Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 521     14-28 Av 5764 / 1-15 August 2004


Max Singer

  • The current focus in Israeli discussion on whether some Jews have to leave their homes makes consideration of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan unnecessarily and harmfully divisive and misses the real issue of whether the current proposal improves or worsens Israeli security now and for the future.

  • The widespread agreement among Israelis that ultimately Gaza should not be part of Israel is virtually irrelevant to the question of whether Gaza disengagement is good for Israel now. Opposition to the proposal is not based on a concern for keeping Gaza.

  • Gaza disengagement needs to be evaluated on the assumption that it will result immediately or shortly in the loss of Israel's ability to control Gaza's borders with the world. It is unlikely that even the Israeli leadership believes that Israel can control these borders if it "gets out of Gaza" as he proposes.

  • Because the military benefit to the Palestinians of being able to import advanced weaponry, foreign political activists, and foreign military into Gaza will probably increase the military burden on Israel, the virtue of Gaza disengagement must be in its political benefits.

  • These political benefits have to be greater than the political cost of giving a victory to terrorism and encouraging Muslim and other supporters of the Palestinians. The prime minister and his advisers have not articulated a vision of how the disengagement will improve Israel's relationship with the Palestinians or how Israel's general political position would be improved by the disengagement (apart from President Bush's letter); it is only said that Israel can't keep everything and must do something now.

  • However, if the U.S. war against terrorism improves the political environment in the Middle East, Israel might be better off "disengaging" later rather than now. Furthermore, postponing disengagement might enable Israel to strengthen those in the U.S. who favor a realistic policy toward the Palestinians rather than giving support to the State Department approach.

  • Unless the Israeli public hears how valid security concerns are going to be addressed, the popular notion of getting out of Gaza could face rising opposition.

The State of Israel is strong and the State of Israel is in danger. Only the U.S. and a few others care about preventing Israel's destruction. Therefore, Israel must follow a policy that best enhances its chances of survival. Since Israel is ready to sacrifice lives for its defense, it should also be ready to sacrifice homes if that would be useful.

It is clear that if several thousand families could make a serious contribution to Israel's safety by moving to new homes, most Israelis would say they have an obligation to do so - with appropriate compensation. Indeed, if these families believed they could improve Israel's security by moving, most would do so voluntarily.

So the key question about Prime Minister Sharon's plan to unilaterally separate from Gaza is not whether Jews should be forced to give up their homes - with or without some concessions by the Palestinians. It is a question of whether Israel's security would be improved or harmed by getting out of Gaza now. What are the possible dangers and opportunities for Israel that the Gaza proposal may create? The false debate about homes is doubly harmful because it prevents people from thinking about the possible dangers and opportunities for Israel that the Gaza proposal may create, and at the same time it creates unnecessary divisions within Israel.

It is very hard to know whether the disengagement proposal would increase or decrease Israel's military burden, and whether it would help or hurt its chances of survival. The conclusion can only come from comparing the possible benefits and the possible costs, each of which is uncertain and arguable. Instead of trying to think through the complicated choices, the debate has become polarized, with everyone focusing on how much he disagrees with his Israeli opponents, and with little reflection on how the proposal helps or hurts Israel's enemies.

The Military Dimension

If "unilateral separation" sharply reduced the Palestinian/Arab desire to make war against Israel, such a separation would reduce Israel's military burden. But Sharon does not claim that the proposal will bring peace; he sees it as a way to live more easily while Israel waits for the Palestinians to become willing to make peace - that is, while Palestinians are attacking Israel unless they have been given enough reason to stop doing so. Thus, after a withdrawal from Gaza, it has to be assumed that many Palestinians may continue to try to kill as many Israelis as they can. It is clearly dangerous to give them increased ability to do so.

The Ability to Control Gaza's Borders

While, ostensibly, the plan would leave Israel in control of Gaza's borders to enable it to prevent the large-scale introduction of advanced weapons and hostile elements from across the border with Egypt, from the sea, or into Gaza's airport, this is camouflage or sugar-coating reality. Since apparently Sharon's original plan would have given up control of the borders, and was only changed because of pressure from the IDF, it seems likely that he thinks the political benefits of the plan are great enough to justify giving up control of the borders, and he has been trying to find a way to get Egypt to take responsibility for controlling its border with Gaza.

