When a Pullout is Just a Cease-fire

The unilateral Israeli withdrawal or “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip and the evacuation of about 9,000 Jewish settlers from that region have helped produce dramatic media images, including mass demonstrations being held by the evicted settlers and their political supporters in Israel.

Dressed in orange outfits and waving orange banners, the members of the right-wing nationalist and religious coalition who have been the driving force behind the Jewish settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza have accused the ruling coalition in Jerusalem of “betraying” the Zionist ideology of settling all the Biblical Land of Israel with Jews.

In fact, some of the leaders of the Orange Rebellion, including the two chief rabbis of Israel, have depicted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a “traitor” to the Jewish people, and have called on Israeli soldiers to refuse orders to take part in the forcible removal of Jewish settlers from Gaza.

Indeed, many of the militant settlers have threatened to barricade themselves inside synagogues and religious schools in the settlements and to mount a violent resistance, raising the prospects of a civil war among Jews in Israel.

The Israeli security services have warned against the danger that Jewish militants will attempt to assassinate Mr. Sharon and other pro-disengagement politicians and attack Muslim religious sites.

Demonstrating the threat of such acts of violence, a Jewish militant from a settlement in the West Bank killed four Arab-Israeli citizens riding on a bus two weeks ago (he was later lynched by a mob).

Political Divisions

Reflecting the political divisions inside Israel that the planned evacuation from Gaza has ignited, Benjamin Netanyahu, a leading member of Likud, Mr. Sharon’s political party, has resigned from his cabinet position as treasury minister.

Mr. Netanyahu warned that the Israeli withdrawal would help turn the area into a “terrorist base” for anti-Israeli violence and announced that he would mobilize opposition in Likud against Mr. Sharon.

Some political commentators in Israel have speculated that Mr. Netanyahu’s move is the first step in a political realignment that could lead to the formation of a centrist political party, led by Mr. Sharon and Shimon Peres, the head of the Labor Party and a member of the coalition.

Against the backdrop of so much political drama, it’s not surprising perhaps that most of the international media covering the pullout from Gaza have focused on the evacuation that is scheduled to be completed by the beginning of the autumn as a “turning point” in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and as a major stage in the process that could bring about an end to the violence between Arabs and Jews and provide the basis for a final accord.

Tactical Move

Instead, Mr. Sharon’s disengagement plan should be regarded as a tactical move by the Israeli prime minister that is aimed at strengthening Israel’s diplomatic and military position, and not as part of a grand strategy that will help resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.

Mr. Netanyahu and other critics of the pullout plan on the political right are aware that Israel’s core security interests will not be effected by the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Israel still retains the right to deploy troops and use its air force to retaliate against potential anti-Israeli violence in Gaza and to re-invade the area.

The Israelis will also continue to control the freedom of movement of more than 1.3 million Palestinians into and out of the Gaza Strip. And while the Israelis are planning to remove a few small Jewish “outposts” in the northern West Bank, Mr. Sharon and his aides have insisted that under no condition will Israel agree to evacuate the major Jewish settlements in the West Bank or to relinquish control over Arab East Jerusalem.

It’s important to remember that even before Mr. Sharon proposed the disengagement plan in an address to an Israeli think tank in December 2003, a clear majority of Israelis had already expressed their support for removing the Jewish settlers from Gaza. This Israeli consensus has little to do with concern about the Arab Gazans for self-determination or a determination to make peace with the Palestinians.

What it reflects is a recognition among Israelis that their control of a quarter of land in the Gaza strip for settlements and farming didn’t make a lot of sense in terms of Israeli interests.

Why should a large number of Israeli troops continue to protect the presence of a small number of Jewish settlers living in the midst of an angry and poor Arab population? If anything, the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) that started in September 2000 helped to demonstrate to most Israelis the rising costs of maintaining the Jewish settlements in Gaza.

So the decision by Mr. Sharon to disengage from Gaza didn’t display a willingness on the part of the Israeli leaders to make a “painful and historic sacrifice” for peace, as the Israeli prime minister and other officials have stated several times. Notwithstanding the images of political strife in Israel, Mr. Sharon knows that his plan to withdraw from Gaza enjoys the support of the majority of the Israelis, most members of the political establishment in that country, the U.S. administration, and the entire international community.

The opponents of the disengagement are a relatively small and noisy minority that have proved to be quite effective in orchestrating media events. And a split in the Likud Party in the aftermath of Mr. Netanyahu’s resignation is not going to threaten Mr. Sharon’s political position, since even if the current government falls from power, he is expected to win reelection as leader of a new political bloc.

Cost-Effective Move

From the perspective of the relationship with the Palestinians, the United States, and the international community, Mr. Sharon’s move could also be seen as cost-effective if one considers the alternative, that is, the possible implementation of the “road map” backed by the United States and the Quartet.

If Mr. Sharon had agreed to reactivate this international process, he probably would have been forced into a set of diplomatic negotiations and the need to announce Israeli commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state and the withdrawal of Israel from both Gaza and the West Bank to the 1967 lines. Instead, the unilateral Israeli move ensures that the “road map” and the two-state solution would be put on hold for a long time.

That the Israeli withdrawal should be regarded as a tactical move was made clear during an interview last year by Dov Weisglass, Mr. Sharon’s top advisor, who told reporter Ari Shavit from the Ha’aretz newspaper that the “significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

For the Bush administration, the disengagement process makes it possible to create the sense of movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front, without making it necessary for the Americans to become too engaged in a long and complex process of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that could lead inevitably to frictions with the Israelis, the Palestinians, and other players over the future of the West Bank, the Jewish settlements there, and the final status of Jerusalem.

President Bush and his aides are certainly not in a mood to repeat former President Bill Clinton’s experience in the failed Camp David negotiations in 2000. Like in Iraq and the prospects for ending the violence and stabilizing that country, the Bushies are highlighting a best-case scenario when it comes to the chances of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian in the aftermath of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

They are counting on Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority (PA), to provide the necessary leadership to create the conditions for political and economic reform in Gaza and for continuing negotiations with Israel and comprehensive peace.

James Wolfensohn, the former head of the World Bank and the special envoy of the United States and the rest of the “Quartet” – the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia – is expected to lead an effort to draw international aid and investment into Gaza, while the Americans are trying to help Mr. Abbas improve the effectiveness of its security forces.

The hope in Washington is that the Gaza Strip under the control of a moderate Palestinian leaders would prove to be a successful experiment in building the political and economic foundations of a future Palestinian state, which will eventually include most of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and which would peacefully coexist with an Israeli state.

Most observers, however, are expressing skepticism about the ability to Mr. Abbas and his secular nationalist coalition to win the support of the majority of the Palestinians in Gaza.

The more radical Islamic Hamas movement is very popular, especially among young Palestinians who believe that its attacks against the Israelis have forced Israel to withdraw from Gaza.

It’s not inconceivable that Hamas would emerge as a winner in a fair and open election in Gaza, which explains why Mr. Abbas could find it difficult to make major concessions to the Israelis over the issues of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to the villages and towns in Israel from which they had fled in 1948.

But even if the Palestinians and the Israelis will not be ready for ending their conflict and making peace, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza could perhaps create the basis for a temporary cease-fire.

And perhaps it will permit the Palestinians in Gaza to start building their political institutions and drawing investment from the Arab world and the West into their economy, which will probably turn out to be the best-case scenario when it comes to the realities on the ground in the Middle East in the weeks and months after the Israeli disengagement.