Friday, April 28, 2006

Eight Months After Gaza

Eight months after their forced evacuation, which I supported though I had strong reservations regarding the way it was being handled, the emotional and physical wounds are still fresh for too many of the 9,000 ex-Gaza Israelis and yet the Olmert government-in-waiting is moving forward on plans to remove ten times that number of Israelis living on the West Bank. The lesson is that there is no lesson to learn from recent experience, that so what if there is no housing and other social infrastructure to resettle and provide basic needs for 80,000 or more Israelis. They will be deligitimated by the media and the government, as the Gazans were, as a prelude to getting their just desserts.

As wrongful as is the government's cavalier attitude to the welfare of its citizens, greater wrongs are in the offing. Mr. Sharon pulled out of Gaza because, it was said, withdrawal would make Israelis safer, if only because thousands of soldiers would not have to put their lives on the line to protect the settlers. Withdrawal would also give credibility to Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian Authority president, by showing that he could deliver the goods for his people.

Eight months is no more that a blink in history, yet what we have seen should give pause to anyone who debunks Henry Ford's notorious claim that history is bunk. The rockets being fired into Israel from Gaza, often from positions abandoned by Israel, are real. They are serious business, which is why senior military people are saying that the army may have to go back in and stay for a while. As for Mr. Abbas, Gaza withdrawal so fortified his position that his Fatah party was crushed by Hamas in the Palestinian elections.

Presumably, these inconvenient developments should alter the plans of those who expected a different scenario. But the bridge on the River Kwai must be built at all costs. Suicide bombers, Hamas' ascendancy and rockets from Gaza were not in the game plan, yet the chosen path must still be taken. The situation in the Middle East has deteriorated in recent months and this too should give pause. In Egypt, the semi-democratic Mubarak regime is increasingly unstable as it is relentlessly undermined by its own corruption and by the radicalized Moslem Brotherhood which, as one of its discontents, opposes Egyptian detente with Israel. Iraq is convulsed by sectarian conflict and whatever the outcome, the news for Israel will not be welcome. We all know about Iran. To add to the deeply disturbing brew, the Bush Administration is in deep trouble and this has limited its ability to provide diplomatic cover for Israel.

Is it unreasonable to suggest that Israel take a breather, that further withdrawals be suspended until the dust settles and Israeli policy makers can assess how best to advance the country's interests? To Ehud Olmert whose ambitions for Israel are spelled O-L-M-E-R-T and other officials who committed themselves to additional withdrawals, any pause is out of the question. They are determined to vacate most of the West Bank by the end of 2007. They should read Barbara Tuchman and other historians who have documented how the determination to stick to preconceived plans despite changing conditions or additional information resulted in diplomatic and military folly, even tragedy. Of course, those who ordered the light brigade to charge weren't interested in reading history.

Withdrawal is a primary component of what is referred to as unilaterilsm, the policy devised by Mr. Sharon to go it alone because Israel has no one to make peace with. Thus, Israel is building a security barrier and thus Israel will determine what territory to yield and which post-1967 population centers it will retain. Israel, it is said, will determine its permanent boundaries. This is a fantasy.

Unilateralism is a form of solitaire and like the game, it has utility, albeit quite limited. It works to a point on security matters, but it is a non-starter in all that entails diplomacy because its errant message is that negotiations can be safely discarded. In a word, unilateralism is vulnerable because it is unilateral.

Going it alone won't reduce pressure on Israel because foes and even friends will challenge the legitimacy of unilateral steps. Which governments will accept the claim that Israel can set its boundaries and that's the end of the story? For most governments, further withdrawals will be the beginning of the story, the starting point for direct negotiations regarding what else Israel must yield. For Palestinians and the Islamic world, further Israeli withdrawals are a signal that hostility bears fruit.

Further withdrawals under today's conditions are wrong and not because Israel needs to show the Palestinians or anyone else that it can be tough. Further withdrawals are wrong because they are reckless acts predicated on the refusal to examine old policy assumptions in the light of what has happened since last summer.

Of course, Mr. Olmert and the government he shall soon form can claim that last month's Knesset elections provide a clear mandate for what is being planned, especially since the issues that I raise here were debated and, by a significant majority, Israeli voters opted for those who favor further withdrawals. This majority is to be respected regarding governance, but the democratic outcome is no impediment to the collateral democratic prerogative to challenge what legitimately elected officials decide to do. Mr. Bush won a clear majority in 2004, way after the U.S. went into Iraq, and his election has not deterred sharp criticism of American policy. Even supporters of the Iraq intervention acknowledge that changed conditions must mandate a change in policy.

To ignore what has happened since Israel left Gaza is on its face a clear and present danger for the Jewish state.