The only game in town

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The brutal murder of Tali Hatuel and her children did not defeat Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan – even without this outrage the plan was doomed among Likud activists.

The polls and a huge show of support in Gush Katif on Independence Day showed sentiment running strongly against “retreat.” Sunday’s referendum results drove the point home.

And this is precisely the point – the 60,000 Likud members who voted against disengagement were motivated primarily by sentiment and emotion, as opposed to cold logic and clear thinking. Now that they have won the battle, the burden of responsibility has shifted to the opponents of Sharon’s plan, and from this point, emotions are not enough. It was easy to denounce the dangers of separation in the face of terror, and to be against the surrender of territory in the absence of a peace agreement. But coming up with a rational and credible alternative that serves Israel’s national interest will take much more effort.

Indeed, some of the opponents, such as ministers Uzi Landau (Likud) and Effi Eitam (NRP), have articulated a clear substitute – Israel must stand fast and destroy the terrorists.

At first glance, this has great emotional appeal. In the wake of the catastrophic Oslo “peace process” and the Palestinian attacks, Israel must show resolve and achieve a military victory over Yasser Arafat and other remaining leaders of this terror campaign.

But in reality, the chances of achieving a Palestinian surrender in the foreseeable future (20 to 40 years) are close to zero.

After Arafat disappears from the scene, new leaders will emerge to carry on the war. The incitement and hatred will continue, fueled by the firm belief that the rapidly growing Palestinian and Israeli Arab population, supported by hundreds of millions of Arabs and one billion Muslims, will eventually overwhelm “the Zionist enemy.”

Despite the IDF’s best efforts and short-term successes, terror attacks will continue to be a major dimension of this all-out war, as they have been for over 75 years. In parallel, the false prophets of the international community, ensconced in Europe and the UN, will continue to try and impose their own initiatives.

In this environment, and without deep political and social change in the Arab world, Israel’s situation will not improve for very long, and a policy based entirely on a military victory is reduced to wishful thinking.

TACITLY acknowledging these limitations, Natan Sharansky presents a scenario based on internal change in Palestinian and wider Arab society, based on democracy. This prescription is anchored in the experience of the Soviet Union, whose citizens gradually gained the courage to oppose the totalitarian regime.

Sharansky’s prescription also reflects the firm belief that all people, including Muslims, have an inherent desire to control their lives and chose their own leaders. And as democracies do not go to war in order to destroy each other, Israel’s optimal strategy is to work with the US to create the conditions for societal change in the region.

Once this process takes root we can negotiate borders as part of broader peace agreements, including the removal of settlements and other changes in the status quo. In contrast, withdrawal at this stage would have precisely the opposite impact by strengthening the current leaders.

Conceptually, this scenario is more substantive than the simple “victory over terrorism” approach. But upon closer examination, the analogy with the Soviet experience is problematic.

Unlike the communist empire, where the ideology evolved into a facade, among Palestinians and Arabs, historic and religious hatreds run very deep. While some individuals have spoken up against the destructive policies of Arafat and Hamas, and in favor of compromise and mutual acceptance, these voices are isolated and there is no evidence they will gain strength in the next decade, or even generation.

Furthermore, limited democracy, in whatever form it might eventually come to the Middle East, is no guarantee of moderation and compromise. The holes in this argument are visible in Iraq and the Bush administration’s blind faith in the magnetic power of liberation.

One year after the war, Iraq is a battlefield, and there is little evidence of the emergence of a pluralist society based on the rule of law.

Transformation to democracy might take generations, and, in the meanwhile, the power of extremism and the motivation for terrorism will continue. As a result, although the strategy of democratic evolution is appealing it constitutes a huge risk with very limited hope of success.

In other words, despite the outcome of the Likud referendum, unilateral disengagement remains Israel’s least bad and most realistic option.

This strategy will make terrorism more difficult to conduct, reduce the demographic threat of a Palestinian Arab majority, allow for managing the conflict through deterrence and interdiction, and reduce daily friction.

When the alternatives are examined in detail, none of them are able to offer even these limited benefits. As a result, after the emotions have cooled and rationality returns, unilateral disengagement is still the only game in town.

The writer is the director of the program on conflict management at Bar-Ilan University. He is member of the Board of Directors of SPME.


Gerald M. Steinberg

Prof. Gerald Steinberg is president of NGO Monitor and professor of Political Studies at Bar Ilan University, where he founded the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation. His research interests include international relations, Middle East diplomacy and security, the politics of human rights and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Israeli politics and arms control.

NGO Monitor was founded following the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban South Africa, where powerful NGOs, claiming to promote human rights, hijacked the principles of morality and international law.  NGO Monitor provides information and analysis, promotes accountability, and supports discussion on the reports and activities of NGOs claiming to advance human rights and humanitarian agendas.

In 2013, Professor Steinberg accepted the prestigious Menachem Begin Prize on behalf of NGO Monitor, recognizing its “Efforts exposing the political agenda and ideological basis of humanitarian organizations that use the Discourse of human rights to discredit Israel and to undermine its position among the nations of the world.”

Steinberg is a member of Israel Council of Foreign Affairs; the Israel Higher-Education Council, Committee on Public Policy; advisory board of the Israel Law Review International, the research working group of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), and participates in the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism (ICCA). He also speaks at a variety of high-level government sessions and academic conferences worldwide.

Publications include “NGOs, Human Rights, and Political Warfare in the Arab-Israel Conflict" (Israel Studies); "The UN, the ICJ and the Separation Barrier: War by Other Means" (Israel Law Review); and Best Practices for Human Rights and Humanitarian NGO Fact-Finding (co-author), Nijhoff, Leiden, 2012.

His op-ed columns have been published in Wall St. Journal (Europe), Financial Times, Ha’aretz,International Herald Tribune, Jerusalem Post, and other publications. He has appeared as a commentator on the BBC, CBC, CNN, and NPR.

Read all stories by Gerald M. Steinberg

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