagement plan, while real, contractual peace will perhaps come only after a generational change.

  • More than a few Israelis are wondering whether the Bush vision of a "democratic, viable Palestinian state" living in peace alongside Israel isn't a bit too visionary, considering there is not a single other Arab state in the region to which these characteristics would apply.

  • There is a danger that unilateral withdrawals would create on the Palestinian side a false sense of having gained an advantage over Israel as a result of their four-year terror campaign. Israel and the U.S. will have to disabuse them of the notion that increased terror begets increased political or economic benefits.

  • From Israel's point of view, having a real "peace partner" means a Palestinian leadership willing and able to effectively give up the option and practice of terror and violence, dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, stop anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement in the media and in the schools, ideologically accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and accept UN Security Council Resolution 242 as the basis for negotiations.

  • The main justification in the eyes of many of the supporters of the Gaza withdrawal plan was assuring America's official backing for Israel's positions in at least part of the West Bank, most of which coincide with those "already existing major Israeli population centers" mentioned in the Bush letter. Without such American backing, there probably wouldn't have been a disengagement plan in the first place.

  • Most of the real social, political, and economic problems in the Middle East have nothing to do with the Palestinian problem. As Mohammed Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hizballah, said: "The failed Arab regimes survive thanks partly to the excuse of the Arab-Israeli conflict."



A modus vivendi that could give both Palestinians and Israelis an opportunity to start going their separate ways in relative normalcy may result from Israel's disengagement plan, while real, contractual peace will perhaps come only after a generational change.

The reasons for this very cautious optimism are the following: (1) the perhaps still possible positive regional effects of the war in Iraq; (2) a growing sense of realism amongst most Israelis - and some Palestinians; (3) the political failure of Arafat's "intifada", including the failure to break the backbone of the Israeli public - and Israel's by and large successful anti-terror campaign; (4) the fact that some of the external threats facing Israel have, at least temporarily, been reduced by the Iraq war - while the Arab world as a whole is experiencing unprecedented weakness and disunity; and (5) Sharon's plan for "unilateral disengagement" - backed by the U.S. and partly by Europe.


What about the "Roadmap"?

What about the roadmap? Is it dead or just comatose? There is no need to declare the roadmap dead, since both the U.S. and Prime Minister Sharon have declared that it is not - plus it may come in handy in connection with Sharon's disengagement proposal. Yet more than a few Israelis are wondering whether the Bush vision of a "democratic, viable Palestinian state" living in peace alongside Israel isn't a bit too visionary, considering there is not a single other Arab state in the region to which these characteristics would apply. In addition, there is the question of how "viable" a Palestinian state will actually be. After all, viability is not only a matter of territorial contiguity. The way the Palestinian Authority has functioned over the last ten years looks more like a prequel to future Palestinian misgovernance. For it to have any chance, I would expect there will ultimately have to be some sort of a Palestinian federal or confederal tie-up with Jordan.


The Bush Middle East Policy

The Bush administration's policy towards the Middle East, as I understand it, was based on a "tripod" of separate but interrelated subjects: Victory in Iraq and the pursuit of the war against terror; an effort to try to reform and democratize the Arab world; and "solving" the Arab-Jewish conflict. The link between Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli equation was based on the assumption that part of the Palestinian leadership and people understood - some hopefully, some fearfully - that only with the support of the undisputed powerhouse in the region, America, would the Palestinians have a chance to realize even part of their aspirations. The danger in this was that if any of the tripod's legs failed, the whole structure would come tumbling down.

The peoples of the Middle East, including the Palestinians, who during the Clinton administration had mostly regarded the U.S. as a "paper tiger," at first looked in awe, though not always with glee, at America's decisive military victory over Saddam Hussein. But if, as a result of the problems America faces in Iraq today, this perception should change - or worse, if the U.S. should cut and run, though I don't believe this will occur whatever happens in November - this would lead not only to a radicalization of Palestinian positions, but also to an upsurge in worldwide terror. Arafat's media already applaud every act of violence against the coalition in Iraq. The perception of who wins in Iraq will have a huge impact on the rest of the Moslem world and, in particular, on the ability of al-Qaeda to spread its terror.

