by Izhak Schnell
For years the political dichotomy in Israel on the future of the occupation divided society into two major parts: those who were in favor of peace and compromise and those who advocated settling the occupied territories in order to eventually annex them. Over the past decade this polar system has changed with the emergence of a new mainstream political majority that supports unilateral withdrawal. The emergence of the new consensus is deeply rooted in public opinion as well as in new evaluations of Israelís strategic situation adopted by many in the national security leadership. In the current article I present the major elements of this argument.†
The Emergence of a New Public Consensus
Israeli political discourse is managed, according to a policy paper written by Professor Shlomo Hasson in 2005 for the Floersheimer Institute for Policy Research, along four main geopolitical visions: 1) annexation of the occupied territories to an extended Jewish state; 2) either a binational or a civil non-national state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea; 3) peaceful negotiations between two nation states for a two-peoples solution; 4) the necessity of separation.
Each of these visions is promoted by different power groups and is based on differing sets of values. Until recent years, the Israeli political system was split between two almost equal coalitions of political parties: one side advocates the peaceful striving for a two-state solution, the other annexation of the occupied territories to the Jewish state. The non-national civil state solution was consistently rejected by almost all Israelis and the idea of unilateral withdrawal was not considered due to the low cost of the occupation.
The first agenda was promoted by a Labor-led coalition that included Meretz and Liberals in the center. The second was promoted by a Likud-led coalition that also included the National Religious Party and the ultra-Orthodox and extreme right-wing parties. Each block was supported by about half of the Israeli public. Both coalitions adopted nationalist-democratic views but differed in the balance between these two values. The leftist coalition emphasized the preeminence of humanist values associated with democracy, human rights and civil society. It was assumed that true Jewish values cannot contradict the universal values found in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The rightist coalition, led by the Likud, stressed particularistic Jewish values founded on Orthodox rabbinical legacies.
It seems that the new consensus on unilateral withdrawal started to crystallize before then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon articulated his 2004 plan for unilateral disengagement from Gaza. This may be due to two crucial events: First, the failure of the Barak-Arafat negotiations in 2000 led many Israelis, whether justifiably or not, to conclude that the Palestinians were not willing to compromise. Arafatís rejection of U.S. President Bill Clintonís plan that seemed to offer a fair deal to the Palestinians convinced even many Israeli leftists that the Palestinian leadership was not genuine in its call for peace. Furthermore, the second Intifada, which produced new peaks of violence and brutality, caused many to question whether the control of about four million Palestinians was worth the effort and the price. This reevaluation of the situation characterized both popular discourse and the eliteís view of Israeli security strategy.
The sense of deadlock in the mind of the Israeli public is best demonstrated in public opinions polls carried out during the years 2002-2005.1
In response to general questions on future relations with the Palestinians the following answers where given:†
Table 1: General attitudes in Israel toward the possibility of a peace agreement with the Palestinians
Question†(affirmative answers in %)
Is it necessary to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians?
Do Palestinians deserve an independent state?††
Is it possible to reach peace under current circumstances?†
Is it possible to reach peace at any time?††
Can the government legitimately dismantle settlements?†
Can rabbis legitimately decide on the future of settlements? ††
Identify more with settlers evacuated from Gaza than with the police
Identify more with policemen carrying out the evacuation than with Gaza settlers
The results show that a solid majority in Israel supports the idea that a peace agreement with the Palestinians is needed and this majority increased dramatically during the second half of 2002 and the first half of 2003. During that time the majority of the Israeli public was willing to recognize a Palestinian state. This percentage doubled in 2003 reaching 60 percent, and 75 percent in 2005. This means that during 2003, we could see the consolidation of a new consensus willing to recognize the right of the Palestinians to sovereignty. At the same time we saw a decline in the percentage of those who believe that a peace agreement is possible. While in 2002 more than half of Israelis believed in the possibility of reaching a peace agreement, this percentage steadily declined to just little over 40 percent in the year 2005, and more than half of them believed that it may become possible in the future, but not under current circumstances. Only 22 percent of Israelis tend to believe that a peace agreement with the current Palestinian leadership is possible. This contradicts the attitude of the Israeli left which continues to assert that the immediate return to the negotiating table is possible, and isolates the left from most of the Israeli public, including many of their former supporters.
