Friday, October 22, 2004

Leaving Gaza

Making wrenchingly difficult decisions is a key part of the job description for Israel's prime ministers, a circumstance that has not resulted in a shortage of aspirants for the position. Ariel Sharon's predecessors could not have known before they acted how their decisions would turn out, whether Israel's security would be helped or harmed by what they were about to do. If we look at the record over a span of fifty-six years, while there have been mistakes, by a large margin they have been on target.

Israel must now decide what to do about Gaza, specifically what to do about the parcels of land settled by the small number of Israelis who came there with the advice and consent, as well as support, of successive Israeli governments. It's hard to imagine a tougher decision, but not because of security considerations. Having Israelis in or out of Gaza scarcely changes the security equation.

What's tough about leaving Gaza is the pain of those who will be forced to leave, good people whose love for Israel is pure. The case against withdrawal was made repeatedly by Ariel Sharon when he did not sit where he now sits and when he did not know what he now knows. The Israelis in Gaza are not fanatics, although there is a strong tinge of fanaticism and extremism among some who advocate their cause. Israelis in Gaza have worked hard and honorably. In Gaza, Jewish children have been born and in Gaza Jews have buried their dead, including victims of terrorism.

Those who advocate withdrawal, as I do, need to be respectful of these Israelis whose emotional wounds are now open. Mr. Sharon has been respectful, certainly last week in a major address before the Knesset. A powerful argument can be made in support of Benjamin Netanyahu's call for a referendum on withdrawal. Isn't that the democratic thing to do? Yet, there are compelling reasons why that path should be avoided. In democracies, leaders are elected to lead and they are held responsible for the decisions they make. Mr. Sharon has steadfastly resisted the referendum gambit, perhaps because his understanding with the Bush Administration requires him to move forward. Because of the psychological support and diplomatic cover given to Israel, little attention has been paid to the pressure the U.S. has put on the Sharon government to make territorial concessions. Interestingly, one question that hasn't been discussed is how Israel would react if Mr. Bush is defeated. Would this be a signal or excuse to reverse course in Gaza?

Why withdraw? One reason is that staying in Gaza adds nothing to Israel's security, but it exacts a high human and financial cost. Israel has overwhelming force and as has been just demonstrated, it can severely punish Palestinians in Gaza for any terrorist attacks.

Ariel Sharon has earned Israeli and Jewish support and we should have faith in him and the impressive number of Israel's military and intelligence leaders who endorse withdrawal. In Gaza, the security fence and other actions, the Prime Minister has shown a fierce and creative determination to do what is necessary to protect Israelis. The hardliners in the anti-withdrawal camp have undermined their cause by charging that Sharon is selling out Israel, that he is a traitor.

I care not about what titles or offices they hold. Those who in veiled and sometimes not so veiled language say that Israel's Prime Minister can be killed because he wants to withdraw from Gaza or other territory should be arrested and put on trial.

While opponents of withdrawal say that under certain conditions they might accept giving up territory, they have never spelled out what these conditions might be. Their position always is, "not now." They have opposed every negotiation that entails giving up any territory. Their idea of negotiations is for Israel to unilaterally set the terms for Palestinians and to yield no land. Diplomacy is not a game called solitaire. Those who oppose negotiations are giving us a formula for a state of permanent war.

In opting for a Gaza withdrawal, Mr. Sharon clearly is mindful of even more daunting problems confronting Israel. The threat coming from Iran is one of the most serious that Israel has faced. The war in Iraq has further destabilized the Middle East and clearly this is to Israel's detriment. The Islamic world is aboil and while the wounds suffered by adherents of Islam are nearly all self-inflicted, this reality scarcely provides any respite or solace for Israel.

All told, what is compelling about staying in Gaza is the human dimension, not the military or diplomatic or security dimensions.

It is necessary to know what happens after the Israelis leave. Much will depend on the actions of Hamas and other Palestinians. But there are question marks about Israeli policy. Dov Weisglass, Mr. Sharon's close confidant who negotiated on his behalf in Washington, said in a recent interview that a primary aim of a Gaza withdrawal is to scotch, at least for now, the notion of a Palestinian state. If that is the intention, Israel is making a huge mistake. The one thing that Israelis should unite on is that while there are no guarantees, a Palestinian state has a better prospect for contributing to Israel's security than the current status quo. States have responsibilities and while, of course, they often are violated, as long as the Palestinians are stateless there is an enhanced prospect for continued terrorism.

Yasir Arafat has done his best - and since he is outstanding in the treachery league, he has been quite good in this regard - to deter the establishment of a state for the people he purports to lead, even as he has lined his pockets and Palestinians have sunk into greater misery. It is paradoxical and yet telling that some who are most antagonistic to him give him aid and comfort on this score.