Israel and Gaza: The existential conundrum

Gaza only poses problems of Current Security to Israel, the West Bank, however, constitutes a Basic Security problem.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon addresses the nation on the disengagement from Gaza, August 15, 2005 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon addresses the nation on the disengagement from Gaza, August 15, 2005
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As Israel engages Hamas in yet another round of vicious warfare, many, if not most, in Israel would argue that the withdrawal from Gaza a decade ago was a terrible blunder.
In the interim, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip and the rocket attacks only increased in severity and range, disrupting the country’s normal routine by driving millions of Israeli civilians into the shelters, at any time of Hamas’s choosing. This is an unquestionably intolerable situation that neither Israel nor any other country could be expected to live with.
However, from the very outset, Israel’s decision to withdraw from Gaza was not mainly intended to stop the rockets. Then prime minister Ariel Sharon did not believe for a moment that Israel’s decision to withdraw would tame Hamas and convince Israel’s mortal enemies to “make nice” and cease their rocket attacks. Sharon was driven by entirely different considerations.
Since its foundation, Israel has based its defense calculations on two concepts of security: Basic Security (bitahon yesodi) and Current Security (bitahon shotef). Basic Security is concerned with the preservation of the very fundamentals of the Zionist enterprise, that is, the preservation of Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people. Current Security is about the day-to-day maintenance of the personal safety and well-being of the Israeli people.
For over 40 years, Israel has had the good fortune of not having to engage in all-out war with any of the neighboring states and even has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. But for decades now, Israelis have been exposed to a wide range of terrorist assaults, from aircraft high-jackings, kidnappings, killings, murderous suicide bombings and the massive rocket attacks. Israelis have understandably become obsessed with issues of Current Security. So much so, that in the public discourse, issues of Basic Security are almost completely overshadowed by this incessant preoccupation with Current Security.
At times, Israel’s Current Security needs conflict with the country’s requirements for its long-term Basic Security. Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was justifiably seen as an asset in maintaining Israel’s Current Security. However, this very same occupation eroded Israel’s Basic Security by undermining its Jewish and democratic character as well as its international legitimacy, and thus had an undeniably negative affect on Israel’s long-term survivability.
This is precisely what Ariel Sharon understood when he became prime minister. His decision to disengage from Gaza was therefore driven not by the rocketry from Gaza but by long-term Basic Security considerations. Sharon’s motivation was to preserve Israel’s Jewish character by ridding itself of any vestiges of Jewish settlement and the concomitant direct control over more than a million and a half (now closer to two million) Palestinians in Gaza.
There can be no doubt that Israel is considerably better off in terms of its Basic Security with almost two million fewer Palestinians under its control. Indeed, hardly anyone in Israel, even amongst the most militant critics of the disengagement, seriously believes that Gaza should be reoccupied. The truth of the matter is that Gaza is not the real issue and never was. Israel’s real dilemma is about the future nature of the entire Zionist enterprise.
Israel must make the unsavory choice between being the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people alongside a presumably unfriendly or even belligerent Palestinian state – or creating an oppressive onestate reality in which Israel gradually loses its democratic and Jewish character as well as its international legitimacy. The options facing Israel have been thrown into especially sharp relief by the events of the last weeks.
Israel faces a choice between two models of conflict management with the Palestinians. The one is the West Bank model of occupation and settlement, which entails constant repression, violence and counter-violence, at times assuming the character of nascent civil war, crossing over the 1967 Green Line too, and presenting an ominous foretaste of the future one-state reality. The other is the Gaza model where Israel seeks to employ deterrence as an alternative to occupation.
Obviously, the Gaza model is not flawless, mainly because deterrence is not everlasting and has to be periodically replenished.
But the Gaza model only poses problems of Current Security to Israel, for which there are various highly effective defensive and offensive solutions. The West Bank model, on the other hand, constitutes a Basic Security problem. It offers no reasonable or realistic solutions and is an insufferable threat to Israel’s long-term survivability, which all the rocketry from Gaza is not.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel must choose between these two models. Sharon did so 10 years ago. And he was right.
Prof. Asher Susser is the Stanley and Ilene Gold Senior Research Fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and author of “Israel, Jordan and Palestine: The Two-State Imperative”