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The dangers of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem

By Hirsh Goodman
web posted January 23, 2017

The political debate in Israel took a remarkable turn in early 2016: Both sides of the spectrum, the Likud and Labor, came into alliance for one of the few times in Israel’s history, openly admitting that the goal of achieving a negotiated solution with the Palestinians, based on two states for two peoples, was unattainable – a mirage, at this point in time.

One of the reasons for this was that they saw the Palestinians adopt what is known as “Plan B” – a policy based on the assumption that the best way to promote Palestinian goals and interests is through unilateral and prolific international activity, and that this policy will best be served by perpetuating current realities: violent attrition, sporadic terror, delegitimization, and boycott, which would weaken Israel internationally and keep the territorial debate in Israel alive to divide and weaken the country internally.

This also helps the Palestinians paper over their own deficiencies, including a seismically divided leadership, endemic corruption, and suppression of internal democracy, while pointing the finger at Israel’s occupation as the perpetrator and themselves as the victims.

The Palestinian goal, Israel’s two main political parties now agree, is not a two-states-for-two-peoples solution, based on trading territory for peace. Two attempts at doing so, by Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008 – whose offer included giving up Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Holy Basin – failed miserably because, it is now believed, the Palestinians want it all and will do everything and anything to avoid recognizing Israel as the legitimate state of the Jewish People. They want an eventual one-state reality in which the Palestinians will be the majority and Israel will cease to be a Jewish democratic state.

Therefore, those who promote unilateralism say, Israel should take control of its future by creating a new reality on the ground and changing the status quo to what they consider to be Israel’s advantage. “Constructive unilateralism,” as it is termed, entails a unilateral withdrawal from some 80-85 percent of the West Bank, including dozens of villages in east Jerusalem; enticing, through incentives and legislation, 80-100,000 Israeli residents to give up their homes in the areas to be vacated and move to Israel proper or the settlement blocs; the completion of the security barrier; and maintaining a military presence on the Jordan River.

The unilateralists believe that the status quo cannot be maintained; that Jewish population growth in the territories will, if unchecked, create a situation that will make any future solution based on land-for-peace un-implementable and that, in consequence, the result would be, de-facto, one state with a Palestinian majority and the demise of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

Unilateralism, like Brexit, is a term that has far deeper implications than the seeming logic and simplicity of the concept implies. Israel has withdrawn unilaterally twice before: from Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005, in both cases from uncontested land over which Israel had no claims, and, in the case of Gaza, not seen as territorially relevant in the context of any future agreement between the sides.

In the end, the unintended consequences of both these cases far outweighed the assumptions and predictions made at the time and did not foresee the collateral damage caused in their wake. These included four full-scale wars, thousands of cross-border incidents, and the transformation of tactical problems into strategic ones, all of which have left deep and indelible scars on Israel.

Here, the proposal is for a unilateral and unconditional Israeli withdrawal from 80-85 percent of the West Bank, to which Israel does have claims, to a line recognized by no party other than Israel itself.

The proposal gives these vacated territories de-facto recognition as legitimately Palestinian, whereas, in reality, they are still in dispute and held by Israel in accordance with international norms and conventions pending a settlement.

It unilaterally relinquishes, without any quid-pro-quo and contrary to broad national consensus, the unity of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.
Gaza weapons factory
Israeli soldiers examining a weapons factory on the West Bank (IDF Spokesman’s Office)

Without an Israeli security presence, the illicit Palestinian arms industry in the West Bank will flourish, and terrorism will become legitimized and encouraged. Key strategic Israeli targets, like neighborhoods in Jerusalem, or Kfar Saba and the entire center of Israel, including Ben-Gurion Airport, could be menaced and closed down at will by a primitive rocket fired from a hill a few kilometers away or by a shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missile. Recapturing these territories would be problematic, and the re-establishment of a reliable Palestinian Authority would be impossible.

