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Frustrating the will of the people


The fate of Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan is a paradigm in miniature of the fate of peace between Palestinians and Israelis. According to polls, even before the latest round of killing in Gaza, the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians favored Israeli withdrawal. It makes sense for everyone concerned, but it probably won't happen until many more people have died for no reason. Because this is the Middle East, we might say "It makes sense, and therefore it probably won't happen."

A recent poll indicates that 59% of Israelis support disengagement. Another poll indicates that it is supported by 75% of Palestinians. Yet the plan is orphaned, because it conflicts with the special interests of the prime movers of Palestinian and Israeli political life, or their supporters in the USA. Sharon's own Likud party rejected the plan in a referendum. The Palestinian leadership has rejected the plan. The peace movement has been equivocal or silent about disengagement. Only the Israel Labor party, the Shinui party, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Ohlmert continue to support this plan publicly.

It is easy to understand the reluctance of settlers to give up their homes, and of hard-line "Greater Israel" advocates to give up a millimeter of Israeli territory. The stand of the Israeli peace movement is less easy to comprehend.

The disengagement plan of Ariel Sharon represented a step forward, because if implemented, it would've been the first time that Israel actually evacuated settlements. If it is ever implemented, in any form, it will produce an earthquake in Israeli society. It doesn't require much imagination to understand that.

The Israeli peace movement have long pointed out that in all the years of Oslo, Israel did not remove
a single settlement.

We have been asking for "Confidence Building Measures" - even little ones, that would help to convince Palestinians that Israel really means to end the occupation some day.

We of the "peace camp" keep telling people in Israel that the occupation is bad, that the occupation
of Gaza and the settlements there are insane. We have been saying this for over 35 years. Consequently, the stand of the peace movement should be clear, but it is not.

Yossi Beilin, leader of the dovish Yahad (formerly Meretz) party, has refused to endorse the plan, and instead wrote a letter (see below) which is a masterpiece of equivocation that could only be composed by a lawyer. Is disengagement good, or is it bad, according to Beilin? "On the one had this, but on the other hand that," or as Beilin writes:

Welcome, therefore, as the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria is, its unilateral dimension risks turning it into a highly dangerous move.

These are the sort of logical contortions that are forced upon party speilers who have to explain a stand that is totally opposed to their ideology, but which is forced upon them by the expediencies of political life. Beilin is apparently not against all confidence building measures. He wrote:

it was Sharon's refusal to release Palestinian prisoners in order to bolster former Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) led him to hand over several hundreds of them to the leader of Hizballah several months later.

If the withdrawal were called a "confidence building measure" and if Beilin had had a hand in it, we can rest assured that it would get the seal of approval. Would Beilin be opposed to giving up just one settlement as a confidence building measure, or two settlements? He could hardly oppose such a move, could he? But when Sharon proposes to give up all the settlements in Gaza, Beinin hems and haws until nobody can tell where he stands, and so do the "peace" movements.

Perhaps not since communists had to justify their stand on the Molotov - von Ribbentrop pact (between Hitler and the USSR) has anyone produced a masterpiece that is the equal of Beilin's letter. Beilin won't say exactly that he is against disengagement, but he certainly is not for it. Can I vote for someone who doesn't want to end the occupation, any part of the occupation? Or worse, can I vote for someone when I don't even understand exacly what his position is?

Everyone has their own reason to oppose disengagement. What is Beilin's problem? "Not invented here"- disengagement was not his idea. Beilin supports the Geneva Accord that he hammered out with an informal group of interested Palestians and Israelis. But the Geneva accord, unlike disengagement, doesn't have the support of the majority of Palestinians and it is going noplace. Who says disengagement can't be a prelude to further negotiations? Not Sharon.

Beilin wrote:

The problem rather is that Sharon's plan seems expressly designed not merely to bypass agreement but indeed to prevent one.

Evidence that this is true is lacking in Sharon's presentation of the plan and in his public commitments in this regard. Quoting from the disengagement plan:

Israel is committed to the peace process and is aiming to reach a negotiated agreement on the basis of two states for two peoples: the State of Israel as a Jewish state and a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people. This is in keeping with President Bush's vision for a two state solution. Israel believes that it must act to improve the current reality. Israel has come to the realization that at present there is no Palestinian partner with whom to proceed along a bilateral peace process.

