The disengagement initiative of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may prove to be the most significant step yet in the tortuous and so-called “peace process” (a process which in fact drew to a tragic close some four years ago). The reason is not that the initiative itself will bring about peace and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that certainly will not be the case. The disengagement initiative is but one step, and in the eyes of many, perhaps the last, in an effort to make some change in the situation on the ground, however limited.
Indeed, the idea may well be to offer up this step as a “concession” sufficient to justify (or relieve pressure against) the strengthening of Israeli control over the West Bank. Why it may nonetheless prove to be a critical turning point is connected with the main obstacle to the implementation of the initiative: the existence of the Jewish settlements.
The evacuation of fewer than a dozen settlements and relocation of no more than 7,500 residents (roughly 1,500 families) is hardly a difficult matter, at least logistically, for a country like Israel that has handled massive immigrations in the tens and hundreds of thousands of persons over short periods of time. Nor will the dismantling of a limited number of settlements in the Gaza Strip and four small isolated ones in the northern part of the West Bank necessarily constitute a precedent for an irreversible process. Jewish settlements in the Sinai were dismantled in the context of the peace accords with Egypt at the initiative of the man largely responsible for putting them there, Ariel Sharon.1 The settler leadership itself, however, has decided to make this move its critical battle. It is not the value of these particular settlements or of the territory involved (the Gaza Strip); rather, in the eyes of the settler leadership and much of the settler community and their supporters, it is the principle that will determine today the future of Israel’s control over the territories conquered in 1967. Regardless of whatever was done over 20 years ago with the Sinai settlements, and regardless of future intentions, the settler movement has made disengagement the critical test: Can Israel in fact leave the territories or not? With threats of resistance even to the point of violence and some kind of civil war, along with a well-organized, well-financed emotional campaign among the Israeli public against the “uprooting” or “transfer” of Jews from homes in which many have been living for over a generation (a move described as “a prize to terrorism”), the settler movement hopes to erode popular support for disengagement. For, as the argument goes, if a government under a strong right-wing leader like Arik Sharon proves unable to do it, clearly no one in the foreseeable future can hope to dislodge the settlers, not from a relatively unimportant and unpopular place like the Gaza Strip and certainly not from ideologically and religiously more important places like the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Indeed, the settlement project as envisaged and undertaken under then Agriculture Minister Arik Sharon in the late 1970s (as distinct from the relatively small settlement ventures under Labor governments) was intended to bring about this very impossibility: withdrawal. Sharon’s announced goal of settling 100,000 Jews in the occupied territories by 1983 was designed both to prevent any pulling apart of the area – that is, territorial compromise – and to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. The policy of offering lucrative economic incentives for Jewish settlement was then instituted to overcome the limited number of ideological settlers, those who would go there out of nationalist/religious conviction. The idea was to create a constituency that would, for practical reasons, be opposed to withdrawal. And the policy did, in fact, lead to over 230,000 settlers, some 77 percent of whom say they are there for “quality of life” (a euphemism for economic reasons) as distinct from national or religious reasons.2 Thus, the settlements were meant as an obstacle to compromise – and, by implication, an obstacle to peace. If the day were to come, this would be the test: Could this body of people be dislodged; could the settlements be evacuated so that Israel could withdraw? Such is the issue the settler movement is now putting before the public, and the government, in response to the disengagement initiative.
That is why implementation of Sharon’s disengagement initiative is crucial to the peace process. This day of judgment with the settler movement need not have come now, but that is what the settler movement has turned it into: the day of reckoning that Israeli society, divided since 1967 into doves and hawks and the just plain confused, has known would come eventually. The outcome is less clear than one might think or had been anticipated.
Public opinion in Israel has for some years been relatively consistent in its acceptance of territorial compromise, the evacuation of most or all of the settlements, and a two state solution with the Palestinians. If such a peace agreement were the alternative offered now, the evacuation of the Sinai settlements over 20 years ago would and could serve as an appropriate precedent.
