When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon revealed his plan to evacuate Israeli settlements from Gaza and beyond, he was not simply shifting the focus away from the scandals facing his family. The investigations may have accelerated or delayed the process, but from an Israeli perspective the logic of unilateral disengagement is inescapable. As one of the founders of Israel’s post-1967 settlement policy, Sharon resisted this approach for a long time. But if he had not announced this move, another leader would have. If he is forced to resign, his successor is likely to follow a similar course.
Public opinion polls and other indicators demonstrate that a majority of Israelis view the territorial status quo – based on a Swiss-cheese map of intertwined Palestinian cities and Israeli settlements – as unacceptable. Israeli military responses to three years of terror have been quite effective, but sporadic attacks continue, and the costs of protecting small and isolated settlements are unreasonable. In addition, the multiple checkpoints, frequent closures and other sources of daily friction between individual Palestinians and Israeli soldiers contribute to the tension. And the political status quo poses a demographic threat to the survival of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
At the same time, the efforts to end this situation through negotiation of a stable agreement – from Oslo to the Quartet’s “road map” – have had catastrophic results. Until there is a credible Palestinian leadership to disarm the various factions and implement a lasting accord based on the two-state model, negotiations are not going to end the conflict, and may add to the violence. The evolution of a pragmatic Palestinian leadership anchored in basic societal changes will take many years or decades. Until then, the Geneva Initiative and other paper concepts discussed under Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s watchful eye simply lack credibility, and public relations campaigns supported by the European Union will not change this situation.
Under these conditions, unilateral disengagement has become the least bad option, as many Israelis, including Sharon, now recognize. In the absence of what academics and policymakers refer to as “ripeness” – in terms of broad societal readiness to make realistic compromises – Israel needs to define pragmatic de facto borders. This logic led to the intense public demand for construction of a separation barrier/fence/wall, which has proven effective in protecting the northern coastal cities such as Netanya and Hadera from terror attacks. The construction of a separation barrier, and a clear – if temporary – boundary, only makes sense with the reduction in the points of friction and greater contiguity for the vast majority of both Palestinians and Israelis. This means the removal of isolated settlements near Palestinian cities, and the strengthening of Israeli control in strategic areas, including Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, to ensure border control. (This is not a peace plan, and political and diplomatic issues related to the 1949 cease-fire line – the “Green Line” – are irrelevant.)
However, despite the logic and support from the Israeli consensus, the implementation of this process will be difficult and costly. Sharon’s long-term core constituency anchored in “Judea,” “Samaria” and Gaza denounced limited unilateral withdrawal as “appeasement,” and violent resistance is expected. If the issue is brought to a referendum, it is likely to gain approval, but this could delay implementation and force some changes.
Opponents also argue that withdrawal from Gaza will be seen by Palestinians as a victory, and, like the Israeli Army’s sudden pullout from Lebanon in May 2000, will encourage more terror. However, others counter that, in the long term, Israeli security and deterrence were strengthened by this move. Attacks are far less frequent and Hizbullah’s power base in Lebanon was weakened, as recognized by its backers in Damascus and Tehran. Furthermore, many Palestinians, including former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, have declared that the decision to copy Hizbullah’s tactics was a disaster. Israel’s unilateral withdrawal will give the Palestinians far less than would have resulted from an agreement with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak four years ago, and efforts to use terms such as “apartheid” to demonize Israel via the UN and the International Court of Justice will not change the situation. In addition, for Israel’s Arab citizens, separation means an end to the unfettered access to the West Bank that they have enjoyed since 1967. However, in contrast to the period between 1948 and 1967, when this territory was under Jordanian occupation and the armistice lines were impassable, the current policy of unilateral disengagement includes mechanisms for regulated movement at numerous crossing points. Jordanian fears of a mass movement of Palestinians resulting from disengagement are also unsupported.
As a result of these and other factors, the implementation of unilateral disengagement, whether under Sharon’s leadership or a successor, will face many challenges. But unless a better option appears that provides security, reduces friction and ensures the survival of Israel as a Jewish democratic state, the course is unlikely to change.