Disengagement's military lesson for the West Bank

Can Israel really live with a complete power vacuum on the Palestinian side?

soldier disengagement298 (photo credit: AP [file])
soldier disengagement298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Now that the dust has settled and the outcome of the recent Israeli elections is clear, it has become apparent that Ehud Olmert will be able to form a government consisting of parties who favor, or at least do not seriously oppose, his proposed policy of unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank. The disengagement policy adopted by Ariel Sharon with respect to the Gaza Strip has now become the policy of Hitkansut - a term which does not easily translate into English, but has connotations of "circling the wagons" and "pulling in" or "ingathering." The best way to think of this is to use an analogy. When a turtle is frightened, it pulls its head and limbs into its shell - that is Hitkansut in a nutshell. This "Turtle Strategy" is based on the same premise a turtle uses when in danger, pull back and hide inside a protected zone - in this case, behind the security barrier. While this may work, in most cases, for turtles - given the kinds of threats that they face, it seems hopelessly na ve and ineffectual as the basis for Israeli policy. The first rule of policymaking is that it needs to be firmly grounded in reality, even if that reality is unpleasant. Consider the following:
  • A Hamas-led Palestinian government refuses to recognize Israel and its interior minister has publicly stated that he does not believe that the Palestinian Authority should try to apprehend people who want to launch attacks against Israel (under the previous Palestinian government, they at least paid lip service to fighting terrorism). Hamas has already claimed victory for the "liberation" of Gaza from Israeli rule and will almost certainly take credit for an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank - thus boosting the popularity of this government and further weakening President Mahmoud Abbas. As Hamas rule strengthens and solidifies, the Europeans and even the United States (both of whom are currently taking a tough stance on Hamas) are likely to change their positions recognizing the "pointlessness" of "punishing the Palestinian people." By withdrawing, Olmert would be, in effect, making himself a key ally in Hamas's quest to strengthen its control and political legitimacy.
  • The Palestinian terrorist organizations - particularly Hamas and Fatah - have been taking advantage of the current Israeli policy of limiting counterterrorism operations against them, in order to rebuild their infrastructure and rearm. The recent firing of a Russian-built (and apparently Iranian-supplied) Katyusha rocket from Gaza towards a critical infrastructure target in Israel, represents a qualitative increase in the Palestinian capacity to inflict harm on Israel. Israel's effective abandonment of the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt has made it possible for the Palestinians to stockpile larger quantities of weapons as well as more powerful ones. In addition, al-Qaida terrorists are said to have infiltrated the Strip and are setting up their own infrastructure there.
  • Despite Israel's withdrawal from the Strip and the "liberation" of Gaza, the Palestinian Authority has not been able to step in and fill Israel's shoes and the political/security situation in the Strip has become increasingly anarchic. As anarchy grows, so do the opportunities for Palestinian terrorists to strike at Israel. IT IS important to recall that the entire Oslo peace process was predicated on the idea that the Palestinians would fill the political/security vacuum left by Israeli withdrawals - something that, of course, never really happened. The unilateral withdrawal policy, on the other hand, was based on the idea that Israel could live with a political/security vacuum on the Palestinian side. It is not likely that Israel will be able to do so much longer, with respect to Gaza, now that the Palestinians have devised even more effective ways to strike at Israel from the Strip. Olmert's proposed policy takes the same principle applied to Gaza and shifts it to the West Bank thus putting Israel's central population centers within rocket and missile range. The barrier that Israel is building is not a panacea that will enable Israel to withdraw behind it and forget the Palestinians. Israeli voters may want this to be the case, but wishful thinking does not substitute for realism. The barrier may be effective to a large degree in preventing infiltration, but it cannot prevent the firing of rockets and missiles over it. Moreover, if Palestinian terrorist organizations are afforded free reign in the West Bank, as they now enjoy in Gaza, they will find ways to dig under or fly over the barrier or otherwise compromise it. In order for the barrier to be truly effective, it must be defended from both sides, yet Olmert's plan, if implemented, would ignore this important truth. REMAINING IN the West Bank is important for Israeli security. This is not about the settlers, Olmert can remove them if he deems their presence in the West Bank as one that ties down the IDF (though sometimes their physical presence helps increase the Israeli control in some sectors thus ensuring that they will not be abandoned to Palestinian terrorists). However, even if the settlements are evacuated, they should be transformed into military bases. It is crucial to bear in mind that Israel's success in thwarting the majority of terrorist attacks is due, in large part, to its ability to conduct operations in Palestinian cities and villages. Withdrawing from the West Bank will, as it has done in Gaza, provide the Palestinians with safe havens from which to conduct terrorism against Israel. Olmert may be right in concluding that Israelis very much want to disentangle themselves from the Palestinians, but will the Palestinians let them? The strategy that works for the turtle will not be as effective for Israel. If Israel comes under increasing attacks in the wake of further withdrawals, and yet continues to insist that this policy will create greater security, we will know that the next Israeli government no longer holds to the turtle strategy - it will have then adopted an "ostrich strategy." The writer is Chair of the Department of Political Science and Senior Research Associate at the Center for Israel Studies, at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He previously served as a Senior Director at the Israeli National Security Council.