Ariel Sharon’s death has sparked discussions on the possibility of Israel unilaterally withdrawing from West Bank. Sharon famously ordered the unilateral withdrawal of Jewish settlers from Gaza in the summer of 2005, and he apparently had similar plans for the West Bank.
Before becoming ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren had endorsed disengaging from the West Bank if peace talks continued to flail. No longer ambassador, he re-endorsed the idea in his recent obituary for Sharon: “One solution [to failed peace talks] could be a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank. . . . unlike in Gaza, most Israeli settlements would remain within Israel, and Israeli troops would still patrol strategic borders.”
Gabi Ashkenazi, the former-Chief of General Staff of the IDF, has also offered public support for this proposal, as have former-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Amos Yadlin, former-head honcho of Israel’s military intelligence.
On the other side of the debate, Jeffrey Goldberg has written that Sharon’s most profound mistake “was leaving [Gaza] unilaterally. A negotiated withdrawal . . . could have extracted important concessions from Palestinians. Instead, radicals in Gaza were empowered by Sharon’s unilateralism.” Goldberg ignores other factors that led to the empowerment of Palestinian radicals — the utter incompetence of Fatah, for one — but his analysis is mostly correct. At the very least, the disengagement from Gaza provided a vacuum that allowed Hamas to take control of the streets. In his column, Goldberg doesn’t take a side in the debate over disengaging from the West Bank, but his account of the Gaza disengagement certainly raises difficult questions.
Martin Sherman, the executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, has also added his two cents to the debate. His column concedes that Michael Oren is “erudite, eloquent and elegant,” but he nonetheless questions Oren’s political acumen and familiarity with the Middle East.
Sherman seems to believe that smugly insulting others — “disastrous and delusional debacle,” “nutty notion,” “anyone with half a brain,” “harebrained and hazardous hallucination,” “recklessly irresponsible,” “claptrap,” “unmoored from any trace of reality,” “foolish” — makes for persuasive arguments. It does not.
Indeed, he doesn’t counter his opponents’ arguments, so much as he dismisses them a flick of the wrist. There is, he writes, an “absence of persuasive evidence” to support Oren’s opinion. Well then, case closed.
Perhaps not. I’d like to take a crack at offering some “persuasive” evidence.
The West Bank isn’t Gaza and 2014 isn’t 2005:
Sherman’s argument, boiled down to one sentence, is: “If you thought disengaging from Gaza was bad, wait until we unilaterally disengage from the West Bank.” But the similarities between withdrawing from Gaza in 2005 and from the West Bank in 2014 are superficial, at best.
Israel’s disengagement from Gaza coincided with the official end of the Second Intifada. In 2005, Israel had just won a protracted fight against terrorists. Fatah, which had been the dominant political party in Palestinian politics for decades, had recently lost its leader, the singular figure of the Palestinian struggle, Yasser Arafat. Looking back, it is clear that Hamas was the ascendant party in Palestinian politics.
Palestinians were rightly mad at Fatah. Arafat’s old party was decrepit, utterly corrupt, and incompetent. After publicly renouncing violence (in English, not Arabic), Arafat’s efforts in recent years had brought the Palestinians no closer to a state. Hamas, on the other hand, was not yet saddled with the difficulties of governance, and its untempered extremism gave voice to similar-minded Palestinians and to those who were simply tired of the status quo. In 2005, Hamas was a splash of color in a sea of pale grey.
Hamas is now seen as equally decrepit, equally inept, and equally corrupt. In almost every way, Hamas is weaker now than it was in when it consolidated its control of Gaza in 2007. Hamas is financially strapped and politically isolated. The fortunes of Hamas might have turned around with continued support from the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, but the current military-backed government is downright hostile to Hamas.
In 2005, Hamas and other terrorist groups could claim, with at least some credibility, that violence had whittled Israel’s resolve to protect its limited holdings in Gaza. In 2014, no similar claim can be made. The number of terrorist attacks has plummeted, partly due to security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has resorted to largely non-violent protests, like vying for statehood at the United Nations and boycotting settler goods. If disengaging from Gaza empowered Hamas, then by the same logic, withdrawing from the West Bank should empower the more moderate Fatah.
If Israel seizes the initiative and unilaterally withdraws, then it could decide which settlements are strategically necessary. Israel could also maintain a presence along the Jordan River as a safeguard against attacks from the east, and it could then annex the territory it had retained. This would send a clear message to the Palestinians: Stop blaming us, and create your own damn state.
It’s self-evident that unilaterally withdrawing presents Israel with more sway in determining its future borders than would negotiations with the Palestinians. Indeed, unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank could be the ultimate compromise between Israeli hawks and doves, since it could achieve both of their objectives: secure borders and Palestinian statehood, respectively.
If Peace Talks Fail, Then What?:
It has become a cliche to argue that, in the long run, Israel cannot maintain control over the Palestinians of the West Bank while remaining a majority-Jewish democracy. Now, there are at least two problems with this kind of thinking. First, “long-run” is a purposefully opaque time-horizon that could mean a year from now . . . or thirty. Second, the underlying demographics are more hazy than many let on. Still, controlling millions of Palestinians, who don’t want to be under Israeli control, is clearly not in the Jewish State’s self-interest.
For decades, the international consensus has been that Israel must negotiate with Palestinians in order to create a Palestinian state. More importantly, it is a consensus among Israelis. But negotiations have continuously failed, and there’s no reason to expect the current talks to have a different result. After all, the fundamental disagreements between the two sides remain, and Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip only complicates matters.
So what is Martin Sherman’s plan when peace talks fail? How should Israel respond when European nations start upping the pressure on Israel? Or when America does? What if the failure of peace talks weakens Fatah — couldn’t this strengthen Hamas and other terrorist groups?
At the very least, this topic deserves more debate, not more of Martin Sherman’s lame, unpersuasive insults.