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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How Israel’s Electoral System Brings the Country’s Fringes Into Its Center

Like Haviv Rettig Gur in “How and Why Israelis Vote,” I, too, think the advantages of Israel’s parliamentary system outweigh its disadvantages, and for essentially the same reason: because it keeps a great many people in the political system who would otherwise remain outside it.

Critics of the system’s plethora of small parties—as Gur notes, no fewer than 43 parties have been vying for Knesset seats in this year’s election—maintain that it should be streamlined and redesigned so that only big parties would be able to enter the Knesset. In that case, the critics argue, people who currently vote for small parties would simply switch their votes to large ones.

No doubt, some voters would do so—but many others would not. There are at least three groups among whom turnout would plummet if niche parties became by definition unelectable: Arabs, Ḥaredim (including some ḥaredi Zionists), and the protest voters who, in every election, propel a new “fad” party into the Knesset. (In 2015, as Gur writes, the fad party was Kulanu. This year, it’s been Moshe Feiglin’s pro-marijuana, libertarian, right-wing Zehut party, which Gur doesn’t discuss although polls have consistently showed it gaining five to seven seats.)

Together, these three groups constitute roughly a third of the country, and all three are to some extent alienated from the mainstream. If they were no longer even participating in elections, that alienation would grow.

Why does this matter? In answering that question, I’ll focus mainly on Ḥaredim and Arabs, the most significant and also the most stable of the three groups (protest voters being by nature amorphous and changeable).

It matters primarily because people who cease to see politics as a means of furthering their goals are more likely to resort to violence. Indeed, it’s no accident that most political violence in Israel has issued from quarters outside the electoral system.

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