Israel's Sharon Is Up to Something in Gaza

But what?


No one knows what Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is up to with his recent announcement that Israel intends to withdraw from most of its settlements in Gaza, but everyone knows it is momentous. Less than a year ago, notes David Makovsky, a senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Sharon insisted that he considered settlements in Gaza to be as important as Tel Aviv. Now Sharon is proposing to walk away, and to abandon a few, as yet unspecified, settlements in the West Bank as well.

"It's of historic significance that the architect of the settlement movement has declared his willingness to oversee the dismantlement of that enterprise in Gaza," Makovsky says. "That creates a new baseline."

At the Brookings Institution, senior fellow and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin S. Indyk remarks that no previous prime minister was willing to abandon even a single settlement outside the context of a final agreement with the Palestinians. "It's a revolution," Indyk says.

But what kind of revolution? That depends on what Sharon is up to. Take your pick:

1) Distraction. Sharon promised Israelis security but hasn't delivered. His popularity sank from over 50 percent after the Iraq war to 33 percent by late January. Worse, he is under threat of indictment. What better way to regain the political initiative and deflect the spotlight from his personal problems than to announce a bold policy change that, as it happens, 60 percent of Israelis support? Sure enough, following his Gaza stunner, Sharon's poll numbers rose.

Well, Sharon is a foxy politician, but it seems unlikely that he would repudiate a guiding principle of his career for momentary political advantage. He has something bigger in mind. But what?

2) Deal-breaking. Sharon has always resisted any final-status negotiation that would cede the West Bank, much of which he regards as essential to Israel's defense. He has also floated various schemes to unilaterally impose a meager, geographically discontinuous pseudo-state on the Palestinians. His government is building a barrier between Israel and the West Bank on the Palestinian side of the pre-1967 Green Line. Palestinians claim that the barrier will ultimately both encircle and divide them, preventing the establishment of a viable state. The Gaza plan, then, might merely be part of a design to subvert any chance of a negotiated settlement.

This is a reach. If Sharon wanted to deal-break, he could perfectly well encircle and carve up the West Bank without abandoning Gaza. Nor is there any evidence that the security barrier, either as built so far or as planned, will encircle the West Bank. In any case, neither the White House nor mainstream Israeli opinion would countenance a deal-breaking strategy, and Sharon is tough but not suicidal.

3) Delay. Sharon says the Gaza pullout will begin only if the U.S.-sponsored "road map"—a plan to establish a new bilateral peace process—remains stalled after six months or so. And he has hinted that a pullout might take two years. Perhaps, then, he is merely buying time to avoid repudiating the road map before the American elections.

Possible, but again a reach. Sharon has made plain that he wants American approval for his Gaza plan, and he has begun intensive diplomacy toward that end. The United States will ask for clarifications and adjustments in exchange for support and dollars to pay for the relocation of Gaza settlers. Initiating such a process in bad faith, while expecting never to deliver, would be the surest way to alienate President Bush, which Sharon cannot afford to do. It would incense both Palestinians and mainstream Israelis. Sharon is too smart to bluff if he knows his bluff will be called.

4) Demographics. In recent months, the Israeli media have been filled with predictions that Israel must separate physically from the West Bank and Gaza to avoid being demographically swamped by the Palestinians. Pulling out of Gaza and building a physical barrier are logical steps toward disentangling the Israeli and Palestinian populations.

Demographic self-defense is undoubtedly a major factor in Sharon's decision. And an ironic one. Israelis, after years of swearing they would never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state on their borders, now find they desperately need one, both to suppress terrorism and to preserve Israel's Jewish identity. Still, why choose to act on demographics now, when unilateral withdrawal may weaken Israeli deterrence by convincing Hamas that violence works? Demographics or no, why would a tough-minded general retreat under fire in a war of attrition?

5) Despair. Perhaps Israel is weakening. Sharon's government, even as it prepared its Gaza bombshell, agreed to a prisoner swap with Hezbollah, an Islamist paramilitary and terrorist group, on ridiculously uneven terms (400 Hezbollah prisoners for one live Israeli and three dead ones). Then came the Gaza announcement, which Hamas gleefully touted as a victory. Is Israel losing its will to fight?

That would be alarming news. Israel is a critical front in the war on terror, and the collapse of that front would inspirit and embolden suicide bombers from Baghdad to Bali. But, in fact, no such collapse is apparent. Three grisly years have taught Israelis that their society can withstand suicide bombers' battering; the bombings are horrific, but not an existential threat to the state. Israelis are suffering, but not as much as Palestinians are; in that tragic sense, Israel is winning the war of attrition. It may indeed be this realization that frees Israelis to contemplate the prisoner swap and the Gaza pullout.

Israelis, in other words, are not so much despairing as preparing for a long standoff. Which leads to a sixth possible Sharon aim—the single most plausible:

6) Digging in. Sharon is a general, and when a general decides he is in for a long siege, he consolidates his lines. A long siege is what Israel must now prepare for, even while hoping for a breakthrough.

Israelis, the White House, and more or less all people with eyes in their heads now believe that, as Makovsky puts it, "So long as Yasir Arafat remains leader of the Palestinians, there is no hope for peace and no hope of partnership." The resignation, in September, of moderate Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas established that the vampiric Arafat retains his stranglehold on the Palestinian power structure. So now the focus shifts to waiting out Arafat and, if necessary, waiting out the chaos—or, more accurately, the even greater chaos—that may follow him.

The Jewish settlements in Gaza do nothing for Israel's security. To the contrary, they are expensive to defend and they draw the Israeli army into conflict with the Palestinian population, as Sharon well knows. "He calculates that taking care of 7,500 people in a very populated Palestinian place is an untenable proposition in the long term, militarily, strategically, economically," says Yossi Shain, the head of Tel Aviv University's government department.

By getting out of Gaza, Sharon can firm up his lines and redeploy his resources. Abandoning some vulnerable West Bank settlements serves the same purpose. So does erecting the security barrier, which makes Israeli targets harder to bomb. Moreover, the barrier sits east of the Green Line, which, from Sharon's point of view, means that Israel retains land with which to bargain in negotiations with an eventual Palestinian partner.

More-defensible boundaries cannot exclude bombers entirely. Nor can they stop mortar shells and rockets. The Israeli army would continue to strike into Palestinian territory in both retaliation and pre-emption. But the frequency and difficulty of such incursions might be reduced. Israel might be less vulnerable, less stretched—and thus better able to hunker down.

For how long? "For a long time," Shain says. "Is that a fun kind of existence? No. Can it be a durable condition? Yes. Can it minimize a lot of the terror? Yes. Does it get to the point where exhaustion [of Palestinian militants] will eventually take place? Yes."

From an American standpoint, the Gaza plan brings both opportunity and risk: opportunity for renewed diplomacy, sparked by Israel's willingness to yield land; risk that Israel's departure might leave Gaza in the hands of Hamas, creating a new Islamist terror state in the world's most combustible region.

Above all, however, the plan suggests the fecklessness of speaking, as many Americans still do, of a Middle East peace process. There is no peace process. Peace efforts, yes; but, as Shain says, "A peace deal with a central authority that can command all the forces among the Palestinians is not attainable and is not likely to be established soon." But there is no war process, either. So Israelis are digging in for a long wait. Americans may have to do the same.