Into the Fray: A public challenge to Michael Oren

What is it about the Palestinian problem that makes otherwise seemingly smart people expound such utterly stupid ideas?

Michael Oren (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Michael Oren
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

One solution could be a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank... but unlike in Gaza, most Israeli settlements would remain within Israel, and Israeli troops would still patrol strategic borders. Of course, the preferable solution is two states for two peoples. But if that proves unattainable, then Israel can still end the occupation of the Palestinians, preserve its security, and perhaps lay new foundations for peace. Former ambassador Michael Oren, in answer to the question, “What if the process fails?” – CNN, January 11, 2014

The only alternative for Israel to save itself as a Jewish state is by unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank and evacuating most of the settlements.Dr. Michael Oren, prior to his ambassadorial appointment, Haaretz, April 24, 2009
Having proved itself – completely and conclusively – a disastrous and delusional debacle, the nutty notion of unilateral withdrawal (a.k.a. capitulation) is surging back into fashion with the fashionable bon ton set – big-time. That anyone with half a brain could still place any credence in this failed, foolhardy fantasy beggars belief.
Yet, over the past few weeks, there has been an alarming spate of public expressions of support for this harebrained and hazardous hallucination.
Erudite, eloquent, elegant
One of the more newsworthy voices endorsing this ill-advised policy prescription was that of Michael Oren, until recently ambassador to the US.
To his credit, the affable Oren is endowed with many laudable qualities. He is eminently erudite, eloquent and elegant. Born in the US, a graduate of an Ivy League university, an acclaimed, articulate author, and well-versed in the mores and customs of US society, it is difficult to fault his appointment as envoy in Washington.
Indeed, there have been few – if any – suggestions that he discharged his challenging duties with anything but polished professionalism.
That said, however, Oren’s recent (and not so recent) pronouncements as to his policy preferences regarding the Palestinian problem indicate that deft diplomatic skills are no guarantee of political prudence or strategic acumen.
For in light of the catastrophic consequences of unilateral abandonment of Gaza, any rational observer might be excused for attributing a remarkably flat-learning curve to anyone who persists in advocating such a fatally flawed formula. Only this time, on a dramatically larger scale.
Unilateralism and ‘breaking news’
Graphically underscoring the pertinence of this was the following item in The Jerusalem Post’s Breaking News section at the beginning of the week.
Headlined “Schools closed in Ashdod following IAF strikes on Gaza,” it went on to report: “Following the IAF air strikes on Gaza, the Ashdod Municipality decided to cancel schools in unfortified buildings on Sunday…” This, of course, underscores the gravity of the consequences of the 2005 unilateral evacuation of the Gaza Strip and its subsequent inevitable takeover by radical extremists. In the wake of the IDF’s departure, the terror organizations there can now operate against Israel with low-cost weapons with relative ease. The Palestinians are able to disrupt the socioeconomic routine in the South at will, and, as the Post news item indicates, even the prospect of IDF punitive responses to terror attacks can lead to such disruption – because of the fear of retaliation to those actions.
The folly of unilateral withdrawal is so starkly evident that even someone like Jeffrey Goldberg, who has elevated getting it wrong to almost an art form, seems to have grasped this. Writing in Bloomberg (January 11), he remarked: “Sharon made one terrible mistake in Gaza.… His mistake was leaving unilaterally… [The] radicals in Gaza were empowered by Sharon’s unilateralism.
They believed, not entirely incorrectly, that their terrorism had paid off… The fallout from the withdrawal is well known: Hamas soon came to power and turned Gaza into a launching pad for missile attacks.”
One can only scratch one’s head in puzzlement and wonder which part of this Oren doesn’t get.
Recklessly irresponsible
After all, there is little reason to believe that what once was, will not be again. In any case, in the absence of persuasive evidence to the contrary, it would be recklessly irresponsible not to adopt such a working assumption for future policy.
Little imagination is needed to envision the havoc that would result if anything like the realities which the civilian population in the South has been subjected to, courtesy of unilateralism, were to be inflicted upon the residents of the central Coastal Plain. As I have warned repeatedly in previous columns, it would be impossible to maintain any semblance of socioeconomic routine if 80 percent of the nation’s population and commercial activity, crammed into a narrow strip, stretching roughly 65 km. north of Tel Aviv and 50 km. south of it, had to endure the bombardments the residents of Sderot experience.
Moreover, unlike in the case of the low-lying Gaza area, this heavily populated belt would lie hopelessly exposed to any hostile elements deployed in the highlands of Judea-Samaria that rise to its east and comprise much of the territory to be unilaterally abandoned.
It seems inconceivable that anyone committed to the national security of Israel and the physical safety of Israelis could contemplate forgoing Israeli control of this territory, thereby laying the foundations for the emergence of a mega-Gaza in areas evacuated by the IDF or a giant South Lebanon in areas where it remains deployed. More on this later.
Dangerous delusion of “neo-unilateralism”
To be fair, some of today’s unilateralists (hereafter “neo-unilateralists”) acknowledge that the 2005 unilateral pullout from Gaza has been less than a stunning success, and hence, suggest that this time it be conducted differently. Typically, this difference focuses on continued IDF deployment in all, or part, of the territories over which Israel will declare it has no claims, and from which Jewish communities are to be removed – see, for example, Oren’s “unlike in Gaza… Israeli troops would still patrol strategic borders.”
Golly, what a good idea! So the Israeli military will be deployed in (read “occupy”) areas that Israel admits belong to someone else (as in pre-2000 South Lebanon), instantly and inevitably transforming it from the “Israel Defense Forces” to the “Zionist Occupation Forces.”