Furthermore, once the unilateral withdrawal plan became the subject of public debate and the evacuation of the Gaza settlements was implemented, the governmentís legitimacy to evacuate settlements increased in the eyes of the public. The percentage of people who believe that a democratically elected government has the legitimacy to disengage unilaterally increased by 13 percent, from about two-thirds of the public to more than 80 percent. Those who believe that rabbis have the moral authority to challenge the dismantling of settlements declined by 6 percent to only 14 percent of the general public. These results were verified by the publicís emotional response to the evacuation of the Gaza settlers. Only one third of the public identified themselves more with settlers, while the rest identified themselves more with policemen and soldiers. This response delegitimizes the settlersí act of disobedience.
Several factors combine to convince more and more Israelis to search for a way out of the bloody deadlock: The realization that peace is not on the immediate horizon; the second intifada which served as a reminder that the occupation cannot continue forever without demanding a high price from Israeli society; and the increasing recognition that the demographic balance is changing against the Jewish majority despite the settlement effort.
Sharonís plan for unilateral withdrawal suggested a way out. The building of the barrier between the two territories and the sophisticated terminals along that line should be viewed as part of the new strategy of separation and fortification behind walls and fences. According to this plan Israel will determine the boundaries unilaterally incorporating the larger settlement blocs and religiously sensitive places in and around Jerusalem. Ehud Olmertís campaign promise to unilaterally determine Israelís borders according to the countryís ambitions and security considerations is very appealing to many who assume that such borders can gain international recognition.
Israeli process of fortification and withdrawal behind fortified borders should be understood as part of a global trend in which rich countries are protecting themselves from poorer radical countries. The U.S. is building a wall along its border with Mexico, and Europe is building similar walls, on the borders between Morocco and Spanish colonies in North Africa and with Israeli expert help in East European countries from the North Sea to the Black Sea. The new global reality, which suffers from the inflow of terrorism, drugs and crime, as well as migrant workers from less developed countries to the more developed ones, leads to a fortress mentality among the rich countries. Israelís withdrawal mode may be seen as part of a global restructuring of the world political system with a new world conflict emerging between the Western bloc on the one side and Third World and Islamic countries on the other.†
The Emergence of a New Security Discourse
In addition to changes in public opinion, new ideas were heard within those Israeli elites charged with evaluating national security.
First, territorial considerations in assessing military risks against Israel were reevaluated. Some Arab countries have failed to modernize their military forces because of low economic growth rates and the collapse of the Soviet Union as a supplier of cheap weapons. During the past decade, and mainly since the Iraq War, the Iraqi military collapse made any ground invasion of Israel via the Jordan River impossible. The peace agreement with Jordan has further changed the strategic situation along Israelís eastern border, making a direct military conflict almost impossible. With a sharp decline in the risk of a ground invasion from the east, the importance of the Jordan Valley and strongholds on hill tops in the West Bank has been significantly reduced. The peace agreement with Egypt has demonstrated its long-term stability. The security arrangements in Sinai, and Egyptís interest in Western support, make any invasion of Israel from the south a highly unlikely scenario. It may be said that until the new threats from Iran, Israelis felt that the immediate threat to their existence had been eliminated and the need for security buffer zones are less urgent than ever.†
Second, the Iraq War demonstrated the importance of accurate and sophisticated weapons when confronted with ground forces.
Third, defending oneself against the new weapons of poor countries such as missiles and terrorism does not require broad territorial hinterlands. Separation from supportive and enemy populations may make the battle against terrorism easier. Fortification behind electronic fences may make defense cheaper and more effective. The evaluation of the Israeli security leadership is that a policy of separation between the Palestinians and Israelis will make it possible to reduce terrorism to a minimum (since it is impossible to put an absolute stop to it), with minimal military effort.
These three factors have reduced the importance of territory in the strategic thinking of the Israeli security leadership, opening its eyes to the implications of socio-demographic considerations.