But the present plan offers no such incentive; it does not come in the context of a peace agreement or even the promise of one. Therefore, the settlement movement’s arguments are met with little or no convincing response. There is today clear popular support in Israel for disengagement. Gaza is considered a hell-hole; our soldiers’ lives are unnecessarily endangered there; the settlements there have no purpose. But the official response cannot use these arguments without admitting its own responsibility for putting the soldiers and settlements there in the first place. Instead, its feeble and sometimes only indirect references to the real reasons for the plan are unconvincing. They blur, intentionally, the real significance of the plan: the test of Israel’s ability to take down settlements, a sine qua non for any future agreement, the end of occupation, the end of the conflict, and peace.
The real reasons for the plan? It is difficult to fathom Sharon’s strategic thinking in this regard, if indeed there has been strategic thinking. Sharon has spoken in the past of a long-term interim agreement by which Israel would hold on to most of the territories (around two-thirds), and the Palestinians would have control over various areas (possibly “Bantustans”). The present plan could be perceived as a unilateral version of this idea, with some unexpected help from the fence/wall.3 The tactical reasons for the idea may be clearer. In the months preceding Sharon’s announcement of his idea at the Herzliya Conference in December 2003, there had been increasing signs of dissatisfaction and protest within the Israeli public. A relative calm in the violence, a reduction in the terrorist attacks, may have served as a backdrop to intensified expression of opposition to the status quo and demands for some political option. There was the letter from IDF pilots refusing to serve or support the present policies, apparently critical comments even by the chief of staff, protest by soldiers protecting settlements in Gaza and, perhaps most important, criticism of the government expressed by four former heads of Israel’s security services in an extensive interview in the Israeli press. Into this accelerating chain of protest came the announcement of the Geneva Initiative, offering a concrete, even detailed, policy alternative. This chain of events catapulted the annual Rabin memorial rally of early November into a massive protest demonstration organized by the Israeli peace camp. Less than a month later, Sharon launched his initiative.
A contributing factor may well have been extensive comments in the press and elsewhere that finally drove home to the right wing the changing demographics of the area. It may be that it had finally become clear to Sharon that within less than a generation Jews would be a minority in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Such a situation would lead either to an apartheid situation – an Israeli minority denying basic rights to an Arab majority population under its control – or a binational state that would be the end of the Zionist ideal of a state for the Jewish people. The Jews would become a minority population in their historic homeland, as in the Diaspora. It may be in response to this realization that Sharon decided it was time to act unilaterally to reduce the Arab population under Israeli control by 1.3 million (the population of the Gaza Strip) and thereby at least postpone the fall of the demographic sword of Damocles. At least, official voices from Sharon’s supporters, and occasionally Sharon’s own, can be heard referring to the demographic logic behind disengagement, alongside the comment that Israel needed to come up with some initiative, lest an unpalatable plan be forced upon it (“Geneva?” the Roadmap?), presumably by the international community or even the Americans.
Whatever the reasoning, tactical or strategic, behind Sharon’s disengagement initiative, it seems today unlikely that he foresaw the extent and intensity of settler opposition and their determination to turn the issue into a test case for evacuation. (The difficulties in dismantling the illegal outposts presumably should have given him some clues as to settler reaction.) Perhaps Sharon misjudged what, in his terms, should have been settler willingness to see the positive side of the disengagement initiative: the minor loss of a few settlements in a dispensable locale, the Gaza Strip, in exchange for the major gain of the vast majority of the settlements in the territory of historical and religious importance, the West Bank. This would have been a minor (what he always termed “painful”) concession in order to alleviate pressures and demographic problems that threatened the greater goal.
Assuming that Sharon did expect the settler opposition, he may have correctly estimated that the settler movement would represent only a small minority. In fact, the broad public continues to support disengagement, including the majority of Likud voters (as distinct from registered Likud members). What he apparently did not anticipate was the effect the settler movement would have in gaining support within the Likud party. One of the reasons, perhaps, for this failure was that the disengagement plan as presented by Sharon would, on the face of it, be harmful only to the settlers involved. However, many right-wing political hawks rallied to the settler movement because of the symbolism and potential of the plan. That is, disengagement could indeed be portrayed as a first step toward evacuation of the West Bank, jeopardizing their “not an inch” position.
