Analysis: The superficial debate over disengagement

Two years later, a third of the public has abandoned its earlier support for the Gaza pullout.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
A Ma'ariv TNS opinion poll conducted on the second anniversary of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria shows that 59 percent of Israelis now think the unilateral pullout was a mistake, while 29% still believe it was a good idea. The numbers are interesting since they are basically a mirror image of the polls from two years ago. Back then, close to two-thirds of the population was in favor and about 30% against. This means that nearly a third of the Israeli public - who two years ago were all for dragging more than 8,000 Jews out of their homes and handing over the territory to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, giving them much more convenient launching pads for their Kassams, and getting nothing in return - now think they were wrong. There are two questions you can ask: What made them change their minds, and why were they in favor originally? You can learn a lot not only from opinion polls, but also from the wording of the questions and from the questions they didn't ask. For instance, it's interesting to speculate how many of those who today think they were mistaken in supporting disengagement think that Israel should reoccupy those areas and rebuild the destroyed settlements. The pollsters didn't ask that question, so one can't say for sure. But it's a pretty good bet that if you asked those who now have second thoughts whether we should be heading back into Gaza, their answer would be, Don't be foolish. A hard core of religious settlers, numbering a few thousand, are active in the movement to try and regain what was lost. They periodically clash with the police and army around the ruins of Homesh in Northern Samaria. It's hard to gauge what kind of support they have, but it certainly hasn't transformed into a mass movement. There is a long list of legitimate reasons for objecting to disengagement: The anguish caused to the uprooted settlers and the ongoing failure of the government to remedy their plight; the lack of any security arrangement in its aftermath; the victory on a platter it handed to Hamas; placing Sderot in the line of fire; opening the Egyptian border to barely concealed arms smuggling; and projecting an image of a weak and retreating Israel. But these arguments existed before disengagement and still two thirds of the population were in favor. On the other hand, most of the reasoning supporting the plan is as valid now as it was then. The presence of all those settlements in the small and cramped Gaza Strip was a time bomb. The ceding of the territory was a given, even in the peace plans of the Right, so why prolong a temporary presence that was proving too costly in lives and resources? Furthermore, there was no strategic value in holding on to the Gaza Strip, unlike Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights. But if all these reasons still exist today, why are they not as convincing as before? One explanation often given for the drastic change in the public mood is the Second Lebanon War, which took place on the first anniversary of disengagement. But this is a populist answer since there is no real connection. Hizbullah attempted to kidnap IDF soldiers long before disengagement became a possibility and, as Hassan Nasrallah has said, he didn't intend that the abduction would turn into a full-scale war. The argument that the IDF wasn't prepared for the fighting in Lebanon because it had spent the previous summer evicting Jews from their homes also doesn't hold any water. The IDF was poorly trained for the war because for the six preceding years its best units had almost constantly been on policing duties in the West Bank and Gaza - a situation that disengagement was supposed to at least partly alleviate. The truth of the matter is that many who belong to that crucial third of the electorate - who changed their opinion over the last two years and are the voters who decide elections in Israel - couldn't articulate a serious case for or against disengagement, then or now. It's not that they are stupid, at least not all of them. It's just the apathy that has infected so many Israelis over the question of the future of the areas across the Green Line. The steady attrition caused by years of terrorist outrages and empty promises of new solutions has laid waste to the ideological battlefield within Israeli society, blurred the lines between Left and Right and raised political cynicism and opportunism to new heights. They supported disengagement because it was the brainchild of an immensely popular prime minister and was packaged and presented by the best spin doctors in the business, with the eager assistance of a compliant press. As long as Ariel Sharon was in the picture and seen as a sure bet to win the next elections, disengagement was simply an extension of his popularity. Its swift and efficient execution was seen as another feather in his cap, propelling him to another landslide. With Sharon gone and replaced by a government whose leaders are perceived as corrupt bunglers, tainted by failure in Lebanon, disengagement is now seen in a different light. The inability of so many Israelis to judge the pros and cons of disengagement not in relation to the popularity of the current government is a sad reflection on the shallowness of public debate. That it boils down to a question of who has the better PR machine should be worrying to both those who support and oppose another round of settlement dismantling in the West Bank. This week's poll shows that right now only 18% are in favor of more unilateral pullbacks, while 74% are against. But all that means is that the right spin doctors haven't been hired yet to sell the idea.