If Israel retains control of the coast, the airport, and the Egyptian border, it would not really be "out of Gaza," neither militarily nor politically. There will be considerable pressures on Israel from the UN or the EU to complete the disengagement fully, even as a precondition for an international aid effort. Alternatively, if Israel then begins to suffer casualties while controlling Gaza's borders, there could be renewed political pressure to "really get out of Gaza," and it is not clear how Israel could find the political will to maintain its positions. If the history of Oslo's implementation offers any precedent, the Palestinians managed to erode many of Israel's military positions over the years that were contiguous with or inside Palestinian population centers. This was the case in Nablus with Joseph's Tomb and with the hills dominating the Jewish Quarter in Hebron. There is no reason to believe that the ultimate status of the narrow Philadelphia Corridor separating Gaza from Egyptian Sinai will be any different.

No Israeli should have any illusion that any country other than Israel could prevent large-scale smuggling of weapons and people through Gaza's borders. No Arab, American, or international force has the stomach to take the abuse and suffer the casualties required to control the borders. If Israel doesn't control the borders, they will not be controlled.

Lack of serious control of Gaza's borders would have a major impact on Palestinian military and terrorism capabilities. Higher quality explosives, anti-tank weapons, anti-helicopter and anti-aircraft weapons, long-range mortars and short-range missiles, as well as advanced communication and surveillance equipment, are all small enough to smuggle through a not-too-assiduously controlled border.

Possible New Strategic Threats

Israel could suddenly find its Ashdod seaport within Katyusha range, and a successful attack on it would provide a major shock to Israel's external trade and its economy. The impact on insurance rates of shipping alone could cripple Israeli exports.

Even at the current level of control of Gaza's borders, Ashkelon is already nearly within range of Hamas' Qassam-II rockets, whose reach and payload is constantly improving. Among the potential targets, in addition to the city's population of 90,000, is the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline, which is emerging as an alternative energy route to the Suez Canal for moving Russian oil to the Far East in competition with Persian Gulf oil. There are several Middle Eastern states that would like to see this traffic disrupted.

Should either of these scenarios occur, Israel's government would be confronted with hard choices that could force it to return to Gaza, despite much greater Palestinian ability to resist.

Foreign Peacekeepers and Military Instructors

Israel says it will retain the ability to reenter Gaza to prevent or stop Palestinian fire or to interfere with terrorist infrastructure. Yet, as a result of strong international efforts underway to internationalize the Gaza disengagement plan and the availability of anti-Israel "activists," Israel may be faced with foreign fighters or "peacekeepers" - European, American, or Arab personnel and even uniformed military units.

In addition, while the Palestinians are not short of manpower, they do not currently have many trained military forces. The elimination of Israel's ability to prevent the Palestinians from receiving serious military training from outside sources could result in a noticeable increase in Israel's military burden.

End of the Buffer Zone

Furthermore, in Gaza there has been a one-kilometer-deep buffer zone inside the fence in which Palestinians are not permitted to construct homes or cultivate fields that could be exploited for purposes of infiltration. If Israel gets out of Gaza, how would it be able to maintain this buffer zone that has served as such a crucial measure to limit terrorism? Won't the Gaza fence be compromised as the Palestinians erect houses in the zone that cover tunnels for entering Israel?

Allowing a "Safe Haven" for Terrorists

The United States, sitting behind the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, believes it cannot protect itself from terrorism if terrorist organizations have safe havens in Afghanistan or Iraq. Does Israel believe it can protect itself with a fence if Palestinian terrorist organizations have safe havens in Gaza and the West Bank? Separation is very desirable; the question is whether it is feasible as a security strategy. Will Israel not have to retain a presence on both sides of the security fence to protect itself - as it purportedly plans to do in the West Bank? In such a case, it may not be wise to strengthen the Palestinian ability to keep Israel out, or to pretend to be separated from Gaza when Israel must continue to be very much involved.

The Political Dimension

The military disadvantages of getting out of Gaza could be worth accepting if Israel were to gain significant political advantages by doing so. It is important to look at the big strategic picture to see if such a move fundamentally improves Israel's position - or prevents decisive future threats to its political position. Let us first consider some of the political costs that must be weighed against potential benefits.

The Cost of Giving Terrorism a Victory

The biggest political cost involves giving terrorism a victory. Even if leaving Gaza is part of a grand political plan to improve Israel's ability to protect itself, and particularly to preserve Israeli control of eastern Jerusalem and West Bank towns and cities that are home to several hundred thousand Israelis, it is also true that the proposal means that Israel is giving up territories as a result of Palestinian terrorist attacks. The Palestinians themselves say that they have forced Israel to retreat again, as it was seen to do in Lebanon. While Palestinian attacks against Israel resulted in great suffering and many casualties among their own people, they can only conclude that by continuing to fight they eventually forced an Israeli retreat. Their war against Israel turned out not to have been a mistake after all.

