Praise and condemnation alike have been heaped on the current United States administration concerning the abrupt end to a twenty year war. For some, severing our military exploits in Afghanistan represents the curtain call of a disastrous twenty year foray that left countless dead and little in the way of lasting benefit, be they humanitarian or geo-politcal. As the last airlifts leave Kabul, many a sigh of relief has been released that Middle Eastern forever wars are no more, and the quicksand, legendarily referenced as the “graveyard of empires,” is our responsibility no longer.
Still others, instead of jubilation, sit in sackcloth and ashes, mourning broken promises and the abandonment of allies to the Taliban. Vicious warlords are draped in clericism, where the West is enemy number one and Kalashnikov’s are always in style. In lieu of their ascendence overnight, the lives of minorities, political or religious, have become precarious. For those of the interventionist bent, American military boots in the Middle East represent stability, their absence an invitation for anarchy and terror. The ever shrinking American footprint in the region, they argue, facilitates the power vacuum being filled by terror groups, such as ISIS or the Taliban on the one hand or by dangerous Imperialist rivals such as China and Russia on the other, all at the expense of our allies, global commerce, and those that must habituate under their sway. Neo-isolationists, those that favor an relinquishment of Middle Eastern responsibility, retort that American lives ought not be lost or mutilated for conflicts that not only do we fail to ameliorate but rather inflame and protract by orders of magnitude. The misfortune of choosing between continuing a sisyphean military campaign, where no matter how much resources or human lives you chuck at it, you’re still standing in the same place victory elusive, or licking your wounds, ceding land and authority to your enemies come what may, is an unenviable situation to be in. It is also a situation that America’s closest ally in the Middle East, Israel, has found itself in many times over.
Weighing the benefits and drawbacks of militarily withdrawal in exchange for an end of hostilities has been an experiment run in Israel many times over. The lessons and histories of Israel’s withdrawal from territories have many similarities, and not a few differences that separate it from America’s Afghanistan imbroglio. It’s necessary to run through Israel’s historical record of withdrawals that though cosmetically similar, are also quite different, as well as to enumerate the wages that forever wars have exacted upon Israel as a whole, and what, if anything, are we to make of it.
A Brief History of Conquest and Resolution
Israel was strong-armed to withdraw from territory during its 1948 War of Independence and the 1956 Suez War against Egypt by superpowers unwilling to allow Israel, drunk on success, to carve from its neighbors unbounded. Israel’s first major decision (sans super-power arm twisting) to formally withdraw from territory was also its largest and most successful. In 1982, as a component of Israel’s first formal peace agreement with an Arab nation, the Sinai Peninsula (a landmass far larger than the entirety of Israel itself) was returned to Egypt. The Sinai was part of an amalgamation of territories won by Israel over its neighbors in lightning fashion during the Six Day war of 1967. Israel was largely able to hold onto the territorial swaths as long as they did as a result of geo-political realignment that saw Israel’s success rewarded by induction to America’s coterie of Cold War allies.
Nevertheless, one major war with Egypt later (coupled with arguably the most daring Arab leaders of his time, Anwar Sadat, whose willingness for rapprochement with an arch-foe was commendable) allowed Israel the necessary impetus to trade in the Sinai for peace. What was previously a massive geographical buffer between both adversaries, Israel’s newfound security was essentially buttressed by a leap of faith. Israel’s only prize being a piece of paper and promises of tranquility. To the surprise of statesmen and citizenry alike, the peace remained iron-clad. The triumph of “land for peace” diplomacy subsequently ushered in an era of optimism for Israelis. For many, it served as a harbinger of future diplomatic triumphs. “Israeli strength of arms had been resolutely shown to our neighbors, and their appetite for war depleted, if only we can satiate their irredentist predilections will our final integration into the region be complete,” so they reasoned. With American assistance, a variety of peace talks between Israel and its neighbors sprouted with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) over final status for Palestinian statehood, and with Syria, over the Golan Heights and Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon (Syria had large political influence over Lebanon during that time). Hopes were soon dashed, however, when talks of peace and withdrawals from territory only brought more bloodshed and more distance between Israel’s quest for lasting peace in the region.
In 1994 the Oslo Accords were inked between Israel and the PLO. Indeed, the cosmic battle for land between rival nationalisms, Jewish and Palestinian, seemed even less amenable to rapprochement than the previous agreement reached with Egypt. Bedeviling statesmen have aimed for resolution since the ink dried on the 1917 Balfour Declaration, and subsequent attempts at carving, transferring, and federating the land proved of no use. The rights over the land were sanctified by each nationalism as a birthright, the ceding of which tantamount to heresy. Nevertheless, Yasser Arafat, head of the PLO and seen by Israelis as a career bureaucrat in a terrorist apparatus, and Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli Prime Minister who for Palestinians represented little more than the head of a colonial-expansionist empire, made peace, or so it seemed at the time.
