WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - At a time when the Israeli rightist parties are going through a wrenching debate over whether to approve Ariel Sharon's proposal for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, it's worth recalling Israel's previous experience in this regard - its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.
Although that withdrawal is remembered as a failure, it deserves to be rehabilitated. Israel's Lebanon withdrawal was a great strategic success - for reasons that Israel should be studying now.
First, a few facts: After years of bloody guerrilla warfare that cost Israel dearly in lives and treasure, on May 22, 2000, Israel unilaterally withdrew from south Lebanon to the internationally recognized border. On July 27, 2000, the United Nations passed Resolution 1310, confirming that Israel had "withdrawn its forces from Lebanon in accordance with Resolution 425."
With that U.N.-approved pullout, Israel completely reversed its situation: It went from holding the strategic and moral low ground to holding the strategic and moral high ground. When Israel was occupying south Lebanon, it was embroiled in a guerrilla war in which it could never use its vast military superiority. It was going mano a mano with Hezbollah. Worse, any Hezbollah attack on Israel was seen by the world as legitimate resistance. Once Israel was out, it could use its superior air power to retaliate for Hezbollah attacks - and the world didn't care.
"Sure," say the critics, "but the Palestinians saw the Israeli withdrawal as a sign of weakness and it triggered their second intifada." Well, maybe the Palestinians did watch too much Hezbollah TV. Their mistake. But I'll tell you who didn't misread Israel's withdrawal: the people it was directed at - Hezbollah, Lebanon and Syria.
Hezbollah knows it can't launch any serious attack on Israel from Lebanon now without triggering a massive retaliation in which Israel's air force would destroy all the power plants of Beirut. This would bring down the wrath of all of Lebanon on Hezbollah - because the Lebanese public would not consider an unprovoked Hezbollah attack on Israel as legitimate, or worth sacrificing for, now that Israel is out of Lebanon and Lebanon's sovereignty is restored.
"In every conflict, the extent to which a party can muster domestic support and international support, and the extent to which its public will withstand higher thresholds of pain, is very much a function of the degree of international legitimacy for that cause," argues Shibley Telhami, Middle East studies professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "As soon as Israel withdrew from Lebanon to the internationally recognized border, the legitimacy factor shifted from Hezbollah to Israel."
When you have legitimacy on your side, your people, and the world, support you more, and the other side's people, and the world, support them less. Yes, the Israel-Lebanon border is still tense, but very few Israelis have been killed there in four years. That's my idea of peace.
There is no total victory to be had by Israel over Hezbollah or the Palestinians, without total genocide. There is, though, the possibility of long cease-fires, with Israel holding the moral and strategic high ground, so it can lead its life.
The lesson for Israel is clear: If you are going to get out of Gaza unilaterally, get out all the way to the U.N.-blessed international border. Do not do it halfway; you'd end up with the worst of all worlds: still embroiled in a guerrilla war, still taking casualties, unable to use your superior firepower and getting blamed for everything.
Gaza may be easier than Lebanon, too, because unlike Syria and Hezbollah, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt would not have an interest - after an Israeli pullout - in keeping Gaza boiling. Because that would empower Hamas.
The Israeli right insists that Israel is surrounded by implacable foes. That may be true. It may be that Israel can only hope for different models of insecurity with its neighbors. If so, I'd choose the Lebanon model: Get out all the way to an internationally legitimized, U.N. border and deal with enemies from the moral and strategic high ground. The view is better - and it's much safer up there.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.