Diplomatic boon or bust?

Assumptions that disengagement would enhance Israel's security and dramatically improve Israel's standing in the world are now being reexamined.

diplocm88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
In the ensuing year, the Palestinians did not fight terrorist organizations, but rather embraced and coronated them; they did not dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, but rather through weapons smuggling sought to enhance it; and they did not exactly demonstrate 'sincere intentions of peace,' and instead elected Hamas - which calls for Israel's destruction. With a war in Lebanon raging, Hamas ruling Gaza, and Ariel Sharon in a coma, last August's disengagement - for most Israelis - seems very, very distant. More distant, even, are the hopes that a majority of Israelis had before disengagement that the trauma and pain of uprooting Jews from their homes, dragging them from their synagogues, and destroying their greenhouses would be worth it because it would create a new window of opportunity that could - if the Palestinians would just rise to the occasion - usher in a new dawn. But as so often happens in the Middle East, the window slammed closed - Oslo and Camp David-like - and the new dawn was overcome by the darkness of terror which took the form of unceasing Kassam rockets on Sderot and unabated attempts to carry out terrorist actions against Israel. But don't blame Sharon for promising a rose garden. He didn't. In all his explanations of the reasons behind disengagement, he never promised a pie-in-the-sky, Shimon Peresian peace. Which doesn't mean he didn't make promises. He said disengagement would vastly improve Israel's demographic situation, its diplomatic standing in the world, and its tactical-military position. A year later, an argument could be made that the first two of those three promises, that Israel's demographic and diplomatic situation would improve, have held some water, although even here there is room for debate. But the last premise, that disengagement would make Israel safer because the IDF would guard the country from behind a defensible border and not from within a hostile population, has gone up in the smoke of hundreds of falling Kassam rockets. On August 15, 2005, on the eve of disengagement, Sharon gave a long-awaited televized address in which without any apologies he explained the overall rationale for leaving Gaza. "We are reducing the day-to-day friction and its victims on both sides," he said. "The IDF will redeploy on defensive lines behind the Security Fence. Those who continue to fight us will meet the full force of the IDF and the security forces." Repeating his oft-articulated argument that the disengagement plan reclaimed for Israel the diplomatic initiative, Sharon said that the "burden of proof" was now on the Palestinians. "They must fight terror organizations, dismantle its infrastructure and show sincere intentions of peace in order to sit with us at the negotiating table," Sharon said. "The world awaits the Palestinian response - a hand offered in peace or continued terrorist fire. To a hand offered in peace, we will respond with an olive branch. But if they choose fire, we will respond with fire, more severe than ever." In the ensuing year, the Palestinians did not fight terrorist organizations, but rather embraced and coronated them; they did not dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, but rather with Iranian and Hizbullah help sought to broaden it; and they did not demonstrate "sincere intentions of peace," but rather elected Hamas - which calls for Israel's destruction. But until Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in June, a full 10 months later, Israel did not respond as Sharon had promised with "the full force of the IDF and the security forces." The Palestinian response to disengagement was not a hand offered in peace, but continued terrorist fire. And Israel's response to the fire was not fire "more severe than ever," again as Sharon had promised, but rather plans for further unilateral withdrawals. WHEN PRIME MINISTER Ehud Olmert ran in the March elections on a platform calling for further unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank, he did so on the assumption that disengagement was a resounding success that should be replicated in the West Bank. And, indeed, he won a cautious victory. But then rockets started to fall not "only" on Sderot but also on Ashkelon. Shalit was captured, soldiers were killed at Kerem Shalom and all hell broke loose in Lebanon. As a result, Sharon's assumptions are being re-examined. And not only the assumption that disengagement would enhance Israel's security, but also the assumption that disengagement dramatically improved Israel's standing in the world. One of Sharon's top advisers said just days before the Shalit kidnapping that if judged solely on stopping terrorism, it would be difficult to call disengagement a success. But, he said, there were other parameters involved, primarily demographic and diplomatic, and that judged by those yardsticks, the move enhanced Israel's overall strategic situation. Regarding demographics, few disagree that lopping off more than a million Palestinians Arabs from Israeli control has bought the Jewish state more demographic breathing space. There is, however, a continuous debate about the real scope of the demographic problem Israel faces, with demographers presenting different figures of the true numbers of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. And regarding the country's diplomatic standing, the adviser said that disengagement was aimed at pushing forward the two-state solution advocated by US President George W. Bush, and that the move was meant to firmly fix into place Israel's close strategic relationship with the US. Sharon placed great importance on the letter