At the same time, a nuclear and terror-supporting Iran is of great and growing concern. One wonders how much of the momentum that existed initially to deal with this problem is still there. Syria remains an additional focus of concern that wasn't dealt with when it might have been. Syria has now become an active supplier of arms, and not just a conduit, to Hizballah, is an active supporter of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and is probably a willing depository of part of Saddam Hussein's money and WMD as well.


Why Unilateral Disengagement?

For a long time there has been a growing sentiment in Israel to unilaterally create a de-facto situation of separation on the ground - geographically, demographically, and economically. The main thrust of the Sharon plan calls for a complete withdrawal of all Israeli civilians and military from the Gaza Strip and from four small settlements in northwestern Samaria - except from the "Philadelphi" corridor separating Gaza from Sinai where the army would remain for the time being. All this is to be started by March 2005 and concluded by the end of that year. There will be different ministerial and professional committees to deal with the technical, legal, and economic implications of the withdrawal, some of which are already functioning. There is no formal sequencing or formal conditionality with regard to what the Palestinians will or won't do - but nor is it a blank cheque to the Palestinians.

There is a danger that unilateral withdrawals would create on the Palestinian side a false sense of having gained an advantage over Israel as a result of their four-year terror campaign. Israel, both militarily and politically, and the U.S., diplomatically and financially, will have to disabuse them of the notion that increased terror begets increased political or economic benefits.

Why act unilaterally? The answer is that not only does Israel not have a negotiating partner, but at this time one cannot realistically envision a formula for a final, formal peace agreement that would be acceptable to both Israel and the Palestinians. Therefore, the argument goes, the way to deal with this impasse and not to allow the situation to continue to drift is for Israel to try to move ahead, establishing physical security lines and deciding for itself, with American backing, what is important in the long run. The de facto situation thus established could eventually be superseded by de jure, permanent arrangements, once conditions become more propitious.

Actually, unilateral disengagement could pave the way to formal agreements in the future, as there may be Palestinian leaders who, while being loath to sign formal agreements with Israel, could accept de facto arrangements - this being a step toward statehood - without obligating either side to finally and formally renounce their respective positions with regard to a future permanent status agreement, including such tricky issues as Jerusalem and final borders.

Though the plan is referred to as "unilateral disengagement," there is, of course, an element of multilateralism about it. There are agreements with the U.S., there is indirect leverage on the Palestinians, and there are possible roles to be played by the "Quartet," Egypt, and Jordan.

Most Israelis, conditioned by more than 100 years of Arab terror, violence, and violations of all previous agreements, are now inclined to be skeptical about negotiations and agreements with the Palestinians. It is not only because of the failure of Oslo and of the debacle at Camp David and Taba, both of which resulted in an upsurge of terrorism, but also because they see little evidence that there exists anywhere on the Arab side a significant body of opinion which has ideologically recognized the Jewish state's right to exist. That perception was reinforced not only by Arafat's non-response to the Clinton-Barak proposals, but also when a Palestinian public opinion poll showed that even if Israel were to make all the far-reaching concessions envisaged in Yossi Beilin's so-called "Geneva Accord," only 25 percent of Palestinians thought this would suffice to put an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.


How to Define a Real "Peace Partner"

From Israel's point of view, having a real "peace partner" or "negotiating partner" means, in the first place, that there must be a Palestinian leadership willing and able, once and for all, to genuinely and effectively give up the option and practice of terror and violence, dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, stop anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement in the media and in the schools, and ideologically accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. This also means a Palestinian partner that accepts the principles of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 in all their aspects, and not just in the narrow-based Soviet-French-Arab interpretation, as the basis for negotiations on permanent status.


The Demographic Threat

The supposedly imminent "demographic threat" to Israel is more of a psychological and political concern than an actual reality. Yes, there are about three and a half million Arabs in the territories, plus a million and a quarter Israeli Arabs, compared to five and a half million Israeli Jews. The gap is probably going to narrow in the coming years, though not as quickly as some people say. But few Israelis and none of the major political parties see the future of most of the territories and their Arab inhabitants as being an integral part of the State of Israel.