This will blow wind into the sails of those who advocate Palestinian struggle, not compromise. And to argue that a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem will abate terror flies in the face of the realities following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon and Gaza.

Without Israel there to anchor Fatah’s control of the PA, Hamas will soon take over, central government will break down, and chaos and factional violence will emerge, impacting on Jordan (as the Gaza withdrawal did in the case of Egypt) and regional stability in general.

Here again, as with Lebanon and Gaza, the proposal projects Israeli weakness in the face of adversity and, in a twist of logic, advocates for the erection of a barrier between peoples in the hope that it brings them closer toward peace.

There is also the internal Israeli dimension. It does not take much to imagine the political and social consequences that a unilateral relocation – probably forced – of 100,000 Israeli citizens from their homes would cause in the country. If the Gaza evacuation was a tremor, this would be an earthquake. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government tried for nearly a year to induce Gaza’s Jewish residents to leave with appalling results. Here the scales are multiplied many times over. Having to give up one’s home in the context of a negotiated settlement by a representative government is one thing; doing so for nothing in return seems patently incomprehensible.

Those who oppose this thinking transcend the usual political borders in Israel. They range from those who cannot understand why Israel should give up negotiating cards for nothing in return, to those who think Israel has a right to all the land.

In the not-too-distant future, the Israeli electorate may be asked to vote on the issue. There is now a public campaign afoot for a referendum on the issue.

Few, however, no matter from which side of the political spectrum, will fully understand the concept placed before them, or the importance of its implications. This essay is intended to fill that gap.

The Labor Party and Unilateral Withdrawal from the West Bank

In February 2016, the Labor Party Congress unanimously voted to make a unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians a central pillar of its platform, the first change to the party’s platform since 2002.

Behind the decision were two motives: a loss of hope that a two-state solution based on territorial compromise is currently attainable, and that the status quo on the West Bank is unsustainable.

Unless Israel takes its future into its own hands, they argue, to change the current dynamic, the status quo will ultimately lead to a one-state reality in which the Palestinians will be the majority, and Israel will be doomed as a Jewish democratic state.

They fear that the current government’s policy of allowing settlement expansion based upon natural population growth will lead to an irreversible situation on the West Bank, leaving nothing to negotiate if the Palestinians ever decide to come to the table.

In the words of Isaac Herzog, the Labor Party leader, in explaining the rationale for the change in Labor’s platform:

Separation and the prevention of the reality of a bi-national state is a top priority for Israel….The goal of separation from our neighbors, the Palestinians, is of such vital strategic importance that if talks fail we will have to consider a proactive initiative of our own…

We can all say two states, two states, while, in practice, the situation is moving toward one state and nothing is being done about it.

Labor’s policy of unilateral separation from the Palestinians was born out of failure, not ideology; frustration, not vision.

As explained by Amos Yadlin, a former head of IDF intelligence and Labor’s defense minister-designate in the 2015 national elections, in a 2016 post for the Brooking Institution:

  • Reaching an agreement (with the Palestinians) is harder today than it was in either 2000 or 2008. Even the moderates among the Palestinians are unwilling to concede a right of return, to acknowledge an “end of conflict and end of claims,” to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, or to allow basic security arrangements that will ease Israel’s justified concerns.
  • It appears that in 2016, the Palestinians do not view a two-state solution, along the Clinton Parameters, as a preferred outcome. Instead, their discourse is rooted in a “return of rights” in historic Palestine as a whole (including Israel), in accordance with both the Hamas and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) …
  • For the Palestinian leadership, all paths lead to the same destination: either Israel accepts their conditions (which, through flooding Israel with refugees, will lead to the demise of Israel as a Jewish state) or the status quo persists, and Israel is supposedly lost.

Unilateralism is not new to Israel in its interaction with its neighbors. In May 2000, after being in office for less than a year, the Labor prime minister, Ehud Barak withdrew all Israeli forces from Lebanon after a two-decade presence there.

