The Israeli pullout from Gaza is all but fait accompli. In an op-ed piece written last week for the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer lays out a reasoned argument as to why the Gaza pullout was the right thing for Israel to do:
Gaza was simply a bridge too far: settlements too far-flung and small to justify the huge psychological and material cost of defending them. Pulling out of Gaza leaves behind the first truly independent Palestinian state -- uncontrolled and highly militant, but one from which Israel is fenced off.
If Israel can complete its West Bank fence, it will have established a stable equilibrium and essentially abolished terrorism as a regular and reliable means of attack -- i.e., as a usable strategic weapon. That will leave the Palestinians a stark choice: Remain in their state of miserable militancy with no prospects of victory or finally accept the Jewish state and make a deal.
That is Israel's strategy. There are two problems with it: What about the rockets? What about the world?
I always find it a bit dismaying that journalists and pundits who make serious-sounding statements about "the next step in the Middle East Road Map" are almost without exception focusing on further concessions by Israel. The Palestinian Authority receives no real scrutiny, and the world has never held it accountable for its obligation under the Road Map, which is to make a genuine effort to disarm terrorist groups and prevent attacks against Israel.
In such a context, it is not surprising that many Palestinians believe there is no downside to continuing to fire Katushya rockets across the Gaza border into Israel. The dysfunctional and corrupt PA is not in any position to confront Hamas, which is a force to be reckoned with in Gaza, both politically and militarily. In any event the PA leadership finds it convenient for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organizations (including its own closely affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade) to press the attack against Israel, while maintaining a facade of plausible deniability before its Western interlocutors.
Israel and the US both know this, but everyone is playing a public game while each pursues separate but not so-hard-to-discern policy goals.
Hamas and other Islamist groups have always been quite clear about their aims: the total destruction of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state in its place. That state would be a strict Islamist regime, comparable to Afghanistan under the Taliban. In fact, it would become the new Afghanistan, as Hamas is coordinating its efforts with al-Qaeda, which it sees as an ally in the war against the West. They are using the pullout as a propaganda victory in that war, claiming to have chased the Israelis out of Gaza, as Hezbollah claimed to chase them out of southern Lebanon.
Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah (Conquest) party have similar goals but are somewhat more secular in their outlook. It suits them to be positioned as moderates as compared to Hamas, but in fact have stated quite openly that their eventual goal is not two states living side-by-side in peace but a single Palestinian state encompassing all of the West Bank, Gaza and Israel proper. This is stated clearly in the charter of the PLO, which was written before Israel occupied the West Bank and has never been revoked, though statements were made during the Oslo years to lead the West to believe this was the case.
Fatah's strategy is to profess the willingness to negotiate, but make only cosmetic efforts to combat terrorist groups, since the PA can distance itself from the attackers while reaping the benefits. So long as the world continues to make an exception to terrorism directed at Israel, this strategy will work. To this day, the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, Fatah's "military wing", continues to launch attacks against Israel's citizens, which the PA maintains the charade of denying any connection. Fatah will also press for the most expansive interpretation of the "right of return" since demographics and birthrates would eventually result in a Palestinian majority even within Israel proper. Over the long haul, negotiations and terrorism are complementary tactics for achieving the same strategic goal, the eradication of Israel.
This is not to say that there are no Palestinian moderates who are genuine in their desire for peaceful coexistence with Israel, but based on polls they are not in the majority and there is little evidence of them in the leadership of the PA, which in any event is on the brink of collapse. So as Israel looks for a peace partner, it must choose between radicals who preach jihad now, or "moderates" who are willing to bide their time and incrementally move towards a future conquest of Israel that they see as inevitable, a policy which they are willing to pursue over decades or even centuries if necessary.
During the '90s, the Israeli government of Ehud Barak was skeptical about the Oslo Accords, but worked with the Clinton White House and the EU to pursue a peace deal with Arafat on the grounds that it was worth the risk. During that time, terrorist activity ebbed (though it didn't entirely disappear) and the Palestinan economy benefited from ties with Israel. Following the collapse of Oslo and in response to the second intifada, Israel began pursuing a strategy of separating itself from the Palestinians, with its major settlements on one side of the barrier and would-be suicide bombers on the other. While the fence's path, which cuts through areas of the West Bank, routinely provokes international condemnation, the fence itself is an entirely rational response by a democracy confronted with the nightmare a dysfunctional society next door that trains its children to become human bombs, and whose religious leaders preach hatred of Jews on the official airwaves.
In this context, the Gaza pullout makes tremendous sense to Israel, not as a "peace offering" (Sharon is not so naive) but as a military strategy. It makes no sense to have 9,000 settlers surrounded by 1.3 million Palestinians, many of whom want them dead. Even from a religious standpoint, Gaza has little significance compared to areas of the West Bank ("Judea and Samaria" to the Israeli right). It requires some thirty thousands IDF soldiers to protect those settlements, and Sharon's decision to abandon them is based purely on a cost-benefit analysis. Removing the settlements not only removes the roadblocks and occupation forces that have increased misery for the Palestinian residents of Gaza, but it also puts the emphasis on the creation of a functioning civil government. He (and future Israeli leaders) can now demand that Gaza get its house in order before there are any further concessions. And should Israel need to undertake military operations against Hamas and other terrorist groups using Gaza as a base, they can go on the offensive without having to divert resources to protecting setllers (not killing innocent Palestinians in the process will still be a major challenge, given that terrorist groups often hide among and draw support from the civilian population).