of commitments he received from Bush in April 2004 before bringing his plan to the cabinet for initial approval. He interpreted these commitments not only as US backing for retaining large settlement blocks and against the Palestinian claim of a right of refugee return, but also as a commitment to ensure that the US would safeguard Israel's right to nuclear capabilities, even after Iran was stripped of its own. In addition, according to the argument that disengagement enhanced Jerusalem's ties to Washington, Israel received military maneuverability from Bush to do what it needed in order to put down the Palestinian violence precisely because Sharon held out disengagement as a political horizon. This rationale argues that the US gave Israel a green light to take forceful actions in Gaza and the West Bank, including targeted assassinations and widespread arrests, because Israel agreed to leave Gaza. According to Joseph Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and now co-director of bitterlemons.com, an Internet-based Israeli-Palestinian dialogue project, military maneuverability did not end with disengagement. "I think we are getting more leeway today, both in Gaza and in Lebanon, because we withdrew to the internationally recognized lines," says Alpher. Dismantling the settlements and pulling out of Gaza, with the blessings of the US and the UN, was undoubtedly good for Israel's image, he said. And a good image is important now, with Israel fighting in Lebanon and causing civilian casualties. According to this reasoning, although there has been international criticism of civilian casualties both in Gaza and Lebanon, it is nowhere near what it would have been had Israel not returned to the international lines, both in Gaza and Lebanon. Foreign Ministry officials consistently say that their job pressing Israel's case in capitals around the world has been made easier because of credit accrued from the disengagement. Ra'anan Gissin, one of Sharon's former advisers who was a strong spokesman for disengagement, said that since the move out of Gaza was closely coordinated with the US and the Bush Administration, "We now enjoy a great deal of understanding, sympathy and tolerance for our actions that we would not have had otherwise. We initiated a political move that was considered important by the world, and then we were slapped in the face [by Hamas and Hizbullah]. As a result, the world recognizes we have a right to hit back." Israel's standing, according to foreign ministry officials, has improved noticeably in European capitals, and this was critical in getting the international community to draw up the now famous three benchmarks that need to be met before granting legitimacy to a Hamas-led PA: forswearing violence, recognizing Israel, and accepting previous agreements. BUT MAJ.-GEN. (res.) Ya'akov Amidror, former head of the IDF Intelligence Assessment Division and currently director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said this type of argument verged on the absurd, since disengagement itself contributed to the rise of Hamas. Likewise, he said, the argument that the world was now giving Israel more "rope" in Gaza - while it may be true - was fallacious because had Israel not withdrawn, it would not be facing the security threats from Gaza that require that type of heavy military response. Amidror, who was a staunch disengagement opponent, also rejected claims that Israel's position had improved in the United Nations as a result of last year's move. "UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is anti-Israel, and we should not depend on him," he said. "His positions have not changed." That the UN passed a resolution mandating a worldwide day to commemorate the Holocaust in November, or that Israel's ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, was appointed one of the 21 vice presidents of the General Assembly, has done nothing to change the body's overall prejudice against Israel. Nor has it added anything to the country's security, he said. Uzi Arad, the Head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and foreign policy adviser to Binyamin Netanyahu when he served as prime minister, said that when Israel makes concessions it is naturally greeted with satisfaction and gains the country a "moment of public relations benefit" around the globe. But, he stressed, this is more often than not "fleeting" because concessions raise expectations for further concessions, and when those expectations are not met, Israel finds itself on the diplomatic defensive. Besides, Arad said, it was necessary to ask whether it was wise to give up bargaining chips and assets "for nothing but to gain a moment of improved public opinion." As for the argument that disengagement had given Israel more legitimacy to act forcefully inside Gaza and in Lebanon, Arad said that legitimacy already existed as a result of terrorism. He points to Operation Defensive Shield that took place after the Passover eve massacre in Netanya in March 2002 as proof. Furthermore, he said, even now - after the withdrawal from Gaza - there was impatience with Israel's actions both in Gaza and Lebanon around the world, and Jerusalem did not have free rein to do whatever it pleased. "The very act of unilateral retreat has had the effect of increasing the violence against Israel in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank," he said. "On the one hand you increase the incidence of violence, and then you improve a little bit the legitimacy to defend yourself against that violence which otherwise would not have been there. The net balance is negative." Negative or positive, a conclusive evaluation of whether the march from Gaza was one of folly or brilliance is still - even in regard to the diplomatic front - very much in the eye of the beholder. Even one traumatic and event-packed year later.