But from Sharon’s point of view, for the public including the hawks, the plan should have been relatively innocuous. After all, it does not really end the occupation of Gaza, although it purports to do so and has the potential to do so. As presented officially on May 28, 2004, Israel will not only withdraw all military and settler personnel, it will relinquish “its responsibility for the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip,” as it did under the Oslo accords in Area A, thereby technically ending its occupation.4 Yet Israel is to maintain control of all access to the Strip, including sea, air and land. Further, Israel reserves the right to “preventive measures as well as the use of force against threats originating in the Gaza Strip.”5 And control over infrastructure (for example, the supply of water and electricity) vital to the Palestinians will remain in Israeli hands. Further, all arrangements, whether for future relations and entry and exit of goods or persons, as well as for the withdrawal itself, the disposition of assets and lands or similar issues, will be determined unilaterally by Israel. Sharon has repeated often that there will be no negotiation (or even official coordination) with the Palestinians regarding the disengagement. All of these limitations could have made (and perhaps were intended by Sharon to make) the plan more palatable to the hawks within his government and party. A more cynical interpretation might be that unilateral withdrawal under these circumstances and conditions would leave chaos in its path, resulting in internal violence and instability – thereby offering a useful example of the pitfalls and undesirability or efficacy of further withdrawals, say, from the West Bank.
Sharon has been somewhat crippled in his defense of disengagement, however, because he cannot easily make reference to the above points (or caveats). He has presented disengagement as genuine withdrawal, the end of the occupation of the Gaza Strip, and Israel’s initiative in response to the deterioration and absence of a peace process, for which, he maintains, only Arafat is to be blamed. Moreover, he has made these claims and commitments to the American government, receiving crucial support for settlement policy in the West Bank in what has been interpreted as a deviation from past U.S. policy on that issue. He also received an important U.S. statement of support regarding the refugee issue. Thus Sharon cannot tout these weaknesses of the plan as a selling point to his constituency, though he has certainly tried to present the American concessions as a quid pro quo that should mitigate settler/hawk opposition. He has not been successful in this, however.
Assuming that Sharon does want to go through with his own initiative and disengage Israel from Gaza, there are practical problems involving the remnants of occupation. Nor are all the problems or flaws in the Initiative purely fabricated or politically motivated. There is a very real Israeli concern over the possibility of post withdrawal smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip and continued terrorist attacks from the area. There are genuine concerns about political instability after withdrawal, concerns shared by the Palestinians as well. Further, perhaps most important, there are serious Palestinian economic concerns: the ability of Gaza to survive without the Israeli infrastructure, should this be abandoned, and without control over import and export activity, movement of personnel and goods, and the division of assets left behind or destroyed once joint ventures such as the industrial parks are disbanded. Economic collapse would have ramifications for Israeli security as well. A list of problems would include: 1) the borders (the “envelope” of land, sea and air access); 2) internal security; 3) dispensation of property and economic assets left behind; and 4) economic rehabilitation. Additionally, there are political questions: 1) the relationship and connection of Gaza to the Palestine Authority in the West Bank; 2) the legal status of Gaza (“sovereign,” “unoccupied,” “self-ruling entity”); and 3) the political future, namely, where do we go from here? Further, there is some question as to the possibility of dealing with many or all of these matters if Israel insists upon acting unilaterally.
There does appear to be some form of coordination taking place behind the scenes between Israeli and Palestinian security and possibly even political personnel. In addition, a third party or parties have been brought in to deal with some of the problems. Though denied officially, Egypt has been playing the role of mediator to a large degree. It has also been working both openly and behind the scenes to achieve political stability and possibly even domestic security. Rejecting any role in maintaining security inside Gaza or keeping some kind of force (including police) there, it has agreed to help with training, although it has amended its position to providing training only in Egypt, not inside the Strip. Britain, too, has been involved in security training. The Palestinians, for their part, do not appear interested in having any third-party involvement, particularly Egyptian, in domestic security matters beyond purely temporary functions such as training.
