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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Why the right lost Israel’s do-over election

It’s still unclear whether Israel’s next election will be in four years or four months. But either way, if the center-right wants a better outcome, it needs to learn the lessons of September’s election. So here are two: First, while center-right voters realize that many things leftists deem “anti-democratic” actually aren’t, they dislike behavior that’s genuinely anti-democratic. Second, though the Arab parties are shunned deservedly, treating all Israeli Arabs as anti-Israel is both wrong and counterproductive.

In April’s election, the nonreligious center-right parties (Likud and Kulanu) won a combined 39 seats running separately. But in September, running together, they won just 32 seats. Moreover, most of those lost votes didn’t stay in the center-right/religious bloc: Though the bloc as a whole lost only five seats, that was mainly because fewer religious Zionist votes were wasted on parties that didn’t make it into the Knesset.

Some voters migrated to Benny Gantz’s Blue and White or Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, now rebranded as an anti-haredi and anti-Netanyahu party. But an estimated three seats’ worth simply stayed home in an election where overall turnout rose.

So why did center-right voters desert? Primarily, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu crossed lines in the latest campaign that he never crossed before.

I’ve defended Netanyahu for years against false charges of anti-democratic conduct. For instance, there’s nothing undemocratic about the nation-state law, proposals to rein in Israel’s hyper-politicized Supreme Court or requiring NGOs funded mainly by foreign governments to say so openly. But during the latest campaign, he unquestionably adopted undemocratic tactics.

Take, for instance, his claim that Arab voter fraud “stole” April’s election from the right. Undermining faith in the validity of an election is extremely dangerous because no democracy can survive if people don’t trust elections to be free and fair. Thus election results should be called into question only in extreme cases, like the 2013 Beit Shemesh mayoral election, which a court invalidated because massive and well-documented fraud coupled with a very close result made the outcome genuinely dubious.

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