Rabin and Arafat would each earn Nobel Peace Prizes for their efforts. Historians would bemoan such honors as premature. The Accords represented a stop-gap measure that would see transitions and mutations in the status quo (such as Israeli withdrawal from small amounts territories in the West Bank and the deconstruction of Palestinian terror apparatuses) over a five year period and eventually give way to a lasting final status agreement culminating in Palestinian living side by side with Israel. The moment of truth came in 2000 at Camp David, where President Clinton attempted to complete the task of establishing a “two state solution” between longtime foes. In a decision whose reverberations we are still feeling today, Arafat turned down the offer from Prime Minister Ehud Barak that would have created a Palestinian State in 92 percent of the West Bank and the totality of Gaza and launched the bloodiest conflict in Israel’s modern history, The Second Intifada. The mood was succinctly expressed by Palestinian politician Faisal Husseini when he stated in reference to the plan: “There can be no compromise on the compromise.” The compromise was allowing Israel to have a state in borders captured in 1948, further haggling over those captured in 1967 was adding insult to injury. Still, others, like historian Efraim Karsh in his work “Arafat’s War: The Man and his Battle for Israeli Conquest,” treat Arafat’s maneuvering cynically, viewing the launching of the intifada as premeditated and his failure to offer Barak a counteroffer as evidence that Arafat had little appetite for state building and peace with his arch foe. Irrespective of the locus of causation, the Second Intifada was devastating for Israelis and Palestinians alike, claiming the lives of over 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians. In large measure, the deaths on both sides were civilians perishing from terrorist attacks or caught in the crossfire during Israeli commando raids.
Other Israeli withdrawals such as the evacuation of Lebanon and the ceding of the Gaza Strip to Palestians engendered similar bloodshed. In the former, Israel abandoned Southern Lebanon under backdrop of rocket fire from Hezbollah, an Iran acolyte that is now in possession of over 150,000 rockets able to hit with precision anywhere within Israel. Similarly, Israel’s evacuation of Gaza proved scarcely more viable an opportunity for peace. The terrorist organization Hamas took power largely by liquidating its opponents vindicating Mao Zedong’s quip that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Hamas’s second act was to sew terror by lobbing rockets indiscriminately into Israel. Hamas’s calculation vis a vis Israel reduces to a strategy of brinkmanship that foists the adversaries into a tit-for-tat exchange hovering on the precipice of war and occasionally, sliding into full fledged bellicosity. This has had the effect of all but destroying Gaza’s economy forcing large portions of its residents to rely on international aid. Despite the languishing of its residence, however, Hamas’ strategy has in fact paid large political dividends for Hamas. Hamas’ strategy of confronting Israel has established it in a heroic light as “the strongman,” of Gaza while the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank that now cooperates with Israel is seen as weak, corrupt, and having abandoned the cause of Palestinian liberation. Far from condemnations of a “forever war,” Gazans and many in the West Bank see their situation as a manichaean struggle that will inevitably see themselves victorious. Additional dividends, such as sapping Israel’s resources by keeping it ever alert and a moments notice away from military mobilization, as well as garnering international sympathy and subsequent condemnation of Israel that any renewed military operations engenders, all serve Hamas’ long-term strategy of defeating Israel.
Since the withdrawals, Israel has fought three major wars against Hamas and one against Hezbollah in 2006, with no verifiable end in sight. As perilous as these pullouts appear, however, this does not mean that it was foolhardy. Indeed, Israel’s occupation of these lands represented a “forever war” that necessitated Israeli leadership making difficult decisions where each choice involved a trade-off. In its evacuation, Israel has traded one forever war for another. Despite this, one may argue that disengagement was not such a disastrous strategy that Israeli public opinion polls would make you believe.
To begin with, Israel’s withdrawal from territories signaled to international actors its seriousness of making compromises, even when it came to rewarding large swaths of land to Palestinians with little to no practical benefit for Israelis. Concerning Gaza, many have theorized that then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gambled on a drastic maneuver to refocus attention away from his criminal investigations or in order to stave off international pressure on the much larger Israeli settlements within the West Bank. Regardless of the real reason Sharon embarked on withdrawal, it is clear that ceding Gaza to the Palestinians offered a real opportunity for the territory to flourish and herald to all the beneficence that a full-fledged Palestinian state would occasion. Regrettably, conflict has only intensified and criticism of Israel’s policies amplified.