Even the most enthusiastic supporters of the Geneva Accord must acknowledge that the majority of Palestinians will not accept it at present. I can think of three reasons for this. The first regards Palestinian refusal to give up the idea that refugees have a right to return to green line Israel. This issue was addressed in President Bush's letter of support for Sharon. Bush's reference to "right of return" was roundly denounced by all Palestinians and Arabs, as well as by anti-Zionist former US diplomats who hastened to publish a letter telling Bush he should not have reneged on the "rights" of the Palestinians, even though advocating the "right of return" literally is equivalent to advocating genocide for the Jews of Israel. The letter itself is unimportant. The people telling President Bush to be more "evenhanded" were not dispassionate observers and experts on the Middle East, but rather career anti-Zionists. The letter was sponsored by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and its parent organization, the American Educational Trust, both founded to further Arab interests in the Middle East. They are entitled to their opinion, but it was only to be expected. What was interesting, was the huge support that this letter received in the Arab and Palestinian media. This was due in part to good timing - an analogous letter castigating Tony Blair over his Iraq policy had just been published by British diplomats. Undoubtedly however, it was also due to the great support that "right of return" still enjoys in the Arab world and among Palestinians. In view of that support, it is difficult to see how Mr. Beilin could believe that the Geneva Accord will be accepted by Palestinians or Arabs any time soon.

A second reason that Palestinians and Israelis are not disposed to think peaceful thoughts is of course, that the occupation continues to rub salt on their wounds and make their lives miserable every day. The current doings in Gaza, where 6 Israeli soldiers were killed following a raid, and subsequently a larger number of Palestinians were killed in a retaliatory raid, typifies the scenario that will continue to be enacted as long as Israel is in Gaza. Does anyone think that this is conducive to peace? Won't withdrawal from Gaza reduce the friction between Israelis and Palestinians?

A third reason that Palestinians are not disposed to think peaceful thoughts is that Israel has not, in all the years of the Oslo Accords, removed a single Jewish settlement from the occupied territories. Israel can say that it hasn't built any new settlements. But since Ariel Sharon came to power, Israel has built a lot of "outposts" An outpost is a settlement that is not called a settlement, so it is OK. Moreover, during the period of the roadmap, and despite repeated commitments to do so, Sharon has not eliminated a single one of these "outposts" that is inhabited. Perhaps more Palestinians would be willing to give up "right of return" if they had any confidence at all that Israel really is going to evacuate settlements and give them something in return.

Ex-Yahad/Meretz leader Yossi Sarid may be quite right in doubting that Sharon is serious about the disengagement plan. That is all the more reason for the Israeli left to be serious about the plan, and to force Sharon to do the right thing.

Ami Isseroff

This is the text of Beilin's letter. A squad of Talmud experts can volunteer to interpret it and decide if Meretz would vote for or against disengagement. The Yahad party moved no confidence in the government after the disengagement plan failed to gain a majority in the Likud referendum. Based on the letter below, shouldn't they have been against disengagement? Your guess is as good as mine.
Beilin's Letter

Tel Aviv, 22 April 2004

Dear friends,

Much has happened since my last letter to you, and I wanted to share with you my thoughts, first and foremost, on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent visit to Washington and the support that President Bush has publicly extended to Sharon's plan of unilateral disengagement.

It is obviously hard not to welcome the prospect of Israel leaving the Gaza Strip. After 37 years of Israeli occupation of that territory, a right-wing Israeli leader is finally ready to concede that it is in Israel's best national interest to withdraw from Gaza, meaning not only pulling out militarily but also, and even more significant, dismantling all Israeli settlements there. Sharon's plan includes similar measures in a small and limited area of northern Samaria in the West Bank.

Yet even if such a pullout, undertaken as it is by this erstwhile leader of the Israeli settlements project, cannot be more welcome, it is nonetheless deeply problematic. And the problem is not so much that it is "too little too late." The problem rather is that Sharon's plan seems expressly designed not merely to bypass agreement but indeed to prevent one.

In this respect, Sharon's plan does not depart from his long-held conviction that Israel must negotiate with its neighbors. And as always, such refusal is fraught with terrible ironies, to say the least. Only consider the fact that Sharon, who proudly sticks to his refusal to negotiate under fire, is nevertheless ready to withdraw under fire. But then, as you well remember, it was Sharon's refusal to release Palestinian prisoners in order to bolster former Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) led him to hand over several hundreds of them to the leader of Hizballah several months later. Needless to say, the price that Israel continues to pay -- both political and historical, leave alone the moral -- for Sharon's refusal to negotiate proves time and again to be high.

What is the logic driving Sharon's plan? At the most immediate and direct level, it is, according to Sharon, the need to respond to such peace initiatives such as the Geneva Accord. As he himself admitted in a recent interview he granted William Safire (see the NYT, 16 April), he experienced those peace initiatives as "pressures," and "I saw we could not resist those pressures without a plan of our own."