A terror war involves a battle of wills. Each side imposes pain on the other (the Palestinians using illegal measures) and believes or hopes that it can withstand the pain longer. Therefore, evidence of a loss of will by one side can become a vital weapon for the other side.

How would disengagement from Gaza affect Palestinian military motivation in the future? In the global war on terrorism, withdrawals - whether justified or not - have factually been tied to an escalation of terrorism. Al-Qaeda itself was founded in 1988-89 on the heels of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. An organization that helped defeat a superpower, the Soviet Union, believed after its success that it could launch a global jihad and replicate the Islamic conquests of the seventh century. Israel's Lebanon withdrawal in 2000 has been linked with the Palestinian decision to launch its September 2000 campaign of violence. What may be perceived in the West as a smart strategic move is often perceived in the East as weakness.

Pictures of Arabs moving into Israeli-built community centers, schools, and swimming pools in Gaza will be broadcast throughout the Muslim world and will likely add to a sense of momentum in the Muslim fight against "the Crusaders." This is likely to encourage many Muslims to join the bandwagon of Palestinian efforts to remove the Jews from the Middle East. After decades of defeat, they will be seen as finally getting somewhere and gaining real achievements. Undoubtedly, the Palestinian cause will get a real boost from an Israeli retreat.

On the West Bank the IDF is on Both Sides of the Fence

In the West Bank, Israel is building a fence but is not planning to get out of the territory on the other side of the fence - which it insists is not a political border. Most Israelis agree that building a fence is a useful tactic that will reduce terrorism. The question remains - what is the content of "separation" and how will it improve Israel's political situation?

Clearly, reducing daily interactions between Israeli forces and Palestinians will have some tendency to improve the political climate. It is to Israel's advantage to get its soldiers out of the faces of Palestinians and let them go about their daily business without checkpoints and searches, while at the same time relieving young Israeli soldiers of the morally challenging experience of stopping, searching, and dealing with hate-filled Palestinians.

Another goal is to free Israel of the burden of being an "occupier." But it is hard to expect that the opposition to Israeli "occupation" will be satisfied with a mere reduction of the "occupation." Similarly, does anyone think that the hostility to settlements will be seriously reduced if Israel closes down many small settlements? Furthermore, closing fully legal, authorized settlements without receiving any compensating benefit from the Palestinians looks like an admission that the "settlements" and the "occupation" are indeed what is preventing peace. The alternative is for Israel to make a stronger and more consistent effort to explain that the problem is not "settlements" or "occupation," but the unwillingness of Palestinians and of the Arab states to live with a Jewish state in their midst. (Of course Israel needs to remove outposts that are illegal under Israeli law in order to preserve its reputation for having a government that speaks for the country.)

One possible goal of the disengagement may be, given the failure of the PA to provide adequate government or to be a negotiating partner for peace, to begin a process of bringing Egypt into the Gaza Strip - and perhaps Jordan into Judea and Samaria. This is in some ways an attractive goal. But with the current condition of Arab politics there is little hope that either Egypt - which may be in the opening phase of a succession crisis - or Jordan has the political will to discipline Arafat or take control of Palestinians. This is a good example of an idea that may benefit from waiting for a more propitious time.

Israel's Rights in the West Bank

Israel should be focusing more on the facts and arguments that are the basis of its moral position. Israel is not a colonial thief but a native people returning to its home, with a license from the League of Nations, and genuine historic and legal claims to the disputed territories. The great efforts the Palestinians devote to denying Jews connection to the land demonstrate the importance they place on history. Israel should insist that a healthy dialogue with the Palestinians requires recognition of basic historic reality. Israel's assertion of its legal and moral claims must be accompanied by expressions of a willingness to give up some of the land to which it has claims, both because the Palestinians also have claims and because Israel is willing to make sacrifices to live side-by-side in peace when the Palestinians are ready to do so.

Prime Minister Sharon recently summed up the reasons for his Gaza withdrawal program as follows: "Whoever thinks that it is possible to continue supporting both Netzarim and Maale Adumim will find themselves with neither Netzarim nor Maale Adumim, and that is not my intention. Whoever thinks that it is possible today to settle in all parts of the Land of Israel while at the same time maintaining a Jewish and democratic state, may find themselves without any settlements, without a democracy, and without a Jewish state."

