The Magazine

Ariel Sharon's Gamble

Is there safety behind a wall?

May 3, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 32 • By DANIEL DORON
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FROM THE SIMPLISTIC accounts in the American press, you might think Israelis are uniformly delighted over President Bush's support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan--the unilateral withdrawal from all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and from several in Judea and Samaria. In fact, there are passionate arguments here over the meaning of Bush's extraordinary statement of U.S. commitment to Israel.

Arguments are heated because the Bush letter is all the compensation Israel will get for its dramatic withdrawal; there is no Palestinian quid pro quo. Sharon's U.S. visit was openly tied to his effort to rally skeptical members of his Likud party, which will hold a referendum on the disengagement policy on May 2.

Most Israelis realize, of course, that President Bush is a true friend of Israel. But skeptics question whether the Bush letter really goes beyond traditional U.S. positions, as Sharon and his supporters insist, and whether the risks of unilateral withdrawal can therefore be justified. The Palestinians, they say, may interpret Israel's pullback as a victory for terrorism. Like the withdrawal from south Lebanon--a reasonable act in itself--pulling out of Gaza may inspire further terrorism in hopes Israel will make additional concessions.

The naysayers focus on two major issues, which they fear the Bush letter did not put to rest: the Arab insistence that the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants be granted a "right of return" to their homes in what is now Israel, and their demand that all Jewish settlements on what are purported to be former Palestinian lands be vacated. (The naysayers argue, for instance, that while Bush spoke of the need to settle the refugees in a future Palestinian state, he refrained from adding a definitive "and not in Israel," using instead the more ambiguous phrase "rather than in Israel.")

Despite such worries, Sharon seems to have convinced the greater part of his party, including three key ministers who had been reticent--Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Education Limor Livnat, and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom--to support his disengagement plan. But the outcome is by no means certain.

While this debate attests to the vibrancy of Israeli democracy, it may unfortunately distract Israeli decision-makers from their most urgent task, namely winning the war on terror. Israelis are divided on most issues, and especially on those pertaining to a final settlement with the Palestinians, yet on the crucial issue of how to fight terrorism a thoughtless consensus has taken hold. Israel's failure to curb terrorism has tempted an exhausted public to grab at any straw of security offered--hence the embrace of a wall separating Israel from the Palestinians of the West Bank.

Despite recent tactical victories, such as the killing of terrorist masterminds Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, Israel has on the whole adopted a defensive strategy. Many in the Israeli army, like the political elites, have convinced themselves against all evidence that terrorism cannot be vanquished by force. They elaborated a "limited engagement" strategy and devised "low-intensity war" tactics that imposed disabling limitations on their war against terrorism. It took Israel years before it started targeting top terrorist leaders, and even now it does not do so systematically enough.

The overwhelming consensus in support of the wall does not bode well for Israel's success in overcoming terrorism. Walls have been and will continue to be breached. So while a wall may significantly reduce the number of terrorist incidents, it cannot prevent--as its supporters readily admit--all terrorist attacks. More critically, it cannot ensure that the few terror incidents that will take place in spite of the wall's existence will not include one or two mega-attacks causing immense damage and casualties.

Strategically, therefore, the wall has limited usefulness, and it comes with very high costs. It may in fact end up reducing Israel's ability to fight terrorism effectively. The costs are not just the obvious ones of construction and maintenance. It will also be costly to defend. Quick response units will be needed to repulse attempts to breach it.