A Rubicon in Israeli politics will be crossed by early September, when the evacuation of around 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank is scheduled to be completed. What will follow on the day after disengagement is still very much in the air, but this much is clear: The situation will never be the same again.
Ever since 1967, no Israeli government has been able to bring itself to decide what to do with the West Bank and Gaza and what the future borders of Israel should be. The right wing has wanted to keep the territories and the left wing has been ready to give up most of them, but there has not been a clear majority for either policy and, until the 1990s, no viable Palestinian partner.
The result of this stalemate has been a policy of ostensibly keeping the status quo, while at the same time allowing and encouraging Jewish settlements in the territories. This created de facto “creeping annexation,” to the point where today more than 200,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and Gaza — without any Israeli government ever deciding what the future of the area should be or how many Jews should live there.
Prime Minister Sharon’s decision to pursue unilateral disengagement by dismantling the Gaza settlements and evacuating the settlers back to Israel proper was itself an outcome of reality catching up with him. Sharon opposed unilateral disengagement, which was first raised by members of the Labor Party, from the moment he was elected in 2001 following the Camp David debacle. But less than one year into his second term — after a series of murderous suicide bomb attacks made it clear that the status quo was untenable, that the American-sponsored Road Map was not going anywhere and that brutal responses like the opera- tion in Jenin backfired — Sharon decided on a limited unilateral move focused on Gaza.
Sharon has paid dearly for his decision, and it has already reconfigured Israel’s political map. Two right-wing parties left Sharon’s coalition; his own Likud is deeply split, with some senior leaders such as Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom giving disengagement only token support; and perhaps most damaging for Sharon politically among his own supporters, Labor is again back in the government. From being viewed as the “Father of the Settlements,” Sharon is now vilified as a traitor by many right-wingers, and the language used by some of them about him is chillingly reminiscent of the diatribes hurled at Yitzhak Rabin before his assassination a decade ago.
The right-wing opposition to disengagement — which walks a fine line between legitimate dissent and calls to soldiers to disobey orders — shows that the settlers understand very well what is at stake. While the disengagement is partial and involves less than 4% of the settlers in the occupied territories, it signifies that Israel — and an Israel led by a Likud prime minister — realizes that sooner or later, most territories will not remain under its control.
While some of the extreme left in Israel, as well as the Palestinians and many Europeans, see the Gaza disengagement as marginal and insignificant, the settlers understand full well its historical significance. At Oslo, even Rabin and Shimon Peres were careful not to speak about dismantling settlements, though it was clear that this would have to happen if the process was to take its course.
At the moment, the settlers and their supporters hope that by their semi-violent protests — burning tires at road junctions, occasionally blocking roads and threatening similar actions — they may be able to create an atmosphere that would make the physical removal of the settlers impossible. They speak about bringing 100,000 protesters to the settlements so that the army and police would have to evacuate huge numbers of Israelis, rather than the more manageable figure of 8,000.
They will probably fail, though. Any attempt to use force against the Israeli army will lose the settlers whatever sympathy many — even those who support disengagement — have for the settlers’ personal plight. Few Israelis countenance the call of some extremist rabbis for soldiers to disobey orders. Attempts to appeal to the Supreme Court to block evacuation, by claiming that the settlers’ human rights are being infringed upon, have until now failed. Unless unforeseen developments occur — such as a major Palestinian terrorist attack, or a spectacular provocation from the radical fringe of the Israeli right wing — disengagement will take place.
And then what? Many Israelis, possibly including Sharon himself, would then like to take a deep breath and consolidate a new status quo. The Palestinians, as well as the United States and parts of the Israeli left, are hoping for a resumption of negotiations. In all probability, neither will happen.
Negotiations, even if resumed, are likely to be doomed once again, since the Palestinian positions — a return to 1967 lines, the dismantling of all settlements, redividing Jerusalem and an endorsement of the principle of the 1948 refugees’ right of return — are unacceptable to most Israelis. Israel is also waiting to see whether Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas can successfully consolidate his control over the dozen or so Palestinian security services, and whether he is capable of dismantling the various armed militias threatening the Palestinian Authority’s monopoly on power.
If Abbas is able to establish authority over Palestinian society, and no violence follows the Israeli withdrawal, the logic of the situation may push a recalcitrant Sharon — under both internal and external pressure — to consider further unilateral disengagement. The target this time would be some of the isolated settlements in the West Bank, though the prime minister would be sure to take steps to consolidate Israel’s hold on the larger settlement blocs adjacent to the 1967 lines.
Again, the Palestinians may not be happy, and a threat of renewed violence cannot be ruled out. But at least their leadership now realizes that unilateral Israeli steps do, after all, slowly dislodge Israel from the occupied territories — even under conditions that leave the Palestinians basically as passive onlookers.
Such a scenario differs from what conventional diplomats would like to see: negotiations, agreement and full withdrawal. It also differs from what many Israelis would prefer: namely, a new standstill.
But cases such as Cyprus, Bosnia and Kosovo suggest that the alternative is not only between war and peace; there are middle options, as well. Absent formal agreements, one can move from failed attempts at conflict resolution to conflict management, slowly de-escalating violence and consolidating a new reality — one that may not be enshrined in agreements but still enables both parties to live with a dynamic situation that narrows the differences between them.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been going on, in one way or another, for more than a century. Such conflicts do not disappear overnight, nor are they liable to be solved by well-meaning diplomats who are usually ignorant of the passions and historical narratives involved — the failure of United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan’s recent plan for Cyprus is but one sobering example.
Then again, the Gaza disengagement may be the first step on a long, slow, painful and complex road to what eventually may be the solution: two states for two people. If only the Palestinians had accepted the idea in 1948.