Certainly no third-party security contingent would be acceptable without negotiations – that is, without the Palestinian Authority having a say in the matter. There is no wish to become “occupied” once again by some other power. It is conceivable, however, that for the purposes of the envelope – in the interest of eliminating Israeli control of access to and from the Gaza Strip – the Palestinians might agree to a third-party presence. There have been hints from Israel that the involvement of a third party might make it possible for Israel eventually to relinquish control over sea and air access. The Israeli-Gaza border in any case would be controlled on the Israeli side by Israel, no matter who controls the other side. The main problem concerns the border with Egypt, the Philadelphia area, which Israel may not be willing to relinquish – to Egypt or to any third party.
With regard to economic rehabilitation, both Israel and the Palestinians apparently welcome a role for third parties; the World Bank is already involved in talks on the matter. The question of third-party involvement in determining or supervising the allocation of assets and property is a more difficult one, though such a role could be envisaged. Handing over property and assets to a third party might facilitate matters for Israel, given its reluctance to abandon property and see it taken over by Palestinians (in dramatic pictures, for example, of Hamas militants moving in or destroying evacuated settler villas). A third party might, at least, be able to mediate disputes arising from the withdrawal and, if permitted by Israel (most unlikely), facilitate or supervise the whole procedure.
There have been many discussions of third-party roles over the years, not only in conjunction with disengagement. Virtually every plan, since the beginning of the al-Aksa intifada, if not before, has envisaged some third-party involvement, whether unilateral (the United States) or multilateral (UN, Quartet or other). There has even been mention of NATO. Most recently, there have been a number of track-two discussions on disengagement; a number of relatively concrete proposals have even been made with regard to the role of a third party.6 These proposals and discussions could conceivably contribute to the ultimate implementation.
The problems listed above, and even the role of a third party, are apparently also under examination by the officials involved, as evinced by the talks with the Egyptians and the World Bank, among others.
Without minimizing these problems, the major obstacle to implementation may remain, nonetheless, the domestic Israeli debate. And the only issue here is the settlements. If Sharon should decide that the disengagement initiative is impossible, it will not be because of the problems outlined above. His choice of unilateralism was an indication that he does not, ultimately, intend to be influenced or waylaid by such issues. Only the actions of the settler movement, with its threats and appeals (and probably only the former), can create a situation in which disengagement will appear impossible. If that should happen, the settlements will indeed prove to be what they were intended to be: an insurmountable obstacle to territorial compromise and a two-state solution to the conflict.
That is why, if Israel’s objective is peace and security – objectives that can only be achieved through an end to the occupation and an agreed settlement with the Palestinians – the disengagement initiative, however flawed, incomplete and preliminary, is crucial. The settler movement knows this.
1 During the Camp David negotiation in 1978, when then-Prime Minister Begin balked at the Egyptian demand to evacuate the settlements, then-Agriculture Minister Sharon, who earlier in the peace process had actually begun the building of new settlements in the Sinai, telephoned Begin and told him to agree (Ezer Weizman, The Battle for Peace [Bantam Books], p. 370).
2 M. Hopp, D. Jacobson, Y. Peres, Y. Schnell, “Settler Attitudes Toward Evacuation,” available on Peace Now website: www.peacenow.org.il.
3 It must be remembered that the fence was not even initially supported by Sharon, much less part of his conception for the future. And even in the fence’s settler-influenced expansionist routing, it is not necessarily the demarcation Sharon would like to see (the present line may, in fact, incorporate more Palestinians and less land than he perhaps would want).
4 Plan announced May 28, 2004. Haaretz, May 29, 2004.
6 See, for example, “Round-table: The International Community and the Conflict,” Palestine-Israel Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2004, pp. 76-112; and Shlomo Brom, “The Role of Third Party Monitoring in the IsraeliPalestinian Arena,” loc. cit., pp.62-68.