In August 2005, Ariel Sharon, then the prime minister, unilaterally withdrew all Israeli forces and settlers from Gaza in a process that fractured Israel internally and led to the mass eviction of 8,000 settlers and the razing of 21 settlements.

The most comprehensive, and recent, outline of Labor’s proposal, is as follows:

  • Israel should present an initiative for a final agreement with the Palestinians, based on the Clinton Parameters: generous borders for a future Palestinian state, demilitarized Palestinian state and no compromises on Israeli security, a commitment to an end of conflict and end of claims, and a Palestinian relinquishment of implementing a “right of return.”
  • Should the (preferable) bilateral track fail, Israel should move to a regional track, including the moderate Arab states – led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan – in an effort to reach a final-status agreement.
  • If the moderate Arab states are unwilling or unable to contribute, Israel can aim to secure interim agreements with the Palestinians.
  • Interim agreements would necessitate abandoning the principle of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” and shifting the paradigm to a principle of gradual implementation of any area of agreement, deferring talks on more contentious subjects to a later time. 
  • Only if all these paths fail, Israel should embark on a long-term independent strategy for shaping its borders.
  • This strategy should be innovative and creative, removing the effective veto Palestinians have over Israel’s future.
  • It would require as much coordination as possible with the United States and the international community.
  • It would leave open the option for a return to the negotiating table and to a negotiated settlement and reinforces the agreed two-state solution paradigm.
  • Likewise, this route undermines and prevents the most problematic outcomes, namely, the continuation of the status quo or a final agreement without an end of conflict and security arrangements, and the flooding of Israel with refugees.

An independent Israeli strategy would therefore involve:

  • Israel’s willingness to hand over 80 to 85 percent of the West Bank – a willingness demonstrated by undertaking concrete steps on the ground.
  • Israel would need to initiate further redeployments from the West Bank, not including the Jordan Valley, the “settlement blocs,” and east Jerusalem.
  • The transfer of Area B and much of Area C to full Palestinian responsibility.
  • The full completion of the security barrier in areas that are currently lacking in order to provide Israel with a contiguous and defensible border.
  • A full cessation of Israeli settlement construction beyond the declared lines.
  • A plan, preferably under an agreement, to resettle Israelis living east of these lines into Israel-proper, preferably to the Galilee, the Negev, and the main settlements blocs.
  • Responsibility for the security of Israel remaining in the hands of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the proper Israeli authorities.
  • Israel must preserve its capacity to conduct preventive action, hot pursuit, border control, and air security.
  • However, the IDF must try to minimize such operations in the evacuated territories.

Amos Yadlin, the primary architect of the plan, wrote in 2016:

This independent strategy would allow Israel to pursue a solution from a point of strength, rather than being dictated by outside forces or waves of terror. It represents a long-term, paradigm-changing option which would preserve the two-state solution while removing several of the most serious obstacles to such a solution.

Past experience, however, seems to prove that assessment optimistic. In the pullbacks from both Lebanon and Gaza there was an inherent logic, but in neither case did expectations meet reality.

Instead, in both cases, as outlined in detail below, unintended consequences prevailed over intentions, as will be the case here, but only with greater and more permanent damage to Israel and its future.

The Flaws and Consequences of a Unilateral Withdrawal from the West Bank

At the foundation of the thinking of those who propose a unilateral withdrawal from large tracts of the West Bank is that the status quo is untenable, certainly undesirable; that creeping Israeli settlement there will create an irreversible situation, making a two-state solution impossible, if and when the Palestinians want to come to the table.

This, they argue, will inexorably lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

They claim there is a need to end “the Palestinian veto” over Israel’s future, and that it is time for Israel to take the initiative to protect the country’s nature and values and to protect it physically.

They concede that past unilateral moves had unintended consequences, but argue that these were the fault of poor execution, rather than flaws in the concept itself, which they now want to repeat in a much more complex environment with far higher stakes involved.

