July 8, 2005 - The hottest issue in Israel right now is the government's plan to withdraw from the settlements in Gaza. Known as "disengagement," the issue seems to have split the Israeli public nearly in half. If a popular referendum on disengagement were held today, I do not know which side would win. The dispute has not helped Israel's image. It's time to unravel some of the confusion.
The media have focused on the most strident source of opposition to disengagement, those who are against it for religious reasons. They have indeed been quite vocal in their dissent, and their numbers are fairly constant. But in spite of that faction, there had been at one time a clear majority in Israel favoring disengagement. The reason for the apparent drop in support is not religion. It is security.(1)
The security argument has gotten lost in all the noise. Yet it has real merit. The Palestinians have shown over and over again that they are not a partner for peace. Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than at the failed Camp David negotiations and their aftermath, and although the Palestinians are now trying to rewrite that history, the record is clear.
So Israel has been left to take unilateral steps to try to end the conflict. Withdrawal from Gaza is one important such step.
But withdrawal from Gaza is not likely to make Israel more secure. It may in fact make matters worse. Polls have shown a solid Palestinian majority in favor of continuing armed struggle against Israel even if Israel were to withdraw completely from all territories and back to the 1967 border.(2) The production of Qassam rockets in Gaza is increasing, and the Hamas web site is now reporting plans to transport this technology to the West Bank to make attacks on Israeli cities easy in the event that Israel withdraws from there:
There are many indications that the Qassam rockets will find their way from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank and that it is only a matter of time. A great deal of evidence indicates that this change in the West Bank is going to become reality [now,] with [the manufacturing and launching of Qassam rockets] in the Gaza Strip entering its fourth year....
What it important, however, is how the situation will unfold should the Zionist army partially withdraw from the cities of the West Bank, after the [construction of the] fence is completed and the resistance [factions] have an infrastructure for the manufacturing of these rockets. In this case, Afula, Hadera, Beit She'an, Netanya, Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, and other cities will all fall within the range of the Qassam 1 rocket, and there will not even be need for the Qassam 2 rocket.(3)
Palestinian factions are already broadcasting what they would do with a Palestinian state. They would use it as a base for missile strikes against Israeli cities. The hypocritical divestment movement spearheaded by liberal Protestant churches shows a deadly recklessness in failing to take this into account.
If Israel does go through with disengagement from Gaza, the Palestinian extremists are sure to interpret this as evidence that terrorism works. It will give them further incentive to continue their terror war, and by their own admission they will pursue this war no matter how small Israel's borders become. It will be like Israel's precipitous withdrawal from Lebanon under Ehud Barak, which gave the Palestinians the incentive to launch their intifada rather than continue the negotiations process.
The disengagement issue has been caricatured in the media. Opposition is not primarily a question of religion, but of genuine concerns about security. However, there is another side to the security question.
The Arab birthrate in the territories is approximately twice that of Israeli Jews. It is only a matter of time until the Palestinian Arabs become a majority. They cannot forever be kept disenfranchised and stateless. The greatest danger facing Israel over the long term is that one day the Palestinians will say, "Keep your settlements, just give us the vote." On that day Israel will have no viable option left if it is to continue as a Jewish state, or to continue at all.
So the real disagreement on disengagement is about which is worse, an immediate short-term security threat, or a long-term demographic one. There is merit on both sides of the argument. Therefore the two sides must respect each other and communicate with each other.
But now for a little editorializing. It is my view that the long-term threat is far more serious. Whether or not Israel disengages now, terrorism is likely to increase. There will be loss of life. But Israel can respond to terrorism. There is no viable response to a choice between controlling indefinitely a hostile and growing population, or admitting them all as citizens of a Greater Israel that would soon become Greater Palestine.
Not all of those opposed to disengagement discount the demographics. However, they feel that the immediate threat must be dealt with first. The demographic threat is not immediate. But neither is it far off in the distant future. If not dealt with now, it will be only harder to address it later, as opposition to disengagement hardens and settlements are expanded. As hard as it will be to disengage now, later it may become impossible.
Religion has no legitimate role in this dispute. The religious rationale for holding onto the territories must be rejected. The Palestinian terrorist war must not become a war between two religions. This stand will put me at odds with many in Israel, but not with the majority. What has changed in Israeli attitudes toward disengagement is not a concern about religion. It is a concern about security.
The project of settling all the territories Israel gained in 1967 was a tragic mistake. Even Sharon seems to realize that now. But whatever one thinks Israel should have done then - when the Arab states rejected Israel's call to negotiate land for peace - it is no longer 1967. It is 2005, and Palestinian terror groups are threatening to use any areas vacated by Israel as staging grounds for more terrorism, this time not just with bombs but with missiles. The security argument against disengagement is not just an excuse. It is based on reality. But the danger over the long run of postponing disengagement is a much greater threat.
There are no good options available. In my view, disengagement is the best of the bad ones. It is the policy of the Israeli government, it is the most secure choice for the long term, and it is also the right thing to do. But there are respectable people on both sides, people who want peace and who are trying desperately to find a way to achieve it. The internal struggle now tearing Israel apart should be appreciated for what it is: a search for peace when your enemy has sworn to continue fighting no matter which option you choose.
1. Gil Hoffman, "Poll Shows Pullout Below 50% for First Time," Jerusalem Post, June 8, 2005.
2. Janine Zacharia, "Palestinians Back Armed Struggle After State - Poll," Jerusalem Post, October 22, 2003.
3. "Will the Palestinian Weapon of Deterrence Develop in the West Bank?," Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies (C.S.S), June 28, 2005.
Peace with Realism