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Six months ago, the great experiment of unilateralism began. Israel had tried the path of the Left by negotiating for a comprehensive peace agreement. It had tried the path of the Right by attempting to battle the Palestinians into submission. Neither worked, and what emerged was a consensus among a solid majority of Israelis that something in between, which did not depend on the other side, was the only pragmatic solution which remained.
That was the beauty of this new path, the supporters of unilateralism said.
In the Mideast, a region often euphemistically referred to as "turbulent," the unilateral approach would still apply regardless of the outside factors thrown at it. But even the architects of this strategy probably could not foresee what lay around the bend.
In the last six months, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon exited the government stage, Hamas entered it, and the Iranians resumed uranium enrichment, as their president went on weekly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic diatribes that roused even the Europeans out of their comfortable complacency.
While Sharon's health problems deprived the unilateral movement of its leader, his condition carries no weight in evaluating unilateralism as a political tool. Hamas's election victory, on the other hand, and the terror group's ties to Iran, are a different story. With the right wing banging the lecterns daily, saying "we told you so," in regard to appeasing terrorists with land concessions, the unilateralists are taking a closer look at their philosophy.
"It's a moment where those of us who supported unilateralism need to pause and ask ourselves" whether continuing on this course is the correct step forward, said Yossi Klein Halevy, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center. "The rise of Hamas has made [further] unilateral withdrawal even more complicated. On the one hand, the logic of unilateralism, that there is no partner for peace, has been confirmed, but so have the security warnings of the opponents of unilateralism. We're not gong to be withdrawing from the West Bank and leaving a void behind. We're going to be withdrawing and bringing Iran up to our borders."
When the last tank rolled out of Gaza at 7:02 a.m. on September 12, polls showed that 59 percent of Israelis supported disengagement, whereas only 34% said it was wrong. Those numbers are in sharp contrast with the poll released Monday showing that 50% of Israelis categorically oppose a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and another 18% oppose it unless it produces conditions for negotiating peace with the Palestinian Authority.
The prospect of an Iranian-allied Hamas army sitting within Katyusha range of all the major Israeli population centers, and shoulder rocket firing range of airplanes landing at Ben Gurion is a major reason for the precipitous fall in support for unilateral disengagements. But there are many other factors.
TO BEGIN with, the West Bank was never viewed in the same light as Gaza by many Israelis. For years, a large segment of the country supported leaving the tiny coastal strip for demographic reasons, since only 8,000 Jews lived among 1.3 million Arabs. This sector also sought to stem what they considered to be the hemorrhaging of resources that providing security for the settlers there drained in terms of both money and blood. Moreover, Gaza was not the crucial security corridor that the West Bank is, nor were its sand dunes once home to the tribes of Israel, as were the hills and gullies of Judea and Samaria.
For those reasons alone, a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank would never have garnered the support of as many people as did the Gaza disengagement. But there are many non-ideologically driven Israelis who have also reconsidered their thinking on unilateralism based on what has happened since, said Abraham Diskin, a professor of political science at The Hebrew University.
"What we expected as a result of the evacuation didn't happen," Diskin said. "We still have daily missile attacks, and second is the misery of those we evacuated. We were promised by the government that everything was arranged [for the Gaza evacuees] and it definitely doesn't seem like these people are about to be settled in the very near future."
While both of these aspects are clear failures, unilateralists argue that the blame lies not with the philosophy of unilateralism, but with the performance of the government in implementing it. Where the Gaza settlers are concerned, the failure is obvious: Half a year after the evacuation, as The Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday, around 30% of the evacuees are still without temporary housing. This is a practical failure, though, not a philosophical one.
In terms of the rocket attacks, both Diskin and Halevy said, the mistake was not necessarily failing to anticipate them, or failing to stop them, but choosing not to come clean with the Israeli public prior to disengagement about their likely continuation. While most unilateralists who thought disengagement through expected the kassams to continue falling, and supported the withdrawal anyway, many Israelis were led to believe by the government, either directly or indirectly, that leaving Gaza meant quiet would necessarily follow.
With that dream failing to materialize, and the election of Hamas shattering any illusions of peace that lingered after the bloody years of the second intifada, unilateralists find themselves in a difficult position.
THOUGH DISENGAGEMENT absolved Israel of all responsibility for Gaza in the eyes of the international community, and supposedly staved off a demographic disaster for two or three decades, it also played a part in bringing an organization committed to Israel's destruction into power.
