Dr. Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU, comments on the latest developments at the Holy land
The Netanyahu government has forcefully and consistently promulgated the notion that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, its subsequent takeover by Hamas, and the violence emanating from it strongly suggest that the Palestinians aim for Israel’s destruction rather than regaining lost territory. Netanyahu argues that Israel must learn from this experience and thus should not withdraw from the West Bank, which is far closer than Gaza to Israel’s urban centers. The takeover of the West Bank by Hamas, the argument goes, would make it another staging ground from which to launch rockets attacks, cut Israel in half, and inflict incalculable losses in lives and property.
Unfortunately many Israelis bought into the fallacy of this argument, and indeed, if Israel were to precipitately withdraw from the West Bank, as it did from Gaza, a similar result could theoretically reoccur.
The three violent wars between Hamas and Israel – Operation Cast Lead in 2008, Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and this year’s Operation Protective Edge – are used by Netanyahu to falsely demonstrate the consequences of the Gaza withdrawal, rather than the consequences of maintaining the fragile conditions between Israel and the Palestinians.
Using lofty phrases to describe these operations against Hamas is not the answer. Depicting Hamas’ behavior and its doctrine of promoting Israel’s destruction to justify Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank only plays into the hands of extremist Palestinians.
Netanyahu is deliberately misleading the public to justify his obdurate refusal to embark on a significant withdrawal from the West Bank by rewriting the history of the withdrawal from Gaza and linking it directly to national security concerns.
Israeli intelligence at that time knew that Hamas was politically popular and had military capabilities that could overwhelm the PA’s internal security forces under Abbas in any confrontation. But the desire of then-Prime Minister Sharon to rid Israel of a densely-populated Palestinian area, and his belief, as stated in the Kadima Party Platform, that “…in order to maintain a Jewish majority, part of the Land of Israel must be given up to maintain a Jewish and democratic state,” provided the impetus to evacuate Gaza first.
To demonstrate his intentions that the withdrawal would not be limited to Gaza, in August 2005 Sharon ordered the evacuation of Sa-Nur and Homesh in northern West Bank, thus setting the nation on a course that could have ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, Sharon ignored the need to fully coordinate the evacuation of Gaza with the PA and failed to produce a well thought-out plan to implement the withdrawal in stages, which had significant national security implications.
Ideally, following the withdrawal, the Palestinians should have immediately embarked on building the infrastructure of a state and developing a substantial economic program to provide jobs and opportunities to tens of thousands of young Palestinians while demonstrating their commitment to live side-by-side Israel in peace.
The fact that this did not happen in Gaza should not affect the situation in the West Bank, especially since the PA, following the end of the second Intifada in 2005, officially renounced the use of force to achieve its political objective—an independent Palestinian state.
The PA has begun in earnest to build the foundations of a state with schools, clinics, a network of roads, and private and government institutions. They were even praised by Israel’s top security officials for their full cooperation with Israel on all security matters, even in times of increased tension between the two sides.
The Gaza experience in a way was positive and instructive in that it has shown the mistakes that Sharon made and how to avoid similar mistakes in any future disengagement from territories in the West Bank.
Leave it to Netanyahu, however, to use the Gaza experience to justify the continuation of the occupation rather than working out airtight plans with the PA that would entail security measures to ensure that the West Bank does not become a staging ground for attacks on Israel.
Although both Sharon and Netanyahu believe that “the Israeli nation has a national and historic right to the whole of Israel,” Sharon realized that he must give up part of it to preserve the Jewish national identity of the state.
Conversely, Netanyahu is driven by his conviction that Israel is not an occupying power and that the establishment of a Palestinian state on the same land forfeits Israel’s inherent right to the entire land.
That said, Israel is in a perfect position to withdraw from most of the West Bank without risking any aspect of its legitimate security concerns. In fact, a withdrawal based on preconceived plans and procedures will enhance rather than undermine Israel’s national security.
No one in their right mind can suggest that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank precipitously like it did from Gaza and Sothern Lebanon in 2000 almost overnight, with no coordination and no agreement with the Palestinian Authority (PA) or the Lebanese/Syrian governments, respectively.
Instead, it should be based on a number of agreed upon phases to be implemented over a period of five to ten years and entail well-defined reciprocal measures to be executed on schedule by both sides with monitoring mechanisms to ensure full compliance and prevent escalation.
In addition, mutual security arrangements should be determined in advance and a comprehensive economic development program must be central to any agreement so that the Palestinians develop vested interests and have the incentive to preserve it.
The Netanyahu government finds it extremely convenient to exploit the current violence in Jerusalem and the death of innocent Israelis and Palestinians by pointing out the “wisdom” of his policy to maintain the occupation and his refusal to make territorial concessions, presumably because of national security considerations.
Regardless of what precipitated the current violence, it only demonstrates that the status quo is untenable. The Israeli occupation is an occupation by any definition and is the mother of all evil that plagues Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Whether or not Israel has biblical or historic rights to the land is no longer relevant given the unshakable reality of the Palestinians, but Netanyahu and his company are too possessed to see the light.
It is time for the Israeli public, which has been systematically misled, to shed the fallacy behind the withdrawal from Gaza and demand that the Netanyahu government resign and elect new leaders who are totally committed to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I know this is a tall order, but there is always a moment in time when people rise above their human frailty. I believe that it is time for the Israelis to create that moment.