Unpersuasively, neo-unilateralists try to counter this by suggesting that this deployment will only last until Israel’s security can be ensured – predictably never stipulating what such assurances would be, or from whom they are to be attained – and sustained over time. But setting this “minor” omission aside for a moment, this prescription for “temporary occupation” would be dismissed as so much claptrap, with a brusque retort something along these lines: “How can you expect security while you are occupying someone else’s land. Withdraw, and you will have security.”
If Israel rejects such counsel, it will continue to maintain a situation reminiscent of pre-2000 South Lebanon.
If it complies with it, it will simply be duplicating the realities indistinguishable from those created in post-2005 Gaza.
Folly of rejecting quid pro quo for quid pro nil
Oren, who according to Haaretz (April 24, 2009), admits he “supported the disengagement from the Gaza Strip,” seems to continue believing that by unilateral withdrawal in Judea-Samaria, Israel “can still end the occupation of the Palestinians, preserve its security, and perhaps lay new foundations for peace.”
This wistful sentiment is so hopelessly unmoored from any trace of reality that it compels one to puzzle over just what is it about the Palestinian problem that makes otherwise seemingly smart people expound such utterly stupid ideas.
For anyone with even a minimal grasp of Mideast realities, it should be crystal clear that nothing will totally obliterate any chance of a negotiated peace accord more effectively than unilateralism. Gee, even Jeffrey Goldberg gets that – well, almost.
For the unmistakable message that Israeli willingness to contemplate unilateral retreat conveys, is this. If one confronts the Jews with sufficiently robust intransigence, they will capitulate and surrender everything – or at least, significant things – in exchange for absolutely nothing. Ergo, why negotiate or compromise.
Thus, even if some Palestinian partner, sincerely willing to negotiate and compromise, were to emerge at some future date, his more militant opponents could swiftly undermine his position by, rightly, pointing out that past unilateralism has proven that there is a need for neither.
Accordingly, for someone who hopes someday to “lay new foundations for peace,” nothing could be more counterproductive and foolish than advocating to replace the sober principle of quid pro quo for the fanciful quid pro nil.
Demography: The other side of the equation
Of course the alleged “ace” that unilateralists claim in their pack, is the demography card. But, in reality, it is far more like the joker.
For we should not forget that the demographic balance in the country is a function of two elements: The number of Jews and the number of Arabs.
One of course might question how realistic it would be to believe that even if Israel evacuated all, or part, of Judea-Samaria, the presence of a large, impoverished Arab population with a GDP per capita about 5% (!) that of Israel’s, would not generate irresistible economic pressures – similar to those along the US-Mexican frontier – for a large Arab influx into the country.
Even without the specter of this very plausible prospect, unilateralists ignore the detrimental effect their proposal is likely to have on the other side of the demographic equation – the Jewish side.
In this regard, a highly significant demographic fact should not be ignored. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, despite the massive influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, Israel’s Muslim population, within the pre-1967 Green Line, has, as a proportion of the population , almost doubled since independence – from just over 9% in 1949 to over 17% in 2011. The ratio of Jews to Muslims plunged from over 9 Jews to every Muslim to less than 4.5.
Now imagine the impact of a mass exodus of Jews because of a gravely deteriorating security situation.
Israel can only retain its Jewish character if it retains its Jewish population and attracts Jews around the world to choose it as their place of abode. But this can only happen if Israel affords them acceptable security and prosperity. Nothing would make it a less inviting choice than visiting the realities of Sderot on upmarket locations like Ramat Aviv and Ra’anana, Ramat Gan and Rishon Lezion – and, oh yes, Herzliya, where Oren has recently taken up a teaching position at the Interdisciplinary Center.
I urge him to consider the demographic impact of ongoing volleys of Kassam rockets landing in the vicinity of the IDC-campus – situated barely 11 km. from the pre-1967 lines…
My challenge to Oren
I hereby challenge Oren to meet me in open debate to address the points raised in this essay, and many that I have not – but that necessarily emerge from his policy prescriptions.
I challenge him to produce a map delineating the frontiers to which he sees Israel unilaterally withdrawing, and to explain how they will be delineated and secured.
I challenge him to stipulate whether Palestinian villages like Rantis and E-Luban that overlook the runway at Ben-Gurion Airport, will or will not be under Israeli control. And the hills of northern Samaria that dominate the massive Rabin power station adjacent to prestigious Caesarea, home to many from Israel’s moneyed classes? And what of areas abutting the Trans-Israel Highway (Route 6) and the approaches to Jerusalem?
I challenge him to specify whom he sees as administering the “unoccupied” Palestinian territories. Who will supply them water, electricity, postal services, tax collection? If, as is likely, the Palestinian Authority will – with good reason – refuse to take responsibility for what Israel deigns to confer to it unilaterally, who will provide civilian services to the population? And if, as in Gaza, extremists take over the reins of power, how would he recommend Israel respond? Who would be responsible for health issues, sewage, pollution control…? I challenge him to address these and numerous other issues that would drastically impact the lives of all Israelis… and the decisions of those contemplating becoming Israelis.
If he cannot do so convincingly, I call on him to desist from advancing the perilous idea of unilateralism.
Unilateralism as intellectual surrender
In conclusion, unilateralism is not a well thought out strategic choice. It is a knee-jerk reaction of those who oppose the settlement enterprise, a flimsy excuse rather than a serious policy option.
It reflects, at best intellectual surrender, at worst a preference to make Israel’s situation untenable rather than admit to error.
Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (