|Quo Vadis Israel ?|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
The “Hitnatkut” – the disengagement – the euphemism coined for the expulsion of Israeli citizens from Gush Katif, carried out by the Sharon government during August 2005, will go down in Israeli history as a serious political blunder on a par with the Yom Kippur War and the Oslo Accords. Of course, this belated acknowledgement will not reinstate Israel’s legitimate sovereignty over the area, nor will the inhabitants who were evicted get back their homes, since bulldozered by the Israeli army. In order to give us some guidance and to understand what the consequences will be for such a momentous event, we asked MOSHE ARENS, former Minister of Defense and former Israeli ambassador to Washington, to analyze the new Israeli political reality.
The first question that must be asked is how such an upheaval could take place in Israel?
The Right was not in a position to stop the process, because Ariel Sharon had managed to forge a coalition that included the entire Left, which represents about 40% of the Israeli electorate. He then succeeded in adding to this group about 20% of the Likud, which gave him an automatic majority. This is a most unusual coalition, because normally the political class is split between left and right. Even though this coalition is unnatural, it must be acknowledged that it was very effective. To get the support of this majority, Ariel Sharon used rather undemocratic means, totally ignoring decisions by his party, the Likud, notwithstanding that he had undertaken to honor the results of an internal, party referendum. Within the cabinet he achieved a majority by dismissing ministers who opposed him, and won over the Knesset by offering important positions (minister and deputy minister) to members of the Likud. Armed with this majority his idea could no longer be stopped. It should be understood that in a sense Ariel Sharon had it fairly easy. For the members of the left who joined up with him, it represented the effective start of a policy that should eventually take Israel back to the pre-Six Days war borders. As for those members of the Likud whose support he had obtained, they were motivated by personal ambition or the desire to retain a ministerial position. They had no valid reason to act that way.
Is there a single good reason that could justify the eradication of Gush Katif?
I don’t think there is a single justification, and I am convinced that from the Israeli perspective it was a serious mistake, not to speak of the fact that the basic rights of the people expelled from their homes were flouted in the most flagrant manner possible. Nowadays, in no other democratic country in the world could a similar act take place. In recent history, the only place where people were forcibly evicted from their homes was in the USA following Pearl Harbor, when American-Japanese citizens were paced in internment camps. Some years ago the US Congress apologized, stating it was an egregious error that should never have happened and that represented a fundamental violation of the victims’ rights. Here, this wrong was exacerbated by the government having used the army to carry out these forced evictions. This should never have happened. Israel’s is a people’s army, whose mission is to protect the country and its citizens against its enemies and not to be transformed into an arm of law enforcement, particularly when it involves expelling citizens from their homes. Several recent surveys have shown that opposition among young soldiers to the disengagement was much larger than among the general public. As to justifying unilateral disengagement, Ariel Sharon has provided various explanations that are neither well founded nor logical.
To illustrate what I am saying I will analyze a few of them. The first is that Ariel Sharon was prepared to sacrifice Gush Katif, the settlements of the northern Gaza Strip and four settlements in northern Samaria in order to guarantee Israeli control of the “settlement blocks”. This term, which is devoid of meaning, as we shall see, is starting to be accepted as politically correct by the public and Israel’s political class. He stated that these “blocks” would be protected forever and fully controlled by Israel. Furthermore, Ariel Sharon said that he had obtained assurances from President Bush for the inclusion of these “blocks” within Israel if serious negotiations for the establishment of a durable peace were ever to take place. In fact there has never been a commitment by President Bush along these lines, and today the question to be asked is where are these famous “settlement blocks”. A quick glance at a pre-disengagement map of Israel is enough to show that the largest “settlement block” was in Gush Katif, which today no longer exists. What we have is a set of settlements spread out all over Judah and Samaria. To a degree, another block of this sort had existed in the north of the Gaza Strip, with Nitzanit, Elei Sinai and Dugit, which have also disappeared. There remains the Gush Etzion area and Efrat, which in topographical terms is not nearly as compact as Gush Katif was. If you want to include Gush Etzion and Efrat within the borders of Israel, that will also mean the inclusion of a large Palestinian Arab population. There are no longer any settlement blocks that can be included within Israel’s final borders. There are some large towns like Ariel (near Tel-Aviv) and Maaleh Adumim (next to Jerusalem and which I would like to see linked to the capital by contiguous residential areas). There are also several other larger settlements situated along the Green Line, such as Modiin Ilit, Beitar Ilit and others, which many in Israel want to see included under Israeli control. This demonstrates that the entire “settlement blocks’ concept is nothing but a political mirage, and that the only one that really existed has been destroyed. A second, theoretical justification is that with the disengagement carried out, Israel’s popularity will shoot up around the world, with Chirac and with the Pakistani Foreign Ministry. In truth this is nothing but a poor and ephemeral compensation. Experience has proven that it is very easy to become popular by making dangerous concessions. When I was ambassador in Washington, I could have made Israel very popular by offering concessions of every sort, such as for example the handover of territory or support for the creation of a Palestinian state. We would have been very respected and popular – for a very short time! In the case of the abandonment of Gush Katif, Condaleezza Rice’s first reaction was to say, “A good start, but not enough”. In other words, if we stop with Gush Katif, our popularity will quickly plummet to zero. The third excuse we have heard for this tragedy was that this evacuation would correct Israel’s demographic problem. Has the demographic situation really changed since disengagement? In truth, not by an infinitesimal fraction of one percent. I’ll finish up the list of examples by saying that Sharon made use of a catch phrase that was very popular in Israel, “We have to get out of Gaza”. In fact, we left Gaza 13 years ago as part of the Oslo Accords. Once were in Gaza itself, in the city, in the refugee camps. When I was Defense Minister, I was in favor of the army leaving Gaza, because we had no reason to be there. But Gush Katif was not Gaza at all. You have to understand that the distance between that area and Gaza itself the same as that which separates Kfar Saba and Tulkarem. So to be consistent, we ought to “disengage” today from Kfar Saba, which of course no one is proposing. Furthermore, you should be aware that the term “disengagement” finds a positive echo among Israelis, who often repeat, “We don’t want to see the Palestinians, they should be there, and us here”. Therefore anything that separates Israelis and Palestinians is good, … until you realize just how close Kfar Saba is to Tulkarem, and that we have 1.2 million Palestinians living in Israel, benefiting from its nationality. The idea of separating ourselves from the Palestinians is an illusion that in no way happened in Gush Katif. Actually, Gush Katif was never ever part of an area inhabited by Arabs (with the exception of Kfar Darom and Netzarim, two isolated towns). Therefore, there was never a disengagement in the logical meaning of the term, and none of the explanations are convincing.
Do you believe that the Israeli people will recover from this traumatic experience?
As you know, there were many reasons to oppose disengagement. But I think the worst thing this event caused was the deep schism among a large part of the Israeli people. The inhabitants of the territories, their supporters and those who identify with them, and a large part of religious society, who are known as the modern orthodox, find themselves opposed to those in favor of disengagement. Now that part of the population opposed to the evacuation of Gush Katif represents a very large, high-quality proportion of Israeli society. Its members hold senior positions in the army, in the academic and medical worlds, in business and in other spheres. I think the fact that there exists today a sort of tension between the two camps represents a deep fissure that will take Israel a long time to heal. All those fancy speeches and empty slogans we are now hearing about the need for unity will not change anything.
As a former Minister of Defense, how do you think this division will affect the army?
As I have said, it is unacceptable that the army was used to carry out what in fact was a police operation. If it was considered that the police forces available were insufficient, more people should have been recruited, especially since the government had a year to prepare and an effectively unlimited budget. There can be no doubt that the fissure within Israeli society will leave a scar within the army. I would not be at all surprised if in time the young people from the anti-disengagement camp, who up till now had been very well represented and at a high level in the best combat and elite units, will hesitate to join up with the same enthusiasm as in the past. That would be entirely understandable, but would be a real loss for both the army and the country.
We are now the day after the disengagement. How do you see the political situation developing in Israel?
Within the Likud there is now a large majority of party members who would like to see Ariel Sharon go. They consider the disengagement was a catastrophe from every point of view, and they don’t want the Likud to be identified with it. In plain terms, that means we are going to elect a new party leader who will be our candidate to be the next Prime Minister.
At the national political level the left-right split has not disappeared with the creation of the hybrid coalition that Ariel Sharon managed to cobble together. If the dismantling of Gush Katif remains a stand-alone event in giving back territory and evacuating settlements, the left will leave the government. Like all those now applauding Sharon, they think a good start has been made and that it must be taken advantage of to do more. Further, the left believes that if Israel does not take advantage of the momentum, it will find itself again in an untenable position of international isolation. If there is a change in the Likud leadership and it returns to power, things will be different; there will be no more evacuations, something the left, with all its theories, never had the courage to do. If Sharon remains in power, I fear that further forced evictions will take place.
You say the Likud could “return” to power, but does not Ariel Sharon come from the Likud?
Therein lies the cynicism when Sharon announces, “If Likud changes its leadership it will lose power”. In truth he is no longer in power, since Sharon based his coalition on something unnatural. If the Likud had been in power, the disengagement would never have taken place.
Yet the Likud has been in power for many years and never really did anything to populate Gush Katif. Don’t you think that if there had been 50,000 Jews there, evacuating it would have been impossible?