The Flaws in the Assumption
  • The status quo is sustainable, governed by accepted norms of international law, the Israeli judiciary and the still valid principles evolved from the Oslo Accords.
  • If those favoring unilateral separation were to be elected, there would be no need to retreat, as they could stop settlement activity and thereby keep the two-state option alive.
  • Israel has formally committed itself in the Oslo Accords not to alter the status of the areas in question. Hence the assumption that their status will be changed and incorporated by osmosis into Israel is incorrect.
  • Thus, regardless of which government comes to power, the status quo remains open-ended and sustainable, without any long- or short-term threat to Israel demographically or democratically.
  • The incumbent Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has control and authority over the areas it governs, in accordance with the Oslo Accords, administratively and legislatively, including internal security.
  • The PLO, at its own volition, was declared a “non-member observer state” by the UN General Assembly on November 14, 2012.
  • It is highly unlikely that Israel would annex these areas, and thus they pose no threat to Israel’s Jewish or democratic identity.
  • What remains in question, therefore, is not whether there is a Palestinian representative entity, but its final borders and internal political nature, neither of which Israel can resolve unilaterally.
  • While the unilateralists assume they will be able to get international and Palestinian cooperation and recognition for their move, in reality, it will be seen as a unilateral Israeli land-grab of 20 percent of the West Bank, in contravention of Israel’s commitments in the Oslo Accords and vis-à-vis the international community, and as a provocation by the Palestinians.
  • And while the unilateralists claim their withdrawal will cement the reality of a two-states-for-two-peoples solution in the future, tampering with the status quo will derail these efforts, convincing the Palestinians that Israel wants a barrier, not peace, between the sides.
The Consequences

Few would argue that the current situation on the West Bank is desirable. Lack of clarity between neighbors is always problematic. The solution, however, is not to be found in defeatism or panic.

 “When standing on the edge of a cliff, it is wiser to keep still than step forward,” Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, a former head of the Israel National Security Council, wrote in June 2016. “It is wiser to defer action than to take unilateral steps that threaten to make a bad situation worse.”

These are some of the potential consequences of unilateral withdrawal:

  • The move will not enhance Israel’s security as the unilateralists claim. It will harm it.
  • The security cooperation Israel now has with the PA will dissipate.
  • The security advantages provided by Israel’s physical military deployment in the territories will be lost.
  • The ability to contain, pre-empt, or respond to threats effectively and surgically will be limited.
  • Re-entering these territories to cope with threats will open Israel up to charges against it and increase casualties on the Israeli side to do so.
  • The intelligence benefits afforded by cooperation and current deployment will be adversely affected and, with it, Israel’s ability to preempt terror.
  • Again, Israel will be perceived as leaving the battlefield in the face of adversity.
  • This will encourage the extremists and undermine Israeli deterrence. It will embolden the rejectionists.
  • Palestinian terrorism will not be contained by the security barrier but will find a way under it, over it, and around it.
  • Terror can be expected to intensify, given the economic and political realities Israel’s unilateral withdrawal will create.
  • Withdrawal from 80 percent of the West Bank will not clear Israel of the claim that it is still an occupying power.
  • Nor will it lead to an abatement of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian efforts to delegitimize Israel and undermine its historic claims.
  • It will not end efforts to boycott Israel, but will intensify them with claims that by creating a West Bank “prison,” cut off by Israeli forces in all directions, Israel will be accused of human rights abuses, including ethnic cleansing.
  • These charges will amplify with tens of thousands of Palestinians being cut off from their jobs in Israel and Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem unilaterally deprived of their existing rights and financial benefits as Israeli residents.
  • Given the nature of the territory vacated, any Israeli retaliation to provocation will almost automatically be branded as a “disproportionate use of force.”
  • As opposed to the impression of unilateralism being a temporary move, it will be seen as a move by Israel to create a permanent new reality, a Palestinian ghetto in the West Bank, all talk of a future agreement being seen as lip-service and not intent.
  • The move will not move the Palestinians to the negotiating table as hoped but will be seen as further proof that Israel wants to expand its hold on territories those Palestinians who do support a two-state solution see as theirs.