The Palestinian uprisings have raised the price of the occupation for Israeli society. In this context the demographic question became more salient to national security. According to population projections, the Palestinians are expected to become the majority in the territories west of the Jordan Valley in the coming year, a fact long known to decision-makers, but never seriously dealt with by them. Rightist leaders never offered any answer to the demographic challenge. Leftists were hesitant to raise an issue that may sound racist in light of their humanist worldviews. Only with the emergence of the new consensus has the debate on the demographic question opened up. Questions were raised whether it were possible to maintain both a democratic and a Jewish state under Jewish minority rule. The model of South Africa was mentioned and some Palestinian demands for Israeli citizenship and to participate in democratic elections demonstrated the urgency of the demographic consideration.
The demographic question is linked to an economic question. The price of the occupation until the two uprisings was cheap due to low military costs, low investments in infrastructure for the Palestinians and the benefit to the national economy of a cheap labor force. With the expansion of Jewish settlements and the Palestinian uprisings, military expenses grew tremendously. Large forces are deployed in the occupied territories. The need to provide and to expand infrastructures and services to the rapidly growing population may also tremendously raise expenses. European donations to the Palestinians, which freed Israel from taking responsibility for the welfare of the Palestinian population under the occupation, are not guaranteed. Strategists started to question whether Israel would be able to make the huge investment needed in order to secure even a low standard of living for the rapidly growing Palestinian population. Infrastructures such as electricity, water, health, education and so forth are all on the verge of collapse and Israel as the occupier would be held responsible for their recovery and maintenance. As an example, the case of the high level of salinity of Gazaís underground water supplies might have required Israel to find expensive alternative means of water supply to two million Palestinians.
The growing awareness of the increasing cost of the occupation manifested itself parallel to the globalization of the Israeli economy. The new hi-tech economy in Israel is less dependent on a cheap Palestinian labor force than before. Almost all economic growth since the 1990s is due to growth in high-tech activities, based on work of Israeli experts. At the same time, the declining older sectors increasingly rely on migrant workers and Israeli cheap labor, which was forced to work for lower salaries in response to the application of neo-liberal policies associated with globalization. Palestinian workers were excluded from the Israeli labor market almost completely as they were perceived as security risks. Therefore, there is no pressure by Israeli employers to reopen borders for the cheap Palestinian labor force. Instead a search for political stability and security is required to attract global investments. In the absence of peace, separation is perceived to be the second best solution for the future prosperity of the Israeli economy.
In the beginning of the 21st century, Israelis believe that the world is willing to take measures in order to initiate a solution to the conflict. U.S. President George W. Bush presented his Palestinian state vision and his commitment to the Road Map. European leaders and NGOs started to put pressure on Israel to restrain its military means used in the battle against the Palestinians.†The threat to try Prime Minister Sharon at the International Court of Justice in The Hague was the peak of such a campaign.
Given these circumstances, the government in Jerusalem believed that a new political initiative lead by Israel would put pressure on the Palestinians to stop terrorism in order to return to the Road Map.
In conclusion, the unilateral withdrawal plans are the result of deeper processes that led to a new understanding of Israelís strategic situation and a change in public opinion which crystallized during the two waves of uprisings and the failure of the Barak-Arafat peace negotiations. Changes in the international situation after the Iraqi War, the end of the Cold War and the transition of the Israeli economy toward hi-tech, produced a change in strategic considerations. The new consensus represents Israel turning its back on the region, fortifying itself behind barriers and turning its face toward the West.
The fact that the new global frontier between first and third world countries divides again Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Jews and Israelis and Palestinians along a renewed front line is not forced upon us by external deterministic forces. Can we open our eyes to the fallacious illusion of unilateralism? After all, it should be clear that Prime Minister Olmertís idea of unilaterally determining the borders is an impossible dream. Permanent borders will require Palestinian and international agreement, and that can only be achieved via negotiations. Can we find the wisdom to suggest routes out of the deadlock toward a negotiated agreement in a way that will answer the fears of both sides? Can we use the withdrawal as a first stage for building trust through coordination and committing the Palestinians to reciprocal measures that are possible in the current political situation? The solution to the conflict is known, but the road to it is continuously blocked by new fences and barriers.
1 Hopp, Schnell, Peres and Jacobson, 2002 for Peace Now; Hopp, Schnell and Peres, 2003, 2005 for Bringing Peace Together.