Leaving Gaza: Is the Withdrawal good for Israel?
A briefing by Meyrav Wurmser
June 28, 2005
Meyrav Wurmser is director of the Center for Middle East Policy and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. She was formerly Executive Director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), and has taught political science at the Johns Hopkins University and the United States Naval Academy, Dr. Wurmser is a frequent guest on radio and television, including BBC, Fox News, CNN, PBS and CNBC. She addressed the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia on June 28, 2005.
Instead of waving the Israeli flag on Independence Day in May 2005, Israelis against the withdrawal waved orange flags. (Orange, the color of Gaza district council, now represents opposition to the disengagement.) Supporters of the withdrawal dressed in blue, the national color. But "People are not fighting a war of colors, but a war of ideas, which shows no boundaries or restraints." The concern is that civil unrest reaching across Israel will spark a civil war.
For the mainstream opponents of withdrawal, the struggle is not simply to prevent evacuation of settlements but "a struggle for the soul of the Zionist enterprise." Their primary concern is not only the Gaza settlements themselves, which were never part of Biblical Israel I recently learned that they actually are a part of biblical Israel. However, Gaza is not considered as holy as other places in the West Bank. It is complex to explain, so I suggest that you take out the words "which are not a part of biblical Israel", but the possibility of further withdrawals from the West Bank. Representing the "modern Orthodox" camp in Israel, the settlers view themselves as the only followers of the word of God and the pioneers of the Jewish state. The settlements were created by this camp at the behest of both Labor and Likud governments in the face of great odds, and their children comprise a significant proportion of the nation's combat leaders and pilots.
Their beliefs and sacrifices are now being challenged by non-religious Israelis and also by a right wing prime minister. "Their ideological confusion, their feeling of hurt could not be deeper or more genuine." Their struggle is not just for land, but for their own identity and that of Israel as a Jewish and Zionist society.
At the opposite end are Israelis who believe that the occupation is profaning and demoralizing. The Zionist enterprise requires withdrawing from places like Gaza and Hebron as a means of normalizing the Jewish existence and making Israel a Western society at peace with its neighbors. For one faction this is welcome since it offers the opportunity to end the influence of Judaism and Jewish nationalism in Israel entirely and to create a secular, post-national society.
Since the 1970s and especially the Oslo agreements the left wing of Israeli society adopted peace as its ideology. But since the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin this has changed into a form of post-national identity. "Being Israeli" means a variety of cultural behaviors without any formal beliefs. Belonging in the "peace camp" today means abandoning Jewish components to Israeli identity and doing so in defiance of observant Israelis.
The essence of the conflict between opponents and proponents of withdrawal is Israeli identity , the goals and essence of Zionism, and the relationship between Judaism and nationalism. The manifestations of wearing orange cloth, undertaking protests and roadblocks, and calling on soldiers to disobey orders are regarded by the settlers as a legitimate campaign of civil disobedience. But proponents of withdrawal see this as defiance of the state that must be suppressed by force. Leading proponents of withdrawal on the left, including commentators and editors, have called for counter-demonstrations and for the full force of the law to address opponents who defy the government.
The settlers believe that mobilizing public opinion is the key to stopping disengagement, and recent polls have indicated steadily dropping support for this policy among most Israelis. Over 20,000 soldiers serving in the military have announced that they will not follow orders to evacuate settlers. The new chief of staff has, in turn, threatened to shut down the modern orthodox hesder yeshivas that permit students to combine religious studies with military service.
The settlers believe that their refusal to use violence against fellow Israelis and their on-going protests will diminish Sharon's public legitimacy and convince soldiers to refuse to obey orders. In their view an "orange wave" will roll back the "disengagement disaster." But their greatest crisis stems from a growing realization of the failure of religious Zionism to take root in Israeli society. Their efforts and contributions did not legitimize them in the eyes of broader Israeli society, or the right wing Prime Minister, which has rejected them as messianic zealots.
The disengagement will define borders, but also Israel's soul, namely, the nature and goals of Israeli society. Disengagement from Gaza could mean that the Jewish state is disengaging from Zionism, but would this be worth the internal divisions created in Israel? The Palestinian response could help define whether disengagement and its internal price is worthwhile.
Disengagement is a questionable policy since it will provide at best only a few months of calm. The Arabs view the withdrawal as a retreat, a continuation of the withdrawal from Lebanon. Groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad will use the withdrawal to enhance their war-fighting capabilities. Hamas will also use it to build an army to complement its rocket and mortar capabilities, in order to protect itself against a crackdown by the Palestinian Authority and to protect its share of the spoils after the withdrawal.
Handing terrorists a safe haven in the region should not be done until a broader portion of Palestinian society rejects terrorism as immoral and not simply impractical. Withdrawal will increase the violence, such as was seen before the retaking of the territories in March, 2002. Withdrawal also undermines the Bush administration's revolutionary belief that what matters is how government and society interact internally. Peaceful Israeli-Palestinian relations are contingent on the transformation of the latter from a totalitarian to a free society. But disengagement also threatens American interests by promising to transform Gaza into not only a Hamas but an al-Qaida refuge. A new local group aligned with al-Qaida has already carried out attacks on Israelis and promises to do so against Americans as well.
The twelve year old diplomatic process is exerting severe pressure on the democratic fabric Israeli society, as can be seen by the actions of both sides. Recognition on the Palestinian side of the Jewish right to self-determination remains remote, and Israel and the United States are "setting themselves up for a fall" by prioritizing the peace process over internal reform. This will allow the old and corrupt nationalist approach of the PLO to continue, or for Hamas and Hezbollah to make it even more lethal.
Related Topics: Arab-Israel conflict & diplomacy, Israel | Meyrav Wurmser
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