By the Labor Party’s own admission, unilateralism does not connote the quest for peace, but rather recognition that peace in a negotiated two-states-for-two-peoples framework with the Palestinians is not possible at this time. It connotes recognition of the true goal of the Palestinian leadership that wants it all and believes that with patience and fortitude, like Hizbullah and Hamas before them, they will eventually achieve their goal.

Those who oppose unilateralism, place as their baseline for future negotiation, not the security fence, but unequivocal and irreversible Palestinian recognition of Israel as the legitimate homeland of the Jewish People and the legitimacy of Israel’s historical bond to Jerusalem.

Until such time as this happens, they are prepared to maintain the status quo, taking into account the expansion of existing settlements on non-private land as dictated by natural growth and in accordance with Israeli law.

Logically, one would suppose this seepage should provide a massive incentive for the Palestinians to come to the table if they want a solution based on two states for two peoples. Until then, however, better Israeli boots on the ground than faith in a wall to protect Israel from violence.

The Conclusions to be Drawn

The unilateralists seemed to have learned little from the lessons of the past.

  • Once Israel is out of the territory, no one has direct control over how the vacuum will be filled.
  • Pushing the Palestinians into a virtual ghetto, cutting them off from their sources of income and benefits, and limiting freedom of travel will not encourage moderation in the West Bank, but desperation, radicalization, and determination.
  • Instead of a potential partner, no matter how slight the possibility, Israel will find yet another radicalized enemy on its border, atop existing PA and Hamas arsenals, capable of inflicting potentially serious damage to Israel’s heartland that, in the end, will necessitate Israel re-taking the territories it unconditionally gave up.
  • In order for the Palestinians to come to the table, they have to see a resilient Israel. The settlement reality should be their incentive, as should the fate of the territories in which radical Islam has begun to take hold.

The Palestinians have to understand and accept that modern Israel is not another foreign invader in the land, but a people with roots here and a long and painful history to prove it.

The unilateralists say that by withdrawing, Israel is taking its future into its own hands and ending the “Palestinian veto” over our lives. The opposite is true. By standing firm and not running in the face of adversity, Israel controls its own destiny, maximizes its security and fully maintains the only cards it has with which to negotiate its future.

Despite months of preparation and effort, the wrenching of 8,000 Israeli settlers from their homes and fields in Gaza left deep scars on Israeli society. It pitched soldiers against their families and brother against brother. It generated some of the largest and most violent protests in Israel’s history.

Israel had no emotional or historical attachment to Gaza. In the West Bank, the territory in question is etched deep in the identity of every Jew, not just the Jewish residents of the West Bank. Scenes from the forced evacuation of three settlements in northern Samaria, as part of the Gaza withdrawal, were unique in the passion and determination demonstrated by those who opposed the move and an indication of things to come.

Thus:

  • The belief that some 100,000 people will vacate their homes in return for incentives, including the ideologues among them, is a pipedream in the context of an unconditional withdrawal from the West Bank or Jerusalem.
  • The move will tear Israel apart and pose a threat to democratic rule.
  • It will cause dissent in the army and crack national unity, playing directly into the hands of those Palestinians who want a weak Israel.
  • Borders drawn unilaterally will not receive international legitimacy.
  • Neither will the Palestinians cooperate with having yet another 20 percent of their land unilaterally taken by Israel, albeit supposedly temporarily.
  • It makes no sense for Israel to risk deep division, if not a civil war, for no Palestinian quid-pro-quo in return, or to risk creating a radicalized and bitter enemy on its border with the means and the will to cause it harm.

The way to make peace is not by giving away assets, but maintaining them until the partner comes to the table to negotiate, in accordance with the obligations to which it is committed and pursuant to its existing agreements with Israel.

