Still Splitsville: Israeli-Palestinian Disengagement, Post Sharon

January 13, 2006

Last summer, Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip marked the emergence of a new alternative for dealing with the Palestinians and the occupied territories: unilateral disengagement. The logic of disengagement is that Israel need not wait for, or even necessarily rely on, a Palestinian negotiating partner before separating from the Palestinian territories. The idea emerged in the midst of the second intifada, when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was encouraging and funding violence and terrorism. Disengagement from Gaza was first proposed by Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna in January 2003, during his campaign to oust Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But Sharon made the idea his own 11 months later, in a speech at a conference in the Israeli town of Herzliya.

With its emphasis on self-reliance, disengagement has a powerful attraction for Israelis. Even with Sharon sidelined, it remains Israel’s default policy, no matter who wins the country’s March 28 elections. But what makes this strategy so attractive to Israelis—its unilateralism—also may make it unsuccessful. For disengagement to succeed in making Israelis safer from terrorism, it must be carried out in close coordination with an effective Palestinian Authority. And that’s unlikely to happen, with or without Ariel Sharon.

In the Israeli security establishment, those responsible for implementing the Gaza disengagement knew from the outset that it could be unilateral in name only. The self-determined aspects of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza were few: the decision to leave, the timing of the departure, and the extent of the pullout. Everything else required cooperation from the Palestinian Authority. Thousands of Palestinian police and security forces deployed throughout the strip prevented contact between jubilant Palestinians and withdrawing Israeli settlers and soldiers. Third parties have helped, too: Egyptian security “advisers” watched over their Palestinian colleagues. Egyptian and European Union officials continue to supervise Palestinian operation of the border with Egypt (with Israeli monitors some distance away). And American security and economic mediators have been working hard since the spring to revive Gaza’s faltering economy and re-establish the rule of law in the region.

Even closer coordination will be required in the months to come. Israel’s security planners know that they cannot leave Gaza (or, later, the West Bank) so impoverished and cut off that it descends into an anarchic, violent, failed nonstate. So, though Israel does not want tens of thousands of Gazans entering Israeli territory to work, it wants them employed—and moreover, it would like to ship in materials, like fabrics for textiles, and use cheap Gazan labor to make them into goods for export. To be successful on Israeli terms, disengagement must include some real economic integration.

So far, the withdrawal from Gaza has gone well enough to ready some Israelis for more. Former Israeli National Security Adviser Uzi Dayan is marketing a plan (called Tafnit) for unilateral withdrawal from 32 settlements in the West Bank. Dayan wants to restrict Israeli civilians to the territory on the Israeli side of the security fence that Israel is building to the east of the 1967 Green Line. The completion of the security barrier will itself tangibly push disengagement forward. Already, the fence line looks and feels like a border. Once the wall is completed (current plans are for completion by the end of 2006), more Israelis will ask why Jews are living on the other side, and why young people in uniform must still be sent to defend their isolated settlements.

The decision to leave Gaza was the impetus for Sharon and his allies to ditch the Likud Party, their long-time base. That means Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, and Meir Sheetrit—the trio that now leads Kadima, the party Sharon created before his stroke—know that their popularity reflects the pro-disengagement wave. Polls show that the hard-line rump of the Likud Party led by Bibi Netanyahu will win only 10 percent of seats in parliament, a decisive rejection of its anti-disengagement stance.

But can further disengagement be carried out in a way that effectively separates Israeli and Palestinian lives, isn’t hostage to an uncertain negotiating partner, and meets Israelis’ expectations for greater security? It’s a tall order. Practically speaking, disengagement from the West Bank is much more difficult than it was from Gaza. Israeli and Palestinian population centers are more intertwined. In and around Jerusalem, the security barrier will inevitably leave some communities on the “wrong” side of the fence. Many Palestinians who live in the West Bank will still need to cross the security barrier daily to attend school, farm their land, and take care of the details of daily living.

To cope with all this, Israel needs the Palestinian Authority to govern the West Bank and prevent terrorists from crossing the border. Instead, it confronts the PA’s ongoing political disintegration. Already, the peaceful withdrawal from Gaza has given way to renewed rocket attacks from the strip into southern Israel, as well as worrisome melees at the border between Gaza and Egypt. Unless Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can exert his authority over militants and gangsters—and unless Israel and the international community help him show his people that they can reap economic benefits—Gaza will become more and more ungovernable. Violence emanating from the Gaza Strip could draw Israeli forces back into the territory within the year. Should that happen, the Gaza disengagement will be judged an utter failure by the Israeli electorate. This would be the opportunity for Netanyahu’s Likud Party eventually to make a new bid for power, in an attempt to halt any further land transfers.

The steps that could make a further Israeli withdrawal more likely to succeed are evident, if controversial. If the route of the security fence were changed so that more Palestinian farmland lay on the non-Israeli side, then fewer Palestinians would have to cross the barrier every day. If the Gaza Strip had a functioning airport and seaport, then fewer Gazan shipping containers would need to go through Israeli ports, fewer Gazans would try to sneak into Israel to work, and fewer would sit idle and vulnerable to recruiting by extremists.

But this is where the loss of Sharon matters. While his legacy is complicated indeed, Sharon’s political comeback occurred because he was the toughest, meanest, biggest ex-general Israelis had on offer in the midst of a fierce Palestinian uprising. Israelis from left and right came to trust him on security. Without Sharon, Israelis will be more fearful of disengagement undertaken in close coordination with an inconstant and imperfect Palestinian partner—in other words, the version of disengagement that is most likely to work.

Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza ended Greater Israel—the idea that Israel could hold the occupied territories forever. Israel has recognized and accepted Palestinian nationalism as a fact. But Israelis still struggle with how to come to terms with it. The land-for-peace bargain of Yitzhak Rabin’s Oslo Accords is widely regarded in retrospect as naive and foolhardy for relying on Palestinian leadership to protect Israeli lives. But even without the territories, Israel’s security is bound up with the Palestinians. If Israel can’t make disengagement work, the only remaining option will be a return to war, most likely a war of attrition.