There exists a theory, not totally implausible, that one of the reasons why Arafat seems to be less than enthusiastic about becoming the president of a Palestinian mini-state is his hope that by perpetuating the present situation, the concept of a separate Palestinian state would ultimately be replaced by the idea of "one state for two peoples" - or, in other words, the end of Israel as a Jewish state. He apparently believes he can wait till then.

I realize that there are some people, especially on the anti-Semitic fringes in Europe, like former French Socialist prime minister and present member of the European Parliament Michel Rocard, who recently declared that the establishment of the State of Israel was "a mistake." They would like Israel to go away, and thus piously declare how wonderful for peace in the world the idea of "one state for two peoples" would be.


The Bush Letter

In his letter to Prime Minister Sharon, President Bush said that Israel "must have secure and recognized borders," adding that "in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect...a full and complete return" to pre-1967 borders, adding that "it is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities." On the matter of Palestinian refugees, Bush wrote: "It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue [would require] the settling of Palestinian refugees in a Palestinian state, rather than in Israel."

There are three significant components to the American side of the disengagement plan: (1) the relationship between the large "settlement blocs," or, as they are called in the Bush letter, "major Israeli population centers," and secure borders; (2) the part about the refugees; and (3) understandings about the security fence. All in all, the agreements and understandings which Sharon had reached in Washington were indeed very significant, and the U.S. Congress has now also adopted them. Most of the Israeli public supported them as well.

Michael Oren of the Shalem Center, in recent articles in Ha'aretz and the Wall Street Journal, discussed the issue of Gaza: "Threatened with destruction since its birth, Israel exists thanks to an unwritten agreement between the state and its citizens. Israelis allow the state to send them off to battle, and perhaps to die, but only when a solid majority believes that their vital security is at stake." The attitude of most Israelis toward Gaza is that it is not worth dying for. While a majority of Israelis indeed want to get out of Gaza, the same majority supports the recent military operations against weapons smuggling tunnels in Rafah and Kassam rocket workshops elsewhere in Gaza because they also realize that these operations, including the loss of Israeli lives, had nothing to do with defending settlements but with preventing terror from Gaza toward Israel.

Arafat and his crowd understand that unilateral steps by Israel could mean their ultimate political demise. The Palestinian leadership is rightly worried not only about American support for the plan by both Bush and Kerry, but more basically because the plan would deprive them of their previous blackmailing and stalling tactics.

Some Israelis find it ideologically unacceptable in principle to dismantle any settlement or give up any territory in the Land of Israel, especially if it means removing Jews from their homes. They may recognize rationally that there are changed realities and requirements, but they feel themselves emotionally and morally unable to be a party to it. Many also see it as an unjustified prize, even an inducement, to terror. Then there are those who, no doubt genuinely, think that there is no need to hurry, that a stalemate is actually preferable from Israel's point of view, and that the American commitments given to Sharon will remain in force whatever happens. All of these arguments have at least some validity.

Israel has no problem with settling permanent status issues by negotiations, once there is a genuine Palestinian negotiating partner. But the underlying basis for the Sharon initiative remains that the U.S. will back Israel's positions regarding its future borders and on refugees, especially once there are permanent status negotiations. Frankly, the main justification in the eyes of many of the supporters of the plan for the pull-out from Gaza was assuring America's official backing for Israel's positions in at least part of the West Bank, most of which coincide with those "already existing major Israeli population centers" mentioned in the Bush letter. Without such American backing, there probably wouldn't have been a disengagement plan in the first place.


The Palestinian Refugees

Only of slightly lesser importance than the territorial aspects was the president's statement about Palestinian refugees, though one may have preferred stronger language than that "a solution...would require the settling of Palestinian refugees in a Palestinian state, rather than in Israel." In other words, this part of the Bush letter isn't about the Palestinians giving up their main "bargaining chip," as Newsweek described it, but is an absolute imperative about which there cannot be any "bargaining" if the Palestinians want to achieve statehood. The president's statement with regard to the refugee issue is highly important, and it is for the Arab world, which has perpetuated this human tragedy for cynical political and economic reasons for 56 years, to draw conclusions from it.