But for all the talk about resisting such peace initiatives as Geneva, the logic of Sharon's disengagement plan is paradoxically the same logic =-at least in part--that actually drove Geneva. For Sharon too understands that if a border is not established between Israelis and Palestinians, within a few years a Jewish minority will control a Palestinian majority. But unlike Geneva, Sharon's unilateral plan is unable to deal with two of the most sensitive issues between Israel and the Palestinians: the future of Jerusalem and the solution of the Palestinian refugee problem. And in this respect, Sharon's plan does little to advance a resolution of the conflict. Indeed, it even risks perpetuating it.

For this reason, Sharon's plan of unilateral disengagement contains not only hope but also danger. For if Sharon is pursuing his plan in order to preempt any future agreement, then Israel will be worse off. Such a withdrawal is likely to strengthen Hamas and weaken the pragmatic elements in the Palestinian society, and Israel will truly find itself with no partner for years to come. The hope, of course, is that once Israel begins withdrawing from Gaza, a new political dynamic will emerge that will induce the two sides to negotiate over final status issues.

Now it is precisely this fear that prompted Sharon to ask President Bush for assurances regarding several final-status issues. And if these assurances seem to have assured some of Sharon's ministers (and, by the same token, outraged many Palestinians), any one who reads closely President Bush's letter to Sharon will conclude that the political drama surrounding Sharon's visit to Washington was a case of much ado about nothing. For Bush's letter to Sharon expressed very little if any change to long-held American commitments to Israel and the Palestinians, and was in fact very much in line with President Clinton's famous ideas of December 2000, which were formally accepted by both sides. Where the letter refers to the likely final border between Israel and Palestine and the solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees, it carefully departs from a language of certainty and conviction to adopt one of qualified impressions and subjective aspirations. And nice though a personalized letter from President Bush might be, it contains little by way of any real commitments, and those that it contains are by no means unprecedented. Finally, no letter from a third side, even one as important as an American president, can substitute for negotiations with the Palestinians.

Welcome, therefore, as the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria is, its unilateral dimension risks turning it into a highly dangerous move. Sharon apparently believes that withdrawal from the Gaza Strip will save him from having to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians. Unfortunately, without such negotiations the conflict will never come to no end. What we must strive for, therefore, is that Sharon's plan will go against, as it were, his own plan and assume a momentum all its own: one that will become the first -- not the last--stage in a process that will bring the parties back to the negotiating table and lead them both, and together, to a more hopeful future.


Yossi Beilin

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000256.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

by Moderator @ 02:52 PM CST [Link]


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Replies: 5 comments

Yossi Beilin is quite clear that he supports withdrawal from Gaza while being suspicious of Sharon's strategic purpose as avoiding negotiations with the Palestinians and holding onto most (or too much) of the West Bank. In Old Left parlance, Beilin's position would probably be called "critical support."

Ami is correct that this degree of "on the one hand, on the other hand" may be too much nuance for many voters, but this should not be a problem for people like Ami and his readers who can follow sophisticated reasoning.

Posted by Ralph Seliger @ 05/12/2004 06:01 PM CST

Dear Ralph,
This is not a basis for rallying political support. "Critical support" is OK in a philosophical debate, but in the political arena it is either turned into unequivocal support, or it is an inappropriae joke.

If you have a demonstration accord to this letter, what will your slogans be: "Well maybe, perhaps"
"Dangerous but Welcome," "Welcome but Dangerous" "We support it but we don't really support it" "We are against it, but we aren't really against it"

Yahad has not come out unequivocally for the plan either. The demonstration for withdrawal from Gaza is organized by the Israel Labor party. For the first time, Meretz/Yahad is taking the back seat on a peace issue.