The essence of peace is interaction between people, not a wall between them.

Maintaining the present is the path to the future, not repeating the mistakes of the past.

Assessing Past Strategies to Understand Future Implications

The Case of Lebanon

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak had placed ending Israel’s two-decade presence in Lebanon high on his agenda when running for prime minister in the 1999 elections. By May 24, 2000, the last Israeli left Lebanese territory, ending what the media called the “Lebanese quagmire.”

The rationale for this was, among other reasons:

  • Hizbullah had moved into Southern Lebanon.
  • Israel’s ally there, the South Lebanese Army, had collapsed.
  • The main reason for Israel’s presence, Palestinian terror, was no longer an issue.
  • Hizbullah’s campaign against Israel’s presence on Lebanese territory was costing Israel mounting casualties in the face of diminished returns.
  • It was assumed that by withdrawing, Israel would satisfy Hizbullah’s stated cause-du-guerre, thus bringing peace and stability to Israel’s northern frontier.
  • It was also assumed that Israel’s withdrawal to the internationally-recognized border would improve Israel’s international relations.
  • It would afford Israel legitimacy if it needed to attack against future aggression.
  • The vast superiority of the Israel Defense Forces over those of Hizbullah would provide deterrence.
  • It was hoped that the move would lead to international pressure on the Syrians to follow suit and remove their forces from Lebanon.

 Few of these suppositions, however, came out as expected.

  • Hizbullah moved into the vacuum left by Israel in Southern Lebanon and became highly militarized.
  • Their self-declared victory propelled them into becoming the dominant force in Lebanon politically and militarily.
  • Hizbullah and the Lebanese government insisted that Israel had not returned to the international border, but continued to occupy the Shab’a Farms, a slither of land at the junction of Lebanon’s border with Syria, claimed by the Syrians to be theirs.
  • The conflict, in other words, remained open.
  • The manner of Israel’s withdrawal, done in secret and under cover of darkness to minimize potential casualties, was depicted as retreating like thieves in the night, playing into Hizbullah’s narrative of achieving the first Arab victory over Israel in history.
  • “Israel may have nuclear weapons and heavy weaponry, but, as God lives, it is weaker than a cobweb,” Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah boasted in his victory speech, pointedly made in the town of Bint Jebeil, once a South Lebanese Army stronghold.
  • It turned Hizbullah into a role model for others fighting Israel.
  • As Nasrallah told the Palestinians: “In order to liberate your lands, you do not need tanks or airplanes. Learn from the holy martyrs; you (too) can impose your demands on the Zionist aggressor” – a message that obviously resonated with the Palestinians. Arafat launching the Second Intifada some four months later.
  • Hizbullah’s perceived victory propelled it from a marginal Shia organization into the main force in Lebanon and, with it, Iran.
  • Hizbullah’s aggression against Israel did not end, but continued incessantly, culminating in the 2006 Lebanese War – a 34-day conflict Israel had wrongly assumed would be deterred by its disproportionate strength.
  • The international support Israel thought would be forthcoming, if it needed to defend itself after leaving Lebanon, turned into international condemnation for “Israel’s disproportionate response” in its use of force when it had to do so.

Also:

  • The Syrians did not withdraw from Lebanon but remained entrenched for another five years.
  • Hizbullah, and not the Lebanese government or army, filled the vacuum left by Israel’s departure, opening the way for Iran to gain a major foothold in the country.
  • Hizbullah, despite the heavy damage to its military infrastructure in the 2006 war, and despite Nasrallah being forced to live in hiding to this day, has become a major military force with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles in its arsenals, including those capable of striking deep into Israel’s heartland.
  • Using Lebanon as a base, Hizbullah has also grown into an Iranian expeditionary force involved in other conflicts in the region, specifically in Syria fighting on behalf of the regime and gaining valuable military experience in the process.
  •  
  • Iran, by having a well-armed proxy under its direct command in close proximity to Israel and with the means to threaten Israel’s heartland, has added a layer of deterrence against any Israeli designs on its nuclear facilities. Israel must now take a retaliatory attack from Lebanese territory into account.