It should also be obvious that settling these third generation "refugees" in the proposed Palestinian mini-state cannot be the full answer to the problem, and that integration in the countries in which they live, often under inhuman conditions, must be a major part of the solution. Without that, there will never be genuine peace and stability in the region.


Lack of Democracy in the Greater Middle East

Referring to America's initiative to reform and democratize the Arab world, the Arab world today is a region in which international terrorism is promoted or at least tolerated; a no-growth area in economic terms; a region which because of its internal corruption and inadequacies could explode any day; and a region seriously affecting the demography of Europe.

The Arab Human Development Report, prepared by Arab scholars under the auspices of the UN, clearly and courageously blamed the Arab condition on - the Arabs. After 9/11, this condition has become, especially for America, a national security imperative and an element in the war on terrorism, judging that political dysfunction and failing, corrupt autocracies were the main reason for breeding fundamentalist-inspired terrorism in the Arab and Moslem worlds.


Blaming Israel

Unfortunately, those who oppose the democratization concept, and not least those autocratic leaders in the Arab and Moslem worlds who understand that it is they who would pay the price for their countries' becoming more democratic and less corrupt, have found a convenient subterfuge for evading the issue: "Yes, but first there must be Middle East peace." They ignore the fact that most of the armed conflicts in the Middle East since World War II had nothing to do with Israel, and that none of the real social, political, and economic problems in the greater Middle East have got anything to do with the Palestinian problem.

Mohammed Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hizballah, put this better than anyone when he said: "The failed Arab regimes survive thanks partly to the excuse of the Arab-Israeli conflict." It is much easier to blame U.S. "imperialism" or Israel's "occupation" for all the Arabs' ills - conveniently forgetting that there was a time when there was no "occupation" - rather than acknowledging the real reasons, such as economic and political stagnation, technological backwardness, and a culture of violence engendered by a totalitarian interpretation of Islam in some parts of the Arab and Moslem worlds.

Nor is this devoid, at least in some circles, of an element of anti-Semitism. What is now fashionably called anti-Zionism or anti-Israelism more often than not is the same old anti-Semitism in disguise.

The real problem, as Professor Bernard Lewis has pointed out, is that in the Arab and in large parts of the Islamic worlds, the fault for any disaster or failure is always that of someone else - the West, the U.S., Israel, or a supposed Judeo-Christian conspiracy. They always think of themselves as "victims." The fact that they have been left behind by most of the rest of the world, much of it less well-endowed, in matters economic, scientific, technological, or educational, is always someone else's fault.

Unfortunately, viewed realistically, the situation in the Middle East, including the basic equations with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, are not going to change quickly or significantly, even with a "unilateral disengagement" or even if Israel were to dismantle all the settlements and relinquish all the "territories" to a future Palestinian state. All this would not automatically put an end to the problems in the Middle East or to the threat of global terrorism.

As long as sizeable parts of the Arab and Moslem worlds do not accept the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state and do not really distinguish, except for reasons of diplomatic or public relations expediency, between the pre- and post-1967 situation, the danger of another attempt to destroy Israel remains. In other words, no agreement about borders can be regarded as permanent as long as the Arab world as a whole has not reconciled itself to Israel's existence.

This does not mean that there shouldn't be a determined effort, like the present one, to reach less than perfect solutions, or that one couldn't find pragmatic formulae for coexistence. But it does mean that some of the basic precepts driving Israel's policies since its inception with regard to security - and also with regard to assuring its educational, scientific and technological excellence, and maintaining close links with the Jewish world and with the United States - must continue to guide Israel for many years to come.

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Zalman Shoval served as Israel's Ambassador to the United States from 1990 to 1993 and from 1998 to 2000. A veteran member of Israel's Knesset (1970-1981, 1988-1990), Ambassador Shoval was a senior aide to the late Moshe Dayan during his tenure as foreign minister in the Begin government, including during the Camp David conference, and later he participated in the Madrid Peace Conference and served as a member of the Israeli team negotiating with the Jordanian and Palestinian delegations. This article is partly based on a lecture given at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on June 9, 2004.


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