There are those, such as Dov Weissglas, advisor to Sharon and intimately involved in the planning and execution of the Gaza pullout that still defend the plan. He argues in conversation with Nadav Shragai of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: “Hamas took over the Strip in June 2007, almost two years after the evacuation, in a violent military move. What is the connection between the disengagement and the Hamas takeover? How would the presence of isolated settlements in the densely populated Gaza Strip have prevented an armed takeover by Hamas? Already for many years IDF forces had not been deployed in the cities, villages, or refugee camps of the Strip; they encircled the Jewish settlements to protect them. The IDF had already withdrawn from the Strip in 1994. Exactly how could the small forces that remained to protect the settlements have prevented the Hamas takeover? And if Israel had wanted to defeat the Hamas revolution in Gaza, what was to stop it from going back in and doing so?” Regardless of Weissglas’s apologetics, the developments in Gaza have been a boon for Israel’s right-wing that in recent years has seen further legitimization and empowerment.
The precursor of Israel’s right wing, and on which much of its philosophy is based, stems from Ze’ev Jabotinsky and his famed 1923 essay, “The Iron Wall.” Jabotinsky’s essay argues that in order to achieve peace, Israel needs to display uncompromising strength and ironclad defenses in order that one day, Palestinians will eventually cede the unrealizable dream of ever conquering Israel. The problem with Jabotinsky’s thesis, however, is that it fails to account for the equally uncompromising opiate of religion and nationalism. The Jewish people waited over 2,000 years to get their homeland back; surely the Palestinians can be equally as stubborn. Indeed, the struggle for land has become a hereditary marker of Palestinian identity, passed from generation to generation with pride. Hamas’ ethos is firmly rooted in a radical interpretation of Islam that sees their war with Israel as an eternal struggle against evil, that neither loss of life nor the passing of time can dissipate. An optimist might point to Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt or Jordan, representing that peace with enemies is possible. However, if one analyzes the governments of Egypt and Jordan and compares them to the Palestinians, you will find entirely different regimes, moved by different principles. Peace with Egypt and Jordan represented negotiations with those committed to “realpolitik,” on the one hand, or the safeguarding of a long ruling monarchy on the other. None such trappings animate the motivations of Hamas. They welcome endless war as a vehicle for victory, as well as political aggrandizement with a piety that assures themselves of eventual triumph.
For the Israelis, endless war is not a tool for a future triumph, but a lever that must be occasionally pulled for survival. Israel’s only peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan, and now a smattering of Gulf countries can be largely understood through the lens of Jabotinsky’s “The Iron Wall” (peace through strength), combined with compromises at appropriate junctures. For ideological organizations, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel’s present strength is a mirage, to be swept away after the arc of destiny has completed its course. As an article of faith, Hamas and Hezbollah believe victory over Israel to be an inevitability, with only the exact date of the Jewish State’s demise being open for debate. Similarly, compromise has brought no such reprieve, only whetting the appetite of groups calculating that concessions equal weakness and furthering their desire to see their mission through.
Some commentators have opined that the bellicosity emanating from the Gaza Strip are largely factors of economic insecurity, or “daily humiliations,” by the Israeli security forces, and if only these catalysts were remedied would peace and prosperity reign over the land. It is quite true that there are vicious excesses enacted by the Israeli security forces and that they must be held accountable by the international community. However, it is clear that commentators who echo these refrains have inverted causation. There is not unrest because of security restrictions, there are security restrictions because of unrest. When Gaza was evacuated, it could have become an economic and cultural jewel on the Mediterranean. All the opportunities lay before it for economic boom and humanitarian investment. Indeed, in 2017, then Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed the building of an airport, seaport, and various industrial zones infusing the enclave with capital and rejuvenating an economy long stalled. The catch: Hamas would have to demilitarize, largely ending their military exploits against Israel. Hamas said no, preferring a revolution awash in rockets rather than industry.
In the West Bank, the notorious “wall,” stretching across the boundary between Israel and the West Bank, security checkpoints for Palestinians wishing to travel to select areas within, and an amalgamation of soldiers and guard towers all serve to facilitate imagery of incarceration or apartheid. However, one must be mindful of the arrow of causation. Here too, these security measures were hoisted as a stop-gap measure against the roiling terrorism of the Second Intifada that saw suicide bombers and armed militias kill over 1,000 Israelis, largely civilians. One must also note that occupation, (until recently), was never considered as a permanent state of affairs. Palestinians were offered territorial compromise, “two states for two peoples,” in 1937, 1948, 1967, 2000, and 2008 all to no avail. Indeed, Palestinian rejectionism facilitated Israeli protectionism.
