Magazine article Midstream

The Israeli Withdrawal from Gaza: Pre-History and Prospects for Peace

Magazine article Midstream

The Israeli Withdrawal from Gaza: Pre-History and Prospects for Peace

Article excerpt

To withdraw from the Gaza Strip has been the most painful decision made by an Israeli government and the most traumatic political event for the country's people in decades. Indeed, such a voluntary relinquishment of territory captured in an ongoing war is virtually unprecedented in history.

The decision to take this step was made by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from a belief that it would promote peace. Sharon's real positions since becoming prime minister in 2001 stand in sharp contrast to the negative stereotype of him that was partly earned during his earlier career.

Most remarkable is the political price he was willing to pay. It is doubtful that one of the main reasons for this decision was the expectation for domestic political gains. Indeed, before he began implementing this step, Sharon had overwhelming popularity, even among many on the left. His Likud party was solidly behind him and it seemed likely that he could continue as prime minister as long as he wanted.

Afterward, his party was split, with a large portion passionately angry at him, and seriously discussing whether to replace him as its leader and candidate for prime minister. Sharon's political future was thrown, if only temporarily, in doubt.

The main motives for the decision to withdraw included many factors:

--Sharon's desire to leave a career legacy showing he was a moderate, seeking peace and advancing toward it.

--The belief that there was no chance for a comprehensive diplomatic solution for a long time to come, and thus, Israel needed to establish a transition period in which it chose a sustainable strategic stance.

--The belief of professional army commanders that Israel was best advised to reduce the dispersion of troops by basing its defense mainly on the Gaza Strip-Israel armistice line and a security fence on the West Bank.

--A simple desire to do something rather than simply engage in a long-term war of attrition in which the Palestinians dictated the terms of conflict.

--To put the ball into the Palestinians' court in international terms by forcing them to show whether they could govern a territory which was for most practical purposes a state, without the excuse of Israeli occupation.

--It was claimed that gains were made regarding U.S. policy including an American commitment to oppose any Palestinian demand that all refugees could return to live in Israel and to support territorial modifications as part of any comprehensive peace agreement.

--For those on the right, the "demographic issue," which meant ensuring Israel did not rule over Arabs numbering more than Israel's Jewish population--and thus theoretically endangering democratic norms--was a powerful consideration.

While Arabs believe--or at least publicly state--that the withdrawal was a sign of Israeli weakness, no one in Israel itself takes this argument seriously. Israel had just won the five-year-long terror-based war initiated by the Palestinians in 2000.

THE FOUNDATIONS OF ISRAELI THINKING

To understand the political context of this decision, and of Israel's situation in general, it is necessary to comprehend Israeli thinking about their own goals and the nature of the Arab-Israeli and Israel-Palestinian conflicts.

First, it should be clear that the great majority of Israelis are ready to give up the territories captured in 1967 in exchange for real and lasting peace. Indeed, this has been true for years.

Basically, Israeli politicians and public opinion since 1967 can be divided into three groups:

--Those who have believed that Israel should trade the territories for peace, thinking--at least since the 1980s--that such an exchange could be accomplished relatively quickly. They believed a partner existed, or could be helped into readiness, on the Palestinian side.

--Those who believed that Israel must retain the territories for security purposes for a long period because there was no Arab partner to make peace. …

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