August 3, 2015 - Ten years to the Gaza withdrawal



This week, Alpher discusses why Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of settlements and troops from the Gaza Strip ten years ago didn’t produce additional withdrawals from the West Bank as well and generate some sort of positive momentum toward resolution of the conflict; if Sharon and Olmert had different approaches to the idea of independent withdrawal; the settler movement’s response to the Gaza withdrawal; how Sharon envisioned the settlement project, and what made him adopt the extreme measure of unilateral withdrawal; Labor leader Isaac Herzog on the withdrawal and negotiating a West Bank withdrawal; and a cost-benefit analysis of a possible IDF withdrawal on the West Bank.

Q. Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of settlements and troops from the Gaza Strip ten years ago had far-reaching ramifications for Israel and the Palestinians. Let’s begin with the obvious question: why didn’t it produce additional withdrawals from the West Bank as well and generate some sort of positive momentum toward resolution of the conflict?

A. There was a very minor parallel withdrawal from four small and isolated settlements in the northern West Bank, but not from any territory there. Additional West Bank withdrawals were reportedly planned, but were never implemented.

A number of subsequent developments intervened. First and foremost, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who spearheaded the Gaza withdrawal, fell ill. His successor, Ehud Olmert, who fervently backed the idea of additional withdrawals, was quickly drawn into war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, then witnessed the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. Since Israel had withdrawn unilaterally from both southern Lebanon and the Strip, both developments tended to discredit the entire concept of independent withdrawal.


Q. Did Sharon and Olmert have different approaches to the idea of independent withdrawal?

A. Sharon was cynical about the prospects for peace and a two-state solution with the Palestinians. In general, he did not believe Israel had viable Arab peace partners. Olmert, on the other hand, definitely saw unilateral withdrawal as a precursor of constructive negotiations. Once he realized that no further withdrawals were possible, he proceeded to engage Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the most far-reaching peace negotiations held to date. Yet Abbas ended up walking away from Olmert’s end-of-conflict peace offer even as Olmert got caught up in corruption charges that ended his political career and continue to plague him to this day.

Then too, Sharon was a stronger leader than Olmert, with stronger “credentials” as an aggressive general and planner and builder of many of the settlements. Accordingly, it was easier for him to muster the Knesset and popular majorities necessary to effect the 2005 Gaza withdrawal.


Q. Returning to subsequent developments, what about the settler movement’s response to the Gaza withdrawal?

A. When the settlers realized that an Israeli government could not only accommodate them by building settlements but could dismantle settlements and remove the settlers from an entire region as well, the settlement movement and the messianic Orthodox nationalists behind it vowed to take measures to prevent another such evacuation. Accordingly, over the past decade we have witnessed a radical rise in Orthodox nationalist representation within the Likud and other right-wing movements in the Knesset--the body that would have to decide on further withdrawals. And there has been a dramatic rise in Orthodox nationalist representation among the officer ranks of the Israel Defense Forces and in the Shin Bet internal security service, the two institutions that would be called upon to remove settlers by force. Coupled with the ongoing rise in settler numbers in the West Bank, this dynamic is certain to make it far more difficult, if not impossible, to carry out further removal of significant numbers of settlers from the West Bank.

Then too, the fact that ten years later not all the Gaza settlers have found permanent replacement housing is understood by the public as a warning about the difficulties of resettling far larger numbers from the West Bank. Undoubtedly, some of the delay has been deliberate--orchestrated by the political right precisely to send a negative message. Yet in most cases the explanation is simply bureaucratic ineptitude.


Q. How did Sharon envision the settlement project, and what made him adopt the extreme measure of unilateral withdrawal?

A. In a long conversation we had in 1994 (when Sharon was in the Knesset opposition), he explained to me how he used the settlements essentially to divide-and-rule the Palestinians. Perusing the map with me he pointed to a remote corner of the southern West Bank where two Bedouin clans lived in adjacent valleys: he would, he said, put a settlement on the hilltop between the valleys to separate the Bedouin clans. He placed settlements along strategic route 60, which runs from north to south along the West Bank mountain ridge, to separate the main Palestinian cities linked by the road: Jenin, Nablus (Shechem), Ramallah, East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron. He even tried to use settlements to divide the demographically crowded Gaza Strip into three sections.

If you intend to hold onto all these territories by force and keep their population in permanent subjugation, this is the way to do it. Note that Labor governments tended to favor a different approach by building settlement blocs in areas like the Etzion Bloc and the Jordan Valley where the settlers have access to the pre-1967 border with Israel and can quickly become a demographic majority. Of course, both the Sharon approach and that of Labor hurt the chances for a two-state solution, and Labor all too often equivocated when confronting Orthodox nationalist pressures to settle the West Bank heartland. But Labor’s concept at least rendered it more possible to separate the populations and to defend the settlements at times of crisis.