There was logic in pulling Israeli forces out of Lebanon, but the pullback was done in haste. Not enough thought was given to the aftershock, to the resulting political chaos that would fill the vacuum caused by Israel’s retreat, or capitulation, as some would say.

There were other, more measured, ways to solve the problem: negotiation; third-party intervention; tactical adjustments; better defensive measures; increasingly painful retaliation in the face of provocation; a targeted campaign against Hizbullah’s leadership; exposing Iran’s subterfuge and meddling in the region; forging new alliances with those of common cause – the list of options was endless.

Retreating under cover of darkness, in a move interpreted by Israel’s enemies as weakness, and by Hizbullah as a victory, should not have been the prime option, however.

The Case of Gaza

Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 was a very different experience from that in Lebanon in all ways but one – the unexpected consequences of the move: the emergence, two years later, of an Iranian-supported Islamic fundamentalist proxy, Hamas, on Israel’s southern border, and the three full-scale wars and countless attacks and counter-attacks that have ensued since.

Unlike Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, however, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza involved the uprooting of 21 settlements and eviction, mostly forcibly, of 8,000 Israeli residents from their homes.

The architect of the move was Ariel Sharon, elected prime minister in 2001, and an unlikely candidate to be the first Israeli leader to willingly and unconditionally uproot settlements and hand over territory to the Palestinians for nothing in return.

In the period leading up to Sharon’s change in thinking, the Palestinian second intifada continued to flare, though Israel and the Palestinians had accepted the American-sponsored Roadmap to Peace in the spring of 2003. Sharon accused the Palestinians of having “sabotaged the process with a series of the most brutal terror attacks we have ever known.”

In December 2003, with Israeli civilian casualties mounting, Sharon unveiled his “Disengagement Plan,” named as such to avoid the negative connotations associated with “withdrawal.”

In words reminiscent of those being used today by the proponents of unilateralism, he explained the logic behind his decision. Here follow key quotes from Sharon’s 2003 address to the Fourth Herzliya Conference:

  • The purpose of the Disengagement Plan is to reduce terror as much as possible and grant Israeli citizens the maximum level of security.
  • The process of disengagement will lead to an improvement in the quality of life and will help strengthen the Israeli economy.
  • The unilateral steps which Israel will take in the framework of the Disengagement Plan will be fully coordinated with the United States.
  • We must not harm our strategic coordination with the United States.
  • We are interested in conducting direct negotiations, but do not intend to hold Israeli society hostage in the hands of the Palestinians.
  • We will not wait for them indefinitely.
  • The Disengagement Plan will include the redeployment of IDF forces along new security lines and a change in the deployment of settlements which will reduce as much as possible the number of Israelis located in the heart of the Palestinian population.
  • Security will be provided by IDF deployment, the security fence, and other physical obstacles. The Disengagement Plan will reduce friction between the Palestinians and us.
  • This reduction of friction will require the extremely difficult step of changing the deployment of some of the settlements.
  • I would like to repeat what I have said in the past: In the framework of a future agreement, Israel will not remain in all the places where it is today.
  • The relocation of settlements will be made, first and foremost, in order to draw the most efficient security line possible, thereby creating this disengagement between Israel and the Palestinians.
  • This security line will not constitute the permanent border of the State of Israel; however, as long as implementation of the Roadmap is not resumed, the IDF will be deployed along that line.
  • Settlements which will be relocated are those which will not be included in the territory of the State of Israel in the framework of any possible future permanent agreement.
  • At the same time, in the framework of the Disengagement Plan, Israel will strengthen its control over those same areas in the Land of Israel which will constitute an inseparable part of the State of Israel in any future agreement.
  • The Disengagement Plan is a security measure, not a political one and [does] not come in the way…of reaching an agreed settlement.
  • It is a step Israel will take in the absence of any other option, in order to improve its security.