Happily or unhappily, the area was above all agricultural, and thus a large proportion of the land could not be built on, and a certain amount of arable land had to be allocated for each inhabitant. Thus Gush Katif was in fact populated to the maximum. I would emphasize that the abandonment of Gush Katif was a grievous blow for Israeli agriculture, of which it represented an important part. Don’t forget that the Agritech industry there was rich and state-of-the-art.
What is your vision of Israel in five years time?
As you know, I was one of the leading opponents of disengagement. President Katsav, whose role is to represent the consensus, recently stated, “Disengagement does not threaten Israel’s existence”. I basically agree with him. We will survive, certainly with deep scars that will take a long time to heal, but we will continue to exist without Gush Katif. Israel is a strong country militarily and economically, thanks to the quality and motivation of its people. We have the wherewithal to overcome this trial and survive. However, if we are only at the beginning of a long series of disengagements then we will be participating in the gradual dismemberment of the State of Israel. If we act like that we will dangerously reach the point where Israel’s very existence will indeed be in danger.
Don’t you think that at some point the people will say, “STOP”?
Our population is very diversified, and a large part is prepared to return to the June 1967 frontiers. Another, equally large part wants to believe in the illusion that if we do not make enough concessions to the Arabs, we will never have a real, viable peace agreement. They think a little Israel living in peace, without terrorism or risk of war, is worth more than a larger Israel whose people would be condemned to live with all these dangers forever. By the way, we saw when Ehud Barak at Camp David offered to abandon the Temple Mount, our holiest site, to the Arabs in exchange for a declaration of a permanent end to the conflict, he enjoyed a lot of support. There are many among us who want to believe in this type of illusion, and it is very easy to convince them. Happily, this is not the majority of our fellow citizens, but we cannot be shielded from a bad surprise.
In a more general sense, do you think that disengagement represents an act of weakness that might encourage certain Arab states to launch a new war against Israel?
It certainly encouraged terrorism. You just have to listen to the Palestinians, who are openly saying that disengagement was a victory that showed that terrorism pays. And to those who do not understand why Sharon carried out the disengagement, they say, “The explanation is very simple, it was an Arab victory and an Israeli surrender”.
As a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and a specialist on the American scene, can you explain to us how President Bush, who has made himself leader of the struggle against terrorism, accepted that Sharon undertook an operation which effectively encouraged the same terrorism he has been fighting?
Many Israelis say that disengagement happened because of American pressure. But there is nothing in that. Recently President Bush said in an interview that Sharon came to him with the idea, which after due consideration he thought was a good one. The US President who would tell an Israeli Prime Minister who wants to make concessions that it would not be a good idea, has not been born yet. Further, you mustn’t forget that this administration is bogged down in Iraq, that it has a lot of problems in the Arab world, and that Bush is accused of supporting Israel, the source of all the problems of the Arabs in general and of the Palestinians in particular. So when he meets an Israeli Prime Minister ready to make major concessions, which also appear to represent a positive initiative towards the Arab world, there can be no reason to oppose it. In a certain sense, these concessions serve American interests. Mr. Bush would never have taken the initiative to pressure Israel to make such a gesture, but if Israel wants to do so voluntarily…
For us Jews of the Diaspora, it is very hard to understand that Jews were evicted from their homes in Israel. If something like that had happened anywhere else in the world, we would immediately have cried anti-Semitism. How can we explain these evictions to our non-Jewish friends?
You cannot explain them because they are incomprehensible. However, in Israel there is a totally erroneous concept that is accepted as gospel and to which many Israelis subscribe: any surrender of territory to the Arabs must automatically be preceded by the destruction of any Jewish presence so that such areas become “Judenrein”. This is totally opposed to the values of western democracy, and especially contrary to the moral foundations of Judaism. It’s a false and dangerous idea.
How do you explain that there was no violent opposition?
For the residents of the territories, the State and the army are very important institutions for which they have an enormous amount of respect. They satisfied themselves with passive, symbolic resistance, showing much dignity in their unhappiness.
There is no justification for disengagement, but in addition, almost nothing has been prepared to reintegrate these displaced persons. Do you think this has been deliberate?
Above all I think that Ariel Sharon grossly underestimated the size of the re-integration issue. The problem is a far greater than just housing. It involves finding work so that fathers of families can feed their children, letting communities that have built a life together in now destroyed Gush Katif come together to reconstruct their communal life. You cannot tell people, “take a bit of money and go buy an apartment”. If you act like this no problem is solved, but it’s what is happening and it is scandalous. We risk ending up with “home-grown refugees”, which must be avoided. There are some private initiatives that are attempting to prevent the development of such a situation.
In conclusion, in the light of what has happened, are you still an optimist about Israel’s future?
We have no choice, we must be optimists. What happened should never have taken place, but I believe in our strength at both the individual and the national levels. All the elements are in our hands and we have the courage to overcome this bad patch in our history and to lead us to a better future.