Thursday, January 03, 2002

Unilateral Withdrawal

I received the following letter from someone on the email list, and I'm sure it reflects the thoughts of a great many people:

I pretty much agree with everything you have said, but I personally believe that Israel must in the end evacuate all the settlements in Gaza and WB and simply get the hell out of those areas, UNILATERALLY. Israel does not need to wait for an agreement with the Palestinians, because as you've observed, they are not interested in one. Ehud Barak recently concluded that Arafat is interested in a two-state solution, one state for Palestinians and one for Palestinians and Jews (Israel) but with the Pal. Right of return, so that the demographics would be quickly skewed in favor of the arab population---demographic suicide. I believe Israel needs to evacuate the WB and Gaza simply because they will never give Israel peace. I personally believe that settling those lands was the worst mistake Israel ever made. I don't believe that by doing so there will be peace. What it will do though, is give Israel the moral high ground and make it clear to the Pal. And the world that having made that singularly magnanimous gesture, the Pals. now have everything they need to create a viable state---no more excuses (not entirely unjustified) that a chunk of land pockmarked with Jewish settlements, IDF forces and access roads makes it impossible for them to have a cohesive state. Evacuation renders that whole argument completely moot. I would retain a 2 or 3-mile buffer all around that border and make it clear to the Pals. That any incursions into Israel proper will be met with the same response as any act of war on a sovereign nation. If and when there was a real peace agreement they could talk about return that buffer zone. Now when Israel goes into the WB or Gaza to carry out reprisals it does it from the position of an occupier, a very unsympathetic place to be, and unfortunately, one with absolutely NO VIABLE FUTURE FOR ISRAEL. As my mother, a committed social Zionist, said, better a small and secure Israel that a larger one perpetually at war. I see no other way out. By taking those actions unilaterally, Israel declares that it doesn't need the Palestinians to achieve an acceptable level of safety for its citizens. This is essentially what Israel did in S. Lebanon--come to the conclusion that being their, with its promise of a protective buffer for N. Israel, just wasn¹t worth the cost.