Yet the problem is not whether Israel wants to be relieved of Gaza but how it can do so in a way that doesn't worsen its own situation. The fact that the current situation is painful and dangerous doesn't mean that any change will be for the better. Oslo was a bold try to get out of what was perceived to be an unacceptable situation, but on balance it pushed off the possibility of peace and led to many Israeli and Palestinian casualties. Thus, even if unilateral separation and getting out of Gaza are in principle desirable objectives, Israel has to ask whether withdrawal from Gaza at this time will help or hurt its security and the prospects for peace.

Aligning Israel's Position with the U.S.

Israel does not have to make new negotiating proposals - or unilateral substitutes for negotiating proposals - at this time because President Bush has said that the advance toward peace and a Palestinian state depends on the Palestinians creating a representative government that will pursue peace - that is, one not under Arafat's control. In addition, the roadmap - the internationally accepted negotiating path - puts the ball in the Palestinian court, at least according to President Bush. Further decimation of the terrorist organizations, plus the absence of concessions, are more likely to firmly convince the Palestinians that their campaign of terror against Israel was a failure.

More time devoted to defeating Palestinian terror would give a chance for the U.S. program against other Arab (and Iranian) terror to become more effective and to change the political environment in the region, by weakening or changing the policies of the states supporting terrorism, who are Israel's greatest enemies and the strongest supporters of Arafat. It would also give a chance for a change in the internal Palestinian political situation, resulting in the rise of a successor to Arafat. In this way, Israel's policy would be operating in a manner more parallel to that of the U.S. and be more supportive of its stand against rewarding terror.

An Alternative Approach

While the U.S. State Department may argue that Israel would help the U.S. war against Arab terrorism by making concessions to the Palestinians, this argument is based on a different approach to terrorism than the one President Bush is trying to follow. It assumes that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is fundamentally different than the American conflict with Arab supporters of terrorism. An alternative approach of pursuing unilateral disengagement more patiently would enable Israel to put its weight on Bush's side.

This alternative approach, which involves continuing the fight against the terrorists at home and supporting the U.S. fight against terrorists in the region, may offer nothing to Israel's critics, but there is no real evidence that the concessions or actions that Sharon proposes would satisfy these critics either. It may be more realistic to expect that Israeli retreats would strengthen the demands and confidence of those who deny Israel the right to defend itself.

The U.S. - to defend itself - is trying to get all Arab governments, especially Syria and Saudi Arabia, as well as Iran, to stop harboring international terrorists. It has already succeeded in stopping Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya - although there are dangers of backsliding. If the U.S. succeeds, it will have made the regional environment much more favorable to Israel, and this may make it easier for a Palestinian regime to come to power that might decide to postpone its fight against Israel. In such an environment, it will be much more possible to find an acceptable basis for Israel to disengage in a way that doesn't threaten to worsen its security.

While the U.S. anti-terror program in the region is currently facing serious difficulties, in the end, the U.S. is not going to be defeated by terrorism. It makes more sense for Israel to join and help the U.S. by fighting the same enemies and standing for the same principles - that terrorism and its supporters must be defeated, not appeased.

Currently, most Israelis think that in the end Israel is not going to keep Gaza and that it shouldn't risk soldiers' lives to hold it for a few more years. It seems as if the only opposition comes from those who, as Sharon says, think Israel can hold onto everything forever (or think it is forbidden to give up any of the Land of Israel). However, unless the Israeli public hears how valid security concerns are going to be addressed, the popular notion of getting out of Gaza could face rising popular opposition - from Israelis who are looking forward to getting out of Gaza as soon as it is prudent to do so and have little sympathy with the settler movement.

It is imperative to conduct a genuine discussion of whether the proposed way of pursuing disengagement threatens to endanger the country, and whether there might be a better time and approach to getting out of Gaza that advances Israel's security. The result could well be that Sharon will adjust his schedule and truly align himself with President Bush's policy.

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Max Singer is an Associate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and was a founder and President of the Hudson Institute. He is the author (with Aaron Wildavsky) of The Real World Order: Zones of Peace/Zones of Turmoil (1996), winner of the Grawemeyer Award for ideas for improving world order.

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The opinions expressed by the authors of Viewpoints do not necessarily reflect those of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.