That dual nature is a characteristic of unilateralism, said Eran Shayshon, an analyst with the Re'ut think-tank in Tel Aviv. "Unilateralism was adopted as an Israeli strategy due to the analysis that there is no partner for peace, and that hasn't changed," Shayshon said. "But it's a paradox because it also creates an entity that is not a partner."
However, the true unilateralists don't see it that way. True, they say, disengagement may have led in some way to Hamas's electoral victory, but the partner for peace was already long absent.
"The only difference between Hamas and Fatah is Hamas won't allow Israelis to cheat themselves because Hamas is less courteous," said Dan Schueftan, who pioneered the unilateralist approach with his 1999 book Disengagement. "Hamas is a repulsive, anti-Semitic, totalitarian group. The previous Palestinian administration was not terribly different, but they at least tried to pretend."
Schueftan acknowledges that getting Israelis on board for another round of unilateral withdrawal was complicated by Hamas's electoral victory since it is now clear that disengaging will not turn the Palestinians into friends.
Nevertheless, the unilateral approach is still Israel's best option, he said, since the two underlying factors have not changed since the Hamas election: There is no partner for peace, and Israel cannot maintain control over all of the West Bank if it wants to remain a Jewish democracy.
"Israelis realize that in the immediate sense we may not have instant benefits," said Schueftan, who is also the deputy director of Haifa University's National Security Studies Center. "But most Israelis are right to be convinced that the long-term benefits of disengagement are so enormous, and the long-term cost of not pursuing it would be so enormous, that it is the only course of action."
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears to agree with Schueftan. In recent interviews and speeches, he made clear that, under his leadership, Israel will disengage from the Palestinian population and that the highest task of the next Knesset will be to set the permanent borders of the state. He even went so far as to outline in general terms what those borders will include.
Given the current resistance by Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist, Olmert is not so subtly hinting that Israeli territorial moves in the near future will be determined by Israel alone.
Nevertheless, the Hamas victory has altered the course unilateralists are seeking to navigate, even if it has not knocked the wind out of their sails.
The original model of unilateralism - the Gaza disengagement - was based on total withdrawal. It was a calculated risk from which unilateralists said two important conclusions can be drawn. The first, said Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Shalom Harari, a Palestinian expert at the Institute for Counter Terrorism in Herzliya, is that Israel has finally shown the world that the Palestinians' dire state of affairs is of their own making, and not the result of occupation.
"The laboratory test in Gaza has failed," said Harari, who predicted before the Palestinian elections that the polls indicating a Fatah victory should not be trusted. "They've had enough time. If you could give me success in one level at least, OK. But I look at their management, their security forces, their economy - you can't have a democracy where every party has its own army."
In fact, Harari said, Gaza has gotten so bad that it is "headed toward a fiery crash," the ensuing chaos of which will mean more attacks against Israel. One day in the not-too-distant future, he said, Israel would be forced to conduct ground operations in the territory for limited amounts of time.
Assuming a similar reality would befall the West Bank after Israeli settlers leave there, unilateralists say one difference in the next disengagement would be the retention of some military installations in the vacated territory to allow the army to operate against terrorists (or Hamas-controlled PA security forces) as it sees fit.
The second major lesson learned from the Gaza withdrawal is the danger of allowing Palestinians unfettered access to the outside world. Though many security analysts warned against it, Sharon felt that to completely absolve Israel of responsibility over Gaza, the Palestinians there needed to be able to control at least one border. The result has been a 300% increase in arms smuggling, according to Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin.
"If we don't have a partner for peace, the main goal is to make sure the PA is demilitarized, which means we must control international crossing points," said Tafnit party chief Maj.-Gen. (Res.) Uzi Dayan. For all intents and purposes, that requires retaining the Jordan Valley, a move the former national security adviser to Ehud Barak and Sharon favors since the area has very few Palestinians and would therefore not present a demographic problem.
The retention of the Jordan Valley and military bases in vacated territory thus represent an adapted model of disengagement that unilateralists are coalescing around after learning the lessons of Gaza. And despite the polls which say Israelis are mostly against further unilateral disengagement, surveys also indicate the party which most represents the unilateralist ethos - Kadima - will run away with the elections.
Whether unilateralism eventually triumphs where the West Bank is concerned will probably not be known for some years. But even its supporters are hoping that it not gain too much stature - that Israelis not cling to it in the face of possible future evidence which suggests its time has run its course.
"One of the appealing aspects of unilateralism was that it represented flexible thinking," Halevy said. "I'm weary of unilateralism becoming a new dogma in the same way that Left and Right became dogmas and ignored reality and tried to substitute ideology for realistic thinking. If something has changed on the ground, we need to take that into account."