Analysis from Israel

Israel marked the 10th anniversary of its unilateral pullout from Gaza this week with a rare consensus: The disengagement was a disaster. Even opposition leader and Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog admitted that “from a security perspective, the disengagement was a mistake. While he still considers it “essential” demographically, he isn’t sure he would have voted for it had he known then what he knows now. And this is the man who, back in 2005, declared that, thanks to the disengagement, “for the first time in decades there is genuine hope” for “lasting peace.”

Equally remarkable was a poll of Israeli Jews earlier this month asking whether they supported or opposed the pullout at the time. An overwhelming majority of respondents – 59 percent – asserted that they had opposed it, while only 34 percent admitted to having supported it. That, of course, is far from the truth; polls at the time consistently showed solid pluralities or majorities favoring the disengagement, while only about a third of Israelis opposed it. But this revisionist history accurately reflects Israelis’ current view of the withdrawal: Many of those who once backed it are now convinced they must actually have opposed it, because they simply can’t imagine they would have supported any idea as disastrous as this one proved to be. And even among those still willing to admit they once supported it, almost one-fifth now regret doing so.

It’s not just the obvious fact that the Palestinians turned Gaza into a giant launch pad from which some 16,500 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel over the past decade, whereas exactly zero have been fired from the Israeli-controlled West Bank over the same period. It’s not just that quitting Gaza has resulted in more Israeli soldiers being killed, and also more Palestinians, than occupying Gaza ever did. It’s not just that after Israel withdrew every last settler and soldier from Gaza, the world has sought to deny it the right to defend itself against the ensuing rocket attacks by greeting every military operation with escalating condemnation, accusations of war crimes, and attempts to prosecute it in the International Criminal Court. It’s not just that the withdrawal ended up worsening global anti-Semitism, since every military operation in Gaza has served as an excuse for a massive upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks worldwide. It’s not just that Israel received zero diplomatic credit for the pullout, with most of the world not only still insisting that Gaza is “Israeli-occupied territory,” but excoriating Israel with escalating ferocity, and even threatening sanctions, for its reluctance to repeat this disastrous experiment in the West Bank, while assigning Palestinians zero responsibility for the impasse.

All these are certainly reasons enough to consider the pullout a disaster. But there’s one final negative outcome, as reflected in another poll released last week: Due to this Israeli reluctance, born of hard experience, a majority of overseas Jews now deems Israel insufficiently committed to peace. And that, in some ways, is the worst betrayal of all. Most Israelis don’t expect much from the Palestinians or the UN or Europe. But they do expect their fellow Jews to sympathize with their fear that withdrawing from the West Bank would simply replicate the Gaza disaster on a much larger scale.

After all, none of the negative consequences that ensued in Gaza can be blamed on the popular distinction between the “moderate” Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas, and the “hardline” Hamas. For Gaza wasn’t handed over to Hamas, but to Abbas. He’s the one who first enabled the escalation by refusing to use his forces to stop it; consequently, there were more than four times as many rocket attacks in 2006, the first year after the disengagement, as in either of the previous two years. And he’s the one who lost Gaza to Hamas in a bloody coup in mid-2007 when the latter decided it no longer needed a fig leaf.

Thus Israel has no reason whatsoever to think giving Abbas the West Bank wouldn’t produce the same result, except with even more disastrous consequences. Hitting major Israeli population centers from Gaza requires long-range rockets; from the West Bank, easily produced short-range rockets suffice. Nor should we forget suicide bombings, which, during the second intifada (2000-2005), caused more Israeli casualties in four years than all the terror attacks of the entire previous 53 years combined. Those attacks were launched almost exclusively from parts of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and they stopped only when the Israeli army retook control of these areas – meaning Israel’s previous experiment with ceding parts of the West Bank was even less encouraging than the Gaza experiment has been.

Most Israelis would still be willing to trade land for peace, but they’ve had enough of trading land for terror. And until overseas Jews can produce a convincing argument for why the next pullout would be any different than all the previous ones, it would be nice if they instead practiced the traditional Jewish value of giving fellow Jews the benefit of the doubt. To interpret caution born of grim experience as disinterest in peace isn’t merely unfair; it’s downright malicious.

Originally published in Commentary on July 29, 2015

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In Europe, Israel needs a bottom-up approach to diplomacy

For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.

This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.

But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.

For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.

Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.

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