I was reminded of Sharon’s tactic by a “ten-year-anniversary” op-ed published recently in Yediot Aharonot by retired IDF general Gershon HaCohen, an Orthodox pro-settler officer whom Sharon cleverly put in charge of the Gaza withdrawal ten years ago in order to disarm settler protest. HaCohen, a good soldier, obeyed orders and the evacuation went relatively smoothly. Now he has spoken out against the Gaza withdrawal and any further withdrawals by adopting Sharon’s original approach and condemning Labor’s: “the question is how to organize the expanse between us and the Palestinians. [The political left-center] prefers an expanse organized in a binary manner: “They are there, we’re here.” . . . In contrast, we can organize the expanse in a hybrid manner, for example by deploying settlements in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] in a crisscross between us and the Palestinians. That enables the IDF to operate at night deep in Palestinian territory with limited forces [using isolated settlements as bases].” HaCohen realizes that his approach is “anachronistic”, but prefers nevertheless to glorify it: “[the approach] dares, like me, to recognize struggle as the fundamental situation in human life.”

HaCohen appears to be as Neitzchean as he is messianic, but the result is the same: endless settlement, endless conflict. Sharon also believed that peace with Arabs was impossible and this approach of course informed his settlement design. Sharon was a good tactician but a poor strategist: witness his disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982. But Sharon was at heart also a pragmatist, and when in around 2003 he became convinced that the settlements were becoming a liability in his relations with both the Bush administration and the Israeli security community and that the occupation had to end, he proved perfectly capable of reversing course.

Sadly, I don’t see anyone on the political horizon who might anytime soon be capable of doing the same in the West Bank.


Q. Labor leader Isaac Herzog?

A. Herzog recently (also on the ten-year anniversary) stated that the Gaza withdrawal had been “essential” in preventing Israel from becoming a bi-national state, but was a “mistake” from a “security perspective”. Accordingly, he endorses the need for a West Bank withdrawal that is negotiated with the Palestinians and is part and parcel of a peace accord. This is significant, because Herzog’s candidate for defense minister, Amos Yadlin, a former IDF chief of intelligence, endorses--as a last resort interim measure until an agreement is possible--a unilateral West Bank withdrawal based on the Gaza model of a decade ago.

Still, Yadlin would apply security lessons learned from the Gaza withdrawal. He would leave the IDF in the Jordan Valley and even allow it access when required to Palestinian areas of the West Bank. Here he seeks to learn from Sharon’s mistakes. Sharon removed the IDF abruptly from the Gaza-Egypt border, thereby enabling a huge Hamas arms smuggling operation and military buildup in the Strip. Sharon also made light of the fact that the PLO leadership under Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah refused in 2005 to coordinate aspects of a PLO governmental and security takeover from Israel in Gaza.

Herzog’s insistence on a two-state agreement rather than unilateral withdrawal seemingly ignores the current huge obstacles to successful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Then again (see above), no one is about to replicate the Gaza withdrawal either.


Q. Granted, then, in view of Netanyahu’s rejection that this is a theoretical exercise: what is your cost-benefit analysis of a possible IDF withdrawal on the West Bank?

A. Let’s assume the withdrawal includes removal of settlements, and even that the IDF remains temporarily in the Jordan Valley, thereby rendering the West Bank Palestinian entity a political enclave with less than full independence but awarding it nearly all the West Bank in one contiguous unit. This would have the extremely positive effect of maintaining Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and slowing or stopping its slide down the slippery slope toward apartheid. That’s the main benefit.

Additional benefits could be achieved by finding ways to link both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to the rest of the Arab world without endangering Israeli security. This could only be done within a broader Arab context such as that suggested by the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Such a move would also potentially enhance Israel’s relations with those Arab states that are still functioning.

The costs could be two-fold. First is the danger of a West Bank takeover by Hamas or other Islamist extremist elements intent on attacking Israel, with Israel’s withdrawal rendering it politically and militarily risky--much as in Gaza--to send the IDF back in. A second cost would be the danger to Israeli societal cohesion posed by removing upwards of 100,000 settlers from the West Bank mountain heartland area. This would presumably require a combination of financial inducements and Israeli governmental coercion. Under current political and societal circumstances in Israel, and bearing in mind the aforementioned settler achievements in the political and security spheres, this currently looks virtually impossible to do.