From the US perspective, Bush is making the best of a fait accompli handed to him by Sharon. Recall that Sharon's unilateral decision to pull out from Gaza was originally viewed with misgivings by the United States and others because it was a departure from the Road Map and the decision was made unilaterally, without consultation with the Palestinians. It was only after Sharon made clear that he was determined to carry out the Gaza withdrawal at whatever cost, that the Bush administration began to tout it as a step towards peace in the region. By lending US support to the withdrawal, Bush can placate his critics who would rather his Middle Eastern policy focused on a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the democratization of Iraq. And while he is not keen to see a terrorist base emerge in Gaza or the West Bank, he recognizes that an eventual peace deal, whether next year or in 50 years, will involve the removal of large numbers of settlers in both Gaza and the West Bank. If Israel chooses to undertake such removals for its own reasons, why should any US administration stand in its way? Eventually, when Israel draws the line at further concessions and consolidates its West Bank settlements behind the separation fence, the Americans will be in a position to argue that the some positive steps were taken, which will help Israel's image within the international community.
And what of the international community? Does Israel's uprooting of settlers from Gaza buy it legitimacy in the eyes of a world that views it as tantamount to Apartheid-era South Africa? Not likely. The rest of the world will continue to blithely ignore cross-border missile attacks on Israel from Gaza that, were they aimed at Britain, France, Russia, China, the US or virtually any other country one cares to name, would be rightly seen as an act of war, with a major military response entirely justified. Instead, these attacks will be viewed as evidence that Israel needs to go through further painful withdrawals from settlements in the West Bank, in order to pave the way for a "just and comprehensive resolution".
Let's test that assumption. Assume Sharon or a successor government took the next step urged by the international community, the Israeli Left, and even Condoleeza Rice, and uprooted tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank. Would attacks on Israel stop? No, if historical precedence is a guide, they would most certainly increase, as the hard-line factions would claim -- with some justification -- that violent attacks on civilians were weakening Israel's political will and forcing it to retreat, with no parallel compromises or concession required on the Palestinian side. Even if Israel withdrew to its pre-1967 borders -- within which portions of the country are only nine miles wide and extremely vulnerable to attacks that would place Northern Israel at risk of siege, and which no Israeli government considers defensible -- that would still not result in a resolution to the conflict, as there would still be the matter of Palestinian control East Jerusalem. If we assume the Israelis were to cede East Jerusalem, would that move the region closer to peace? No, because as the PA considers all of Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, and has not shown any inclination that it would accept a dvided Jerusalem. So those who are expecting that concessions from the Israelis will result in reciprocal concessions from the Palestinians will repeatedly find their hopes dashed.
What could change this dynamic? The emergence of a stable Palestinian government that was really interested in building a true state, as opposed to tearing down the one next door. What would be the indicators that such a government was in charge? For one thing, we'd see Palestinian leaders renounce terrorism unequiviocally, not just rhetorically pro forma but in deed. Incitement against Jews by official imams and broadcasts on Palestinian TV glorifying suicide bombers would end. Aggressive crackdowns on radical groups would become the norm. Children would be raised with hopes for peace, rather than groomed for jihad. We'd see homegrown Palestinian peace organizations that are counterparts to B'Tselem in Israel. We'd see Palestinians speak openly of their Israeli friends, and of the things they admire about Israel, as Americans and Russians did of one another, even at the height of the Cold War. The PA would not need to forswear criticism of Israel (why should they do that when Israelis frequentky criticize their own government?) but would focus their resentment against Israeli policies as opposed to the fact of Israel's existence. And they might reserve some of their scorn for figures on their own side whom they view as barriers to peaceful coexistence.
Since this kind of shift is by its nature generational, none of these developments is likely to happen in the near future. There is a possible future in which political and economic cooperation between Israel and Palestine is indeed possible (in fact, there was evidence of it at the grassroots level during the Oslo years). Gaza was a start -- now, the Palestinians will need to get serious about making their state a reality. In the meantime, Israel will gird itself for more rockets across its borders, and more condemnation from the rest of the world.
UPDATE: Don't miss Mark Steyn's scathing assessment of the aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal:
Even when Ariel Sharon hands them a great “victory”, some Palestinians can’t stop blowing themselves up long enough to celebrate it. I’ve never subscribed to the notion that this or that people “deserve” a state - a weird and decadent post-modern concept of nationality and sovereignty, even if it weren’t so erratically applied (how about the Kurds then?). The United States doesn’t exist because the colonists “deserved” a state, but because they went out and fought for one. The same with the Irish Republic. By contrast the world deemed Palestinians “deserving” of a state ten, three, six, eight decades ago, and they’ve absolutely no interest in getting it up and running. Any honest visitor to the Palestinian Authority is struck by the complete absence of any enthusiasm for nation-building – compared with comparable pre-independence trips to, say, Slovenia, Slovakia, or East Timor. Invited to choose between nation-building or Jew-killing, the Palestinians prioritise Jew-killing – every time.
(Hat tip: Ambivablog)
UPDATE: That didn't take long...
[The EU envoy to the Middle East, Mark Otte] dismissed statements by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel will retain large blocs of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria in any permanent arrangement with the Palestinian Authority. Such commitments, the European Union envoy asserted, are nothing more than "spin" intended for internal Israeli consumption.
The EU also does not take seriously Israel's demand that the PA fulfill its commitments to disarm Arab terrorist groups. According to the Al-Quds interview, Mr. Otte said the EU does not demand that the PA confront terrorist groups militarily, or that the PA initiate a civil war in order to carry out its obligations.
Moving out of Gaza was still, in my view, the right thing for Israel to do, both morally and tactically. But the rest of the world will continue to make Israel the lone exception when it comes to condemning acts of terror. No concession Israel can make, short of national suicide, will be satisfactory. But what concessions should Europe be willing to make when Al-Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist groups decide the time is ripe to reclaim the occupied terroritories of al-Andalus (i.e. Spain)?