Unilateral withdrawal is Israel's best option

The Baltimore Sun

Israeli politics have always moved at a breakneck pace. But even by this demanding measure, the past year - which by the Jewish calendar concluded Friday - has been one of the most dramatic in the nation's history.

First, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon evacuated all Jewish settlers from Gaza. Second, Mr. Sharon shattered the paradigm of Israeli politics by abandoning Likud and forming a new party, Kadima. Third, Mr. Sharon fell into a coma a mere three months before Kadima's first electoral contest. Fourth, the Palestinians elected Hamas, a terrorist organization, to head their government. And finally, the year climaxed this summer when Islamic fundamentalists in Gaza and Lebanon crossed internationally recognized borders to kill and kidnap Israeli soldiers.

In the election five months ago, Mr. Sharon's heir, Ehud Olmert, rode to victory on a platform calling for unilateral withdrawal from a significant chunk of the West Bank. The emergence of Kadima fractured the traditional Israeli right. Likud's dismal showing was seen as the death knell of its hard-line ideology and the unambiguous birth of a durable Israeli center - something conspicuously absent from Israeli politics since the Six-Day War of 1967. But now, in the bitter wake of an unresolved war against Hezbollah, unilateral withdrawal is widely dismissed as a failure.

The case is not hard to make. Both attacks that sparked the recent round of fighting emanated from territory that Israel has certifiably withdrawn from: Gaza and Lebanon. In the face of deafening criticism, Mr. Olmert has shelved his withdrawal plan (which he calls "convergence," as "withdrawal" is a dirty word in Israel). During a visit to the rocket-addled community of Kiryat Shemona, Mr. Olmert insisted that the bulk of the government's attention would be invested in "rehabilitating the north."

The question is this: Does the outbreak of violence attest to the failure of disengagement? There is reason to think that the reverse may be true. This is to say, the fundamental logic behind unilateral disengagement remains impressive and persuasive. Jews are fast becoming a minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and Israel cannot be both Jewish and a democracy if it continues to rule the occupied territories. Long-term Israeli control over several million Palestinians is as morally and strategically disastrous as it was one year ago. And although unilateralism is not the answer to everything - it never was - it is the only feasible option that advances an elusive but achievable Israeli-Palestinian peace, because it reinforces the logic of partition.

Let me be clear: Yes, a negotiated permanent solution is preferable. Unilateral borders do not have as much legitimacy and permanence as negotiated ones. But at the moment there is no viable Palestinian partner.

Yes, the settlements are hardly the sole obstacle to peace. They are not even the most vexing obstacle. That honor must be accorded to the repellent fanatics of Islamic rejectionism. But the far-flung settlements are an obstacle nonetheless, and an unnecessary albatross around Israel's neck.

Yes, a withdrawal along the lines that Mr. Olmert campaigned on would not even remove the pretext for violence against Israel. Those in search of a pretext will always find one.

But the critics of convergence confuse matters when they claim that Gaza's disintegration into anarchy is a result of last year's withdrawal. To the contrary, it was a sensible response to the Palestinians' long-standing inability to function as a cohesive polity under decent leadership. Consider the resources that would have been wasted protecting Gaza's 8,000 civilian inhabitants this past year. One does not have to be a military expert to see that Israel benefits immensely from having explicit, widely recognized borders, from which the Israel Defense Forces can vigorously defend against attack.

The left has long argued, correctly, that the occupation is slowly strangling Israel, threatening its long-term existence. This logic is not lost on Israel's most implacable enemies, who are not fighting to end the occupation but rather to perpetuate it. As Gadi Taub, a perceptive scholar at Hebrew University, argued in a recent essay for The New Republic, "keeping Israel tied down in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon is strategically rational if your goal is Israel's destruction. ... This is why both Hamas and Hezbollah responded to withdrawal with a surge of terrorism."

It is also, in part, why a growing number of Palestinians are calling for the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, once celebrated as the embryo of a future, independent Palestine.

It will be a great tragedy if Mr. Olmert - grievously weakened politically and disoriented by the war - proves himself too paralyzed to think strategically at this precarious moment. Admittedly, the choices before him range from bad to worse, but the beginning of wisdom necessitates defining clear and secure borders with the Palestinians. Partition is the way forward. Mr. Olmert needs to make the case for convergence and regalvanize the Israeli center.

Evan R. Goldstein is a contributing editor at Moment magazine. His e-mail is ergoldstein@gm.com.

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