Here is my response:
This is essentially what everybody has been talking about for the last 15 months - how can Israel extricate itself from this situation? The answer, everybody from Barak to Bibi Netanyahu has said, is "Unilateral Separation," whereby Israel removes itself from "Yehsa", the acronym of "Yehuda, Shomron, and Aza," or, in secular terms, "The West Bank Gaza Strip" without signing any treaties or as part of any deal.
Such a plan sounds nice as a five second sound byte, as Barak likes to say, "It'll be us over here and them over there." Unfortunately, the plan has several drawbacks that the talking heads are studiously avoiding. The main problem with this strategy is that there are quite a lot of us over there, and even more of them over here. To be specific, there are about 1.2 million Israeli Arabs living inside pre-1967 Israel, and there are about half a million Jews living in Yesha. The second problem is that the government will eventually have to draw a line somewhere, and there is going to be a huge fight, possibly even a civil war, between Jews when it comes time to make that decision. The third problem is that there is still a question as to whether building a wall is physically possible, and whether it will actually do anything to increase Israel’s security. Still a further question is how the Palestinians, the Arabs as a whole, and the world will react to such a move.
Unfortunately, you can't exactly draw a line to separate the Arabs and the Jews. The stickiest situation by far is Jerusalem, whose neighborhoods are arranged in a checkerboard manner, alternating between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods intertwined and surrounding each other, usually separated only by a street or sidewalk. Before 1967, there was a line running through the center of town with a no-man's land, armed soldiers, and landmines, with East Jerusalem controlled by Jordan and West Jerusalem controlled by Israel. Jews were not allowed to visit the Western wall, the Mount of Olives, or any other holy sites on pain of death. After the reunification of the city, the city was annexed, its Arab residents offered citizenship, and a huge Jewish settlement drive attempted to surround the Arab section with Jewish neighborhoods to prevent any future redivision of the city, leaving pockets of Arab neighborhoods in a sea of Jewish ones. The last phase of this plan is being implemented today with the construction of the Har Homa neighborhood, approved by then Prime Minister Rabin and started by Netanyahu, which would be the final nail in the coffin of the idea of the redivision of the city by blocking the last open and undeveloped land passage between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The Arabs, for their part, responded with a settlement drive of their own, building dozens of Arab settlements very close to the outer ring of Jewish neighborhoods, making the map even more confused and messy.
Jerusalem is a small model of the situation Israel faces today. Anywhere you draw a line, there is going to be a mixture of Arabs and Jews on both sides. This is where the idea of ethnic cleansing comes in. If, as was suggested by Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak, 95% of the West Bank and Gaza are ethnically cleansed of all Jewish residents and transformed into a racially pure Arab state, the question remains, where are these half million Jewish refugees going to go, and what can be done about the 1.2 million Israeli Arabs living inside pre-1967 Israel? Are they to be ethnically cleansed as well, or will we put that off until the next war?
The act of driving people from their homes and destroying houses, schools, libraries, synagogues, and lives is not as simple as taking a vote in the Knesset. The people who live in these towns and villages have invested huge pieces of their lives and themselves in building them, and have suffered heavy personal losses during the recent violence to retain them, and I'm sure many will fight to defend them. Imagine if you were living in, say, San Francisco, California, and the U.S. Army surrounded the city and told you that you had one day to pack your things and leave before they came through and razed the city to the ground? I think that many people would have more than just harsh words for the Army. It also raises the question: if we are going to run away from certain pieces of territory because we’re being shot at, then where do we stop? Remember, the 1967 border is not an internationally recognized border but only a cease fire line, which is an important distinction because you can count on the fact that the Arabs, once they have Yesha, will begin making claims inside Pre-1967 Israel. What if everybody leaves the Yesha and then they start attacking, say, Be’er Sheva or Ashkelon, which, according to the partition plan of 1947 was to be part of the Arab state, not the Jewish one, do we then run away from Be’er Sheva?
Would building a fence between Arab and Jewish areas stop terrorism? Perhaps, but I doubt it. The main problem is the length of the border. The security border with Lebanon in the north is about 30 miles long. Israel has been hurriedly constructing a security fence along this border since its withdrawal a year and a half ago, but there has been no shortage of kidnappings and infiltrations anyway. The 1967 cease-fire line is hundreds of kilometers long. Many particularly violent Arab settlements and cities, such as Tulkarm and Silwan, are located exactly on this border, which makes the creation of a buffer zone impossible. The border is also arbitrary, not based on natural barriers or straight, short lines, but it was made wherever the fighting happened to stop in 1948. It is convoluted and bends back on itself in several places. The construction of a high-tech electronic security fence along the entire length of this border with motion detectors and cameras would be prohibitively expensive. Certain areas in which terrorists and infiltrators tend to cross in greater numbers can be made with high-tech fencing while the remainder can be made more low-tech, with landmines and barbed wire. However, to a determined suicide terrorist, these obstacles may not prove enough, and it will take years to build anyway.
A unilateral retreat from Yesha will also not provide Israel with any more diplomatic legitimacy than it had before. The Arab world, with or without treaties with Israel, will never truly recognize this country until the Arabs, as Bob Marley would say, "Emancipate themselves from mental slavery," and rid themselves of tyranny. Terrorism from Yesha existed long before Israel’s capture of the area in 1967 and will persist long after any withdrawal. The choice, therefore, is not between a big Israel eternally at war and a small Israel at peace, but a big Israel eternally at war or a small Israel eternally at war.
Europe, as well, is not about to become friends with Israel. I have observed that regardless of Israel's actions, whether it exercises restraint or fights, withdraws from land or builds settlements, assassinates terrorists or is the victim of terrorists, Europe issues a steady stream of condemnation and hatred towards the Jewish state. Israel's actions seem to be just a pretext, and I think that Europe's open anger and hostility towards Israel is deeply rooted in Europe, not Israel. If Israel were to withdraw from all the territories completely, Europe might pat Israel on the back for a few minutes, but then the Palestinians would start making territorial claims inside pre-1967 Israel. The Europeans may even initially oppose this idea, but, then the Palestinians will send a wave of suicide terrorist attacks into Europe and weaken their resolve, just like they did in the 1970s.