Guiding his logic were the following elements:

  • Gaza was never intended to be part of Israel under any arrangement with the Palestinians.
  • It was, therefore, not disputed territory.
  • Israel does not consider Gaza part of the Land of Israel and has no biblical, historical or emotional affinity there.
  • Peace with Egypt had made the concept of a Gaza buffer zone anachronistic.
  • He viewed Gaza as an impediment, an unnecessary and costly side-show to the main goal of securing Israel’s hold over Judea and Samaria.
  • He judged the Gaza settlements to be counter-productive, necessitating a disproportionally large military presence to defend them.
  • He saw Israeli responsibility for over a million Palestinians in Gaza as a millstone around Israel’s neck and a potential demographic danger to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.
  • It tightened Israel’s relationship with the Bush Administration and was supported by President Bush in a letter that supported a non-return to the 1967 lines.

But, as in the case of Lebanon, in the end, it was the unintended consequences that shaped the future, not the logic behind the move. In the case of Gaza:

  • In 2007, Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Fatah and the PA.
  • Gaza came under the control of a rejectionist, Iranian-supported, Islamic fundamentalist enemy on its southern front – as had happened in the north.
  • In consequence, Gaza went from being a tactical military problem to a strategic one, from a localized issue to a regional one.
  • Instead of a negotiating partner in Gaza, Israel now had an implacable enemy.
  • Instead of security cooperation with the PA in Gaza, Israel now had a well-armed, well-trained and dedicated enemy on its southern border.
  • Expected international support for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza turned into condemnation of Israel for alleged use of “disproportionate force” when forced to defend itself.
  • The withdrawal of forces was seen as weakness in the face of adversity by the Arab world, harming Israel’s deterrence.
  • This perception of weakness encouraged those who resisted compromise.
  • Israel’s willingness to uproot settlements in Gaza for no reward in return gave hope to the Palestinians that it would eventually do the same in the West Bank.
  • Despite Sharon’s assumption that the uprooting of the Gaza settlements could be done while maintaining national unity, the move, in fact, tore Israel apart internally and heightened the political rift in the country.
  • The move did not improve Israel’s security situation as expected, but worsened it in a fundamental way, as illustrated by the three full-scale wars and thousands of cross-border incidents that followed the withdrawal.
A General Assessment of Unilateralism in Lebanon and Gaza

A study titled “Israel’s Strategy of Unilateral Withdrawal” by Dr. Shmuel Even, published by the Institute for National Security Studies in its journal Strategic Assessment in June 2009, was devastating in its conclusions. “In the end,” he writes, “the strategy of unilateral withdrawal (in both cases) caused Israel significant damage.”

His main points:

  • In both sectors from which Israel withdrew, the security threats grew stronger.
  • The withdrawals hurt Israel’s image as an entity that cannot be vanquished by military force and strengthened the radical axis in the Arab world.
  • Secondary confrontation arenas turned into major fronts.
  • Unilateral withdrawal and its implementation strengthened the image of the Shiite and Palestinian struggle and its values of patience, self-sacrifice, endurance, resistance, and devotion to the land.
  • It demonstrated to the radical Islamic camp that it could achieve extraordinary success even without negotiations, which was quite perturbing to the pragmatic camp in the Arab world.

In Even’s judgment, “the strategy of unilateral withdrawal did not meet expectations because of some erroneous basic assumptions, estimates, and concepts that lay at the heart of the approach,” – or precisely the same mistakes about to be repeated by those now propagating a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. ESR

Hirsh Goodman established the program on media strategy at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. He was a former military correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Report, and a strategic fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His Jerusalem Center publications include The Gaza War 2014: The War Israel Did Not Want and the Disaster It Averted (2015) and The Knife and the Message: The Roots of the New Palestinian Uprising (2016).

 

 

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