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What unilateral disengagement plan?

03/18/2004

It is hard to know if we are for or against Ariel Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan, since nobody seems to know what it is, but most Israelis are convinced that getting out of Gaza has to be good for all concerned.

Ariel Sharon's announced unilateral disengagement "plan" has thrown confusion into both Israeli and Palestinain political camps. It is certainly a positive development for peace when a former arch-advocate of Greater Israel and 'establishing facts on the ground' suddenly reverses course, talks about the evils of occupation, and announces plans to withdraw and dismantle settlements.

Most Middle Easterners simplify their lives by dividing political characters into 'white hats' and 'black hats,' 'good guys' and 'bad guys,' 'left and right.' This saves a lot of thinking, because then they need only cheer or boo an idea depending on the source, without examining the content. Until recently, one could be sure that if Sharon is for it, it must be 'good for the Jews,' 'good for Greater Israel,' 'bad for the peace camp' and 'bad for the Arabs.' The unilateral plan threw the works out of kilter. Sharon had uttered heresies for the Israeli right, arousing opposition. Suddenly, he found himself basking in the support of 'leftists' and being targetted by barbed criticism from the right.

Nobody is quite sure how to react to the plan. Yossi Beilin, the new leader of the Yahad party (formerly Meretz), is against withdrawal without negotiations, because it will weaken Palestinian moderates and destroy the peace process ('what peace process' you may ask). He has a point. Peace Now, closely associated with Meretz, is holding a demonstration in favor of unilateral withdrawal, because ending the occupation has to be good for peace. They are right too. Right wing critics point out that Israel would be making concessions in return for nothing, and that withdrawal could turn Gaza into a terror factory. They have have a point. Left wing critics note that 'disengagement' may cause a catastrophic failure in Palestinian society, which would be cut off from employment in Israel, and they may be right too. Palestinian critics point out that the 'disengagement' will perpetuate Israeli domination, since it will allow Israelis and settlers to travel freely into the territories, but prevent Palestinians from getting out. Supporters point out that the withdrawal will conserve precious defense resources that can be used elsewhere, and stop the wasteful subsidies for settlers. They claim that disengagement will allow Palestinians greater freedom of movement and reduce the burden of occupation, laying the basis for future negotiations. Left wing critics claim that disengagement will effectively end the peace process and isolate the Palestinian economy. Right wing critics point out that the disengagement would be seen as a victory for extremist groups like the Hamas. The right-wing newspaper Hatzofeh editorialized, "An IDF withdrawal from Gaza will be unequivocally understood by the Palestinians and by the Islamic world as running away, and as attesting to the success of terror even against General Sharon." Criticls also claim that the disengagement and relocation of settlers will cost $15 billion, and point out that Washington will be unwilling to foot the bill.

In a recent speech to the Knesset, Ariel Sharon rationalized the withdawal plan as necessary to prevent creation of a 'diplomatic vacuum' that would otherwise result, forcing Israel to accept peace plans "forced" upon it by the EU, or the Arab League. Sharon said:


It is clear to me that within the political vacuum which will be created if the "Roadmap" collapses, and Israel will not succeed in presenting its own alternative, dozens of political initiatives will be drawn up often, from all over the world. Today, we are already forced to repel such initiatives, which share
the idea that Israel must reach an agreement while terror is still going on. In other words, Israel will have to make far-reaching concessions while legitimacy is given to terror. This is, of course, something we cannot accept. This situation places Israel under intolerable international pressure. And I mean the various proposals. There are some who are enthusiastic about the Saudi plan, even here among us, there are those who occasionally raise this "wonderful" dream. There are those who hear the plan of the Arab League, there is a European plan, there is another plan, and there are also a few Israeli plans which could lead us to the abyss and rise to the surface at times. At the same time, it reduces the pressure on the Palestinians to fight terror.

Sharon's speech raised more questions than it answered, and suggests that nobody in Israel, Sharon included, may really understand why the government wants to go ahead with disengagement. It is not clear how giving up territory without negotiations to avoid legitimizing terror is better than negotiating and giving up territory in order to stop terror. It is not clear that unilateral disengagement by withdrawal from Gaza will stop the pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to reach a negotiated solution, since nobody could imagine that this tiny withdrawal, even if accompanied by a minor withdrawal from the West Bank, would create a livable situation for Palestinians, or satisfy their demands in any way.

If Sharon really wanted to keep the roadmap alive, and show that Israel is making concessions in line with the roadmap, he could have dismantled all of the illegal outposts as Israel had undertaken to do under the roadmap, but never did.

The confusion grew when Sharon met with defense experts to begin to formulate the outline of the plan, since it became apparent that the questions that remain to be settled are not technical issues, but matters of principle. In fact, it appears that Sharon doesn't have a disengagement policy, only a slogan. Since there is no plan, those who said that the plan would free the Palestinians of occupation might be right, and those whose who said it would imprison them in a ghetto might be right as well. Will Israel withdraw from the Philadelphi road that separates Gaza from Egypt? Not settled. Will the Dahaniyeh airport be allowed to operate? Probably not. Well all the settlements in Gaza be evacuated? Not settled. Well Palestinians be able to go to work in Israel? Not settled. For example:


Mofaz opined that Palestinians from Gaza should be allowed to work in Israel after the withdrawal - a suggestion that Sharon opposed. However, Sharon added, "it is clear that we cannot disengage absolutely - shut down the electricity and not let anyone enter - in an instant, lest there be a collapse."

National Security Advisor Giora Eiland responded that if Israel withdrew completely from Gaza, it would no longer be responsible for what happened there. "Let the world worry about them," he said. "I will no longer be the occupier in Gaza, so it will be as much the Egyptians' and Europeans' business as mine."

If we don't know what the plan is, how can we know if it is good or bad for anyone? The truth seems to be that the "disengagement" like the security fence, has been adopted because of a driving necessity perceived by most Israelis. We are tired of the terror and tired of the occupation, and want to find a way to end both, and separate our fortunes from the chaos of the Palestinian Authority. Both the fence and the unilteral disengagement plan began as plans of the Israel Labor Party. They are both popular. About 84% of Jewish Israelis support the fence according to the Steinmetz center peace survey, and about 56% support disengagement.

The disengagement "plan" and the fence have various proposed implementations and rationales. Each may be seen, and have been seen, as movs that support peace or perpetuate the occupation, isolates the Palestinians, or gives them more freedom, depending on who is proposing them and when. The size and details of the withdrawal, like the path of the fence, are details to be finalized. The actual content of the plans doesn't seem to matter. What matters is that both constitute a declaration by Israelis that they are fed up with both the Intifada and the occupation, but the Palestinian Auhtority and the settlers. Sometimes reality and sanity are stronger than ideologies. Disengagement is an idea that seems to be suggested by reality, that is the only way to explain why the Israeli right took this idea from the Labor party and adopted it as their own. Most of us are convinced that no matter what happens, getting out of Gaza has to be a good thing for all concerned.

Ami Isseroff

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