In retrospect, however, I think Israel has to look inward to find the true cause of many of its problems. This country likes to practice a policy of "constructive ambiguity," as Clinton called it. By this policy, Israel does not define and announce explicitly what it is doing, but at the same time makes its intent clear through its actions. Sometimes this policy is necessary, as, for example, in Israel's nuclear program. Israel has quite a stockpile of nuclear weapons. If need be, Israel has the power to destroy the entire Middle East in a matter of minutes. However, because Israel does not want to be subject to international nuclear regulators or to diplomatic pressure to disarm, it has a "mums the word" policy. Maybe we have them, maybe we don't. Everybody knows that the big building in Dimona, a few kilometers from where I'm sitting, is a working nuclear reactor, and everybody knows that the spent fuel rods from this reactor are used to make weapons, but nobody says anything. The facility is jokingly called the "Beit Haroshet Garini," garin being either seed or nucleus in Hebrew, and therefore the full title can be translated as either "Seed Factory" or "Nuclear Factory." Often times, however, "constructive ambiguity" is used to iron over internal differences and avoid making a decision. Such was the case with killing terrorists until recently. I remember when a targeted killing was attempted on the son of the military leader of Hizbullah, the Israeli generals got on television and smirkingly said, "Last night, one of our F-16 fighters accidentally dropped a bomb which accidentally landed on the house of this terrorist leader, coincidentally just as he was in his living room, and accidentally killed him." Or the time when Netanyahu tried to kill Hamas leader Khaled Marshall in Jordan and the operation was botched. The Mossad spies were supposed to put something in his ear that would make him sick and die without anybody being able to figure out it was them, but instead they botched the operation and got caught, and King Hussein of Jordan threatened to execute the spies of Marshall died. Marshall kept getting sicker and sicker and Israel kept saying they didn't do it until they came forward with the cure in exchange for their spies. I was very relieved when, recently, the government finally came out and said straight out exactly what it was doing, and that anybody who tries to kill and Israeli citizen will become a target himself.
Such constructive ambiguity was also used with the settlement drive. There was great internal debate as to what, exactly, was to be done about this land, whether it should be settled or given back, and what can be done about the Arabs living in it. After Israel’s miraculous victory in the Six Day War, people began expecting miracles everywhere. Israel decided to start building settlements and simply not worry about the rapidly growing 1.7 million Arabs on the land (today 3.2 million.) After all, if Israel’s birth and continued existence was dependent on miracles, why not expect just one more? Rather than letting idealism set the goals and realism get them there, people threw realism out the window and acted purely on idealism.
It must also be remembered that Yesha isn’t just land, it’s the heart of the heart of the Jewish homeland, with Hebron, the first capital of the Jewish people and burial place of the patriarchs, Shechem, where Joseph is buried, Jehrico, the city of date palms, the place where the sun stood still for Joshua and the walls came a tumblin’ down, and many other places mentioned in the bible; Shiloh, Beit Lechem (Bethlehem), Elon Moreh, the list goes on. This is where the bible actually happened, not Tel Aviv or Haifa, and the Jewish people will always have a very strong attachment to these areas. The combination of attachment to the land and the belief in the ability of Israel to work miracles whenever it chose led to a disorganized, mass movement into these areas. Rather than being controlled by the government, the settlers controlled the government through their actions by setting up makeshift settlements wherever they chose and then waiting for the government to recognize them retroactively. This action undermined the authority of the Israeli government. When the government came under fire internationally for having started a settlement drive, it again embarked on a path of constructive ambiguity. By not annexing these territories, they were technically leaving all options open, but by building in them, they were de-facto annexing them. Israel effectively held sovereignty over the land, with Israeli courts holding jurisdiction over the land, Israeli sewers and electric systems being hooked up to it, and Israeli homes being built on it. As the circumstances of the Six Day War, with the near destruction of Israel, the fact that Israel is only eight miles wide without this land, and the strategic necessity of holding some of this land, faded from the memory of the world, it became harder and harder to officially annex it. The sudden appearance of the Palestinians after 1967, a people who had never before existed and therefore never been taken into account, and who now had a deep and historical claim to the land in the eyes of the world, made it even more difficult to annex.
Hindsight is, of course, 20/20, but I believe that the government could have done a much better job managing the Yesha settlement drive. If, instead of allowing the settlement drive to take control, the government had channeled the energy on step-by-step, pragmatic, and achievable goals, we would be in a very different situation today. The Jordan River valley runs from the Kinerret (Sea of Galilee) in the north to the city of Jericho near the northern bank of the Dead Sea, in the south. This valley is considered a strategic necessity for Israel. Its eastern edge is bordered by the Jordan River and its western edge is lined with enormous sheer rock-faced cliffs, capable of stopping a tank assault on central Israel. This area is also very fertile land, and almost completely devoid of Arabs. The government should have simply bitten the bullet and annexed this land, thus removing any question as to its status, and then launched a major settlement drive to spur agriculture and industry. Rather, the government placed a few hundred families there and then ignored it, and today it is assumed that it will end up in the hands of Israel’s enemies. Likewise, rather than setting up tiny settlements in the heart of every major biblical city, the government should have focused on maybe one, such as Hebron, and started a huge building drive to try to affect the demographic balance of the city and place a permanent Jewish hold there. Today, there are only a few hundred families living in Hebron who are much easier to remove than would be a whole city. The lack of pragmatic planning and the decision to gamble the future of the country on a miracle has caused much of the quandary that Israel finds itself in today.
Israel must extricate itself from this mess by itself. Europe and the Arab regimes will condemn Israel regardless of what it does because they do not deem Israel to be a legitimate entity, and therefore their yelling and screaming must be ignored. In my opinion, Israel must hold on to and annex as much land as it can while annexing as few Arabs as it can, and that is what this war is being fought over. I would encourage the government to officially annex those areas that it deems necessary for its security and leave the rest after the fighting stops, or at least slows. A unilateral withdrawal from any settlements at this time would be extremely destructive, as it would be handing our enemies a victory as well as sparking a civil conflict. The more that Israel gives under duress to its enemies, the more encouragement and validity Israel will be giving to terror as a means of negotiating. After all, if Arafat can get more by fighting than through negotiating, and he doesn’t have to sacrifice any of his honor by lowering himself to talking to Israel, then of course he will continue fighting. Some settlements which are too far out and too difficult to defend will eventually be evacuated, but only after fighting has subsided. I don’t think that this could have happened at the beginning of the conflict because it would spark a civil war, and Israel does not need to fight a civil war while simultaneously fighting a billion Arabs with both hands tied behind its back. I personally know many people who were prepared to go down and physically fight the army to prevent the Temple Mount from being handed over to Arafat. However, there is nothing like a long, bloody conflict to dampen people’s enthusiasm and bring the realization: Israel can not physically hold all of Yesha.
This country was built by ideological zealots, and as we learn from the story of Chanukah, zealotry has often been necessary to save the Jewish people. The boundless constructive energy of the idealists of Israel must be channeled and used pragmatically for the good of the people of Israel. Idealism will tell us where we're going, and pragmatic realism will get us there.

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