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Why Israel is leaving Gaza and how they are trying to do it.

3:30 PM, Jun 16, 2005 • By MARK GERSON
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I RETURNED FROM A TRIP to Israel last week, at the beginning of what promises to be one of the most wrenching seasons in the country's history. The "disengagement" (the tolerable if imprecise and probably misleading term used to describe the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip, now scheduled for August) is what will make this summer wrenching; what might happen as a result of it is what might make this summer violent, tragic or historic (in a terrible way).

The support of, and perhaps demand for, the disengagement from Gaza by the United States is a key reason for it--but disengagement is not happening because President Bush told Prime Minister Sharon to do it. Its roots are in the political consensus that has developed in Israel over the past two years, probably shared by 75 percent of the Jewish population.

The motivating idea of the Israeli left has been that all peoples (and most people) want peace and prosperity above all else, that the root of a conflict is either a misunderstanding or a meaningless cycle of retribution--and that conflicts can usually be settled by reasonable people carrying out good-faith negotiations and making painful but necessary compromises. This was the ideology behind the Oslo agreement (which brought Yasser Arafat from Tunisian exile to within 20 miles of Jerusalem and won him, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin the Nobel Prize). It was partially the ideology behind the massive compromises that Ehud Barak offered Arafat at Camp David and Taba in 2000-2001--although Barak knew that he had to do everything remotely possible to make peace with the Palestinians to prepare the Israeli people for what would happen (and what did happen) if his efforts did not succeed.

There is now widespread acknowledgement, including on the left, that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not about 1967, it is about 1948. It is not about drawing a border here and not there, but about the very legitimacy of the Jewish state; it is not about geography, but about Zionism. There are no misunderstandings: the intifada clarified everything. An Israeli government embracing an Oslo accord would not happen today.

This is not the say that the Israeli left has come around to the views of a static Israeli right. No longer are those on the mainstream Israeli right saying that Jordan is the Palestinian state, with the suggestion that the Palestinians simply go there. No one has any idea as to how to get the Palestinians there (or anywhere else), and these times are too serious for idle concepts to form policy, or non-policy.

FROM THE PERSPECTIVE of the Israeli right, why are these times so serious? First, most on the Israeli right hate having to occupy Gaza and parts of the West Bank as much as those on the left. It is not a matter of ideology here, but experience. Palestinian terrorists violate the most basic premises of the laws of war--they don't wear uniforms and they surround themselves with civilians. Israeli reservists (who account for most of the male population) regularly have to operate in the territories, and emerge with stories about petrified children they encountered on their way to capture a terrorist. Those kids remind them of their own kids, and they hate it.

Moreover, the Israeli right joins the Israeli left in acknowledging that the real problem for Zionism is when the Palestinians stop hating the Jews for just long enough to say: Okay, time to put the past injustices on both sides behind us. This land isn't big enough, or planned appropriately, for two states. We apologize for terrorist acts in the past--and expect our fellow Israeli citizens to apologize for the occupation, among other things. And we say fellow citizens because we mean it: we want to live alongside the Israelis in a secular, democratic state where everyone gets one vote and shares in the common privileges and obligations of citizenship. There are easy and dispositive arguments against this, but will an audience that doesn't know or care much about Israel or the Palestinians--to say nothing of an anti-Israel audience--listen?

So a settlement program--or any other kind of program--that does not account for demographic realities (and the implications of demography on a sustainable, Jewish democratic state) would not happen today. The Israeli left has come to terms with psychology and the Israeli right has come to terms with demography, and this forms the basis for the remarkable political consensus that exists in Israel today.