Posted by Moderator @ 05/12/2004 10:22 PM CST

I entirely support the idea of unilateral disengagement from the Occupied Territories. However, it is my belief that there is a striking relcutance to explore what happens after the disengagement.
In my opinion the disengagement can only be effective if Israel totally disengages from the Palestinian society on the other side of the border. Thus the "Wall" needs to be completed to become a continuous barrier along the border. This then raises the question whether Israel permits Palestinians to transit Israel to and from Gaza to the West Bank by land and air. I would suggest in the early stages the Israeli government would have little interest in permitting Palestinians to travel directly.
While the majority of Palestinians may express support for disengagement and total withdrawl, it is unlikely that they have consider what this means for them. It may well be that they assume that Israel will continue to allow them to enter Israel with relative ease. Nor are they likely to have considered whether the PNA forces will be able to fill the void left behind by the retreating IDF. The reality being that the PNA lacks the capacity, even if it possesses the will, to assert control over the territories it inherits.
Most likely the "honeymoon" period will be short lived as the Palestinians wake up to the painful reality of being almost entirely cut-off from the world and having few means of self-support. Further the various factions are likely to lead the Palestinians into civil war. The only way to avoid this would be for the PNA to publicly declare that the disengagement by Israel is a clear military victory for the PNA and evidence that the attrition of terrorism proved to be the correct means of war against Israel. The logic of this being that if the PNA continue this war of attrition eventually Israel will surrender and disappear. The continuation of the war against Israel would also provide a compelling means to the PNA of binding Palestine together.
For Israel there would also be a short "honeymoon" period in which the appearance of peace would descend, and Israelis would focus upon their internal issues. However it is my opinion that Israel would effectively find itself back in May 1967 with enemies at its doors. So called "terrorist" attacks would undoubtedly be launched out the West Bank and Gaza. In the first instances Israel is likely to call upon the Palestinians to desist, and then seek some resolution upon the international stage. However the international community is very likely to apply pressure upon Israel to absorb these attacks. If Israel fails to respond it will suggest to the Palestinians that Israel has lost the willto defend itself. If it retaliates it will be condemned by the international community. In all probability Israel will adopt a stance closer to the former, of substantial non-response.
In all probability the Palestinians and their allies will seeks to launch an all out attack, and Israel would be back in June 1967. The choice would be stark either total war in which Israel applies massive military force upon the Palestinian society or Israel allows the Palestinians to gnaw away at the fabric of its society. It remains ultimately existential.
In my opinion if Israel does unilaterally disengage it must face the possibility that a war will break out and prior to final disengagement it must make clear to the Palestinians what the consequences would be if they decide to pursue the war option. Israel must also make clear to the international community that should the Palestinians and or their allies seek to initiate a war and then subsequently lose the West bank and Gaza again that Israel would not be willing to consider a repeat of UN resolution 242, and would instead reserve the right to incorporate the captured territories into Israel without the current inhabitants.
Unilateralism is always beguiling because it means not having to consider the other side.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 05/12/2004 10:23 PM CST

you suggest that making gaza 'judenrien' will reduce friction between israelis and palestinians. no. it will only change the location of the friction. gaza will become a huge warehouse of arms brought in more freely from egypt and by sea, and the targets will then become cities and towns in southern israel. will israel then be able to go back into gaza to destroy these weapons? no. because as soon as we leave the UN, the EU, Egypt, and who knows who else will be there in force preventing israel from taking any real military action for fear of killing some of these 'international peace keepers'. the hatred of israeli jews by hamas, etc. will certainly not decrease because for them ashdod and ashkelon and beersheva are also 'settlements' sitting on arab land that must be liberated. gaza will become worse than lebanon.

Posted by mike levine @ 05/13/2004 11:23 PM CST

Certainly Hamas, Islamic Jihad & the PLO / PNA will seek to use Gaza as a base to launch attacks upon Israel. However the current status inhibits Israels capacity to respond, and legitimises Palestinian terrorism.
As long as Israel occupies territories that are deemed by the Int'l community to belong to another nation (if not state) then Israel is obliged in int'l law to behave as an occupying power. If on the other hand Israel quits those territories and affords the inhabitants the opportunity to establish their own state, then in int'l law the terrorist actions cannot be deemed legitimate resistance.
Thus acts of aggression by Palestinian forces following a withdrawl from occupied territories are therefore an open declaration of war between two national entities. Israel may perfectly legitimately take military action against an aggressive military act by a Palestinian state. In open warfare Israel would be under less pressure to avoid "civilian" casualities.
Israels strength in relation to the West Bank and Gaza is not military but social & economic. A distinct and close-able border can destroy Palestine faster than any amount of IDF divisions. The current situation of failed negotiations and violence empowers Israel to simply "walk away" and turn its back upon the nascent Palestinian state. Once that happens the Palestinians will have to think up an entirely new strategy. The onus will be upon them to establish a stable and credible state. Israel can almost piously "stand there" and state that it is waiting for the other beligerents in the 1967 war to comply with 242.
The UN is highly unlikely to want to send peace-keeping forces into Gaza or the West Bank until "peace" is established, and where would it get its forces from? Already the competent int'l armed forces are over-stretched. The logistics would be a nightmare if Israel doesn't cooperate.
At some point in the future Israel will leave the Occupied Territories, either under duress or its own volition. Far better to go at a moment of its own choosing.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 05/17/2004 10:01 PM CST

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