Israel’s willingness for peace with its neighbors is baked into the very foundations of Zionism. From its founder Theodore Herzel’s utopian vision of brotherhood and cooperation between Jews and Arabs, to Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion, the record is well established. Indeed, in 1949, while the nation was emboldened by triumph in the aftermath of Israel’s war for independence, Ben Gurion was circumspect declaring: “When we agreed to the Partition Plan, we accepted it in all honesty. We did this not because the plan was good or just, but because a small area received through peaceful means was preferable to us than a large area won by fighting.”
Forever is a Long Time
The intifada and the blooming of terror groups in Lebanon and Gaza in the wake of Israel’s evacuation has engendered a break from the nation’s past ethos of compromises for peace. The shock waves emanating from concessions leading to Israeli suffering have shattered utopian visions and continue to reverberate to this day. For much of Israel’s history the socialist left was the hegemonic political power. Today, the Israeli right wing has become ascendent, a camp that for the first half of Israel’s existence never won an election. With them, dark clouds of cynicism and nihilism have pervaded the Israeli consciousness.
A majority of Israelis regret the pullout from Gaza, have questionable views concerning Palestinian motives, and support for a two-state solution are at record lows. The stagnancy has spread to intellectuals as well. Recently in Mosaic Magazine’s symposium on Gaza one author declared that “The Status Quo in Gaza Is The Least Bad Option.” Even if it were so, to openly acknowledge that, and for Israel to internalize eternal occupation, is to accept the hollowing out of Israel’s ethical core. To again harken back to Israel’s founders, such as Prime Ministers Ben Gurion, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin, peace and humanitarianism was the end goal, and it is the statesman’s job to find the means to make it so. The brutality of occupation, even if one grants its security necessity in the moment, has the effect of hardening its enactors and dulling the humanitarian ethic of the public at large. How could it be any way else?
The wardens of occupation, in order to do their very job, by necessity have to treat Palestinians at checkpoints with suspicion or treat them violently in order to combat terrorism. The public at large, burned in the past by peace talks, scarred by the images of busses and discotheques engulfed in the flames of suicide bombers have no desire to turn back the clock, and perhaps understandably shrug their shoulders at the cost of occupation, remarking, “This is the ways things are.” And yet, if there is not a return to a humanitarian ethic, if there is not an acknowledgment that peace and compromise is preferable in at least theory rather than practice, Israel will lose its soul. Israel will never be able to live up to its founding ethic to be a “light unto the nations,” because it has shrouded itself in darkness and doesn’t believe light is possible. Israel’s blunted morality, a consequence of the brutalization of public perception in an intractable and never ending war with the Palestinians, will make the Jewish States liberal sensibilities all but unrecognizable if continued unabated. It will also further isolate the nation from its source of strength, Western Nations, who increasingly equate humanitarian and moral scruples with political legitimacy.
Unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank may be a non-starter for the time being. Many on the right are correct when they say there appears to be no Palestinian partner for peace at the time being. Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, has had multiple opportunities to strike diplomatic gold with Israel, including in 2008 when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Abbas a state in the West Bank as well as Gaza. Hamas is significantly more popular among Palestinians today, and with Iran entrenching itself throughout the region through the transfer of weapons and expertise to proxies, abandoning the West Bank has the very real potential to transform it into a threat dwarfing even Gaza. A Hamas awash in Iranian weaponry in the West Bank, able to target every Israeli installation military or otherwise, is a nightmare that no Israeli wishes to live under, and understandably so. Given the hit that utopians have taken in recent years in lieu of violence following compromise, such a scenario is in all truth the likely one. It is very reasonable to conjecture that no two state solution can come into effect as long as an embolden Iran exists whose raison d’etre is overturning decadent Middle Eastern governments and Israel’s erasure.
There may be an order of operations here, dealing with Iran first, then instantiating Palestine, nevertheless peace needs to be the end goal, and it must be repeated loudly and often enough to continuously crystalize in Israeli consciousness. The absence of this by Prime Minister Naftali Bennet in his recent speech at the United Nations is nothing but shameful. Bennet previously has styled himself as a break from his predecessor Netanyahu. However, the latter in 2009 went so far as to acquiesce to a two-state framework in principle, while Bennet before the nations of the world failed to even mention Israel’s longest enduring conflict, that with the Palestinians. Such signaling should be alarm bells for all who care for Israel’s humanity.
A rebuke of cynicism and nihilism must be echoed with ferocity in order to stave off the rot, in the hope that Israel does not trade in its democratic mantle for an ethos of apathetic barbarism concerned only with the ethic of power. It may be a long while, but we are a patient people. It’s time to raise a generation yearning: “Next year may there be two states, Palestinian and Israeli, forever at peace.” The goal is worthwhile, and the means of bringing it about will require an educated, empathetic populace determined to forge a better future.