The Gaza Retreat

Israel's Likud party members voted overwhelmingly Sunday to reject Prime Minister Sharon's plan to evacuate 21 settlements in Gaza and 4 in the West Bank.  Generally, a high percentage of voters turn out in Israeli elections, but the day before yesterday, barely half of the Likud Party's approximately 200,000 members voted.  Since Likud Party members account for about 5% of the registered voters in Israel, the math suggests that fewer than 3% of Israelis voted in the referendum, hardly a mandate against Sharon's plan. 


Unfortunately, very few headlines in newspapers outside of Israel will distinguish the Likud voters from the country as a whole. Israel will be portrayed as 'turning its back' on peace, or rejecting a withdrawal of the settlers. In fact, a strong majority of all Israeli voters would likely have supported the Prime Minister's plan, had they been asked. So Sharon either misjudged his ability to pull his right wing party with him on this vote, or risked a rejection by Likud voters, knowing that he could later get approval for the Gaza pullout with a broader spectrum of Israelis behind him in a future national referendum.


Clearly, the safer course for Sharon would have been to win a national referendum on the issue, and not schedule a Likud party vote.  But as the champion of the settlement movement for decades, Sharon thought his decision would carry weight among the 'greater land of Israel' supporters within the Likud, and show that even right wing Israelis were not opposed to making strategic compromises which might improve Israel's security.


Some Likud voters might have missed the referendum yesterday since they were at a funeral for a mother and her 4 murdered children, assassinated by two Palestinians firing at her car from close range. 


The Arab media has been blaring the story this week of the 'humiliation of Iraqi prisoners' by American guards at the prison at Abu Ghraib. Those pictures were a terrible blow to American efforts in Iraq and in the greater Arab world, though it is worth noting, no prisoners were murdered by the guards, as despicable as their behavior was.  And the individuals at fault will be prosecuted, and almost certainly imprisoned.


But the point—blank murder of a mother and her children (a pregnant woman no less) will be celebrated in the Arab media and on the Arab street, as a legitimate blow on behalf of those fighting the Israeli occupation. Those who run to the United Nations to accuse Israel of war crimes for taking out two Hamas leaders, who regularly sent teenage Palestinians to their deaths with explosives attached to their bodies, applaud the murder of an Israeli woman and her children in a car.  Kofi Annan has also not yet been heard from with a condemnation for yesterday's attack, empty as it would be in any case, with a predictable call for an end to the 'cycle of violence'. 



As Charles Krauthammer writes, if Israel announced today that it wanted to survive another year, that announcement itself might produce a resolution of condemnation by the Arab world at the UN.


But beyond the predictable assault on Israel that is sure to ring down following the Likud vote the day before yesterday, there is a broader question. What does the Prime Minister plan to do next? And where does this leave President Bush, who extended his support for Sharon's plan a few weeks back? My guess is that Sharon will carry the vote to a national referendum at some point. No single party gets to decide in Israel, and the Likud, while the largest party in the Knesset, controls fewer than a third of the seats in that body. 


The settlement enterprise in Gaza has always been more controversial than settlements established in other areas Israel captured in the '67 war. These less controversial settlements include east Jerusalem, Gush Etzion, other settlements near the 'green line' (that served to widen Israel's narrow waist, which was only nine or ten miles across, at points), and the settlements established in the Jordan Valley for security purposes after that war.


Protecting the 7,000 settlers surrounded by 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza was a costly effort for Israel, in terms of dedicated manpower, and lives lost over the years. The fear, of course, was that by withdrawing, Israel would signal to Hamas that it had been driven out of Gaza, a signal similar to the one that Ehud Barak may have inadvertently given to Yassar Arafat by pulling out of the security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000.  That withdrawal probably did not cause, but likely served to accelerate, the inevitable second Palestinian intifada.


The pickup in attempted Palestinian attacks on Israelis in Gaza, and the savagery of yesterday's mass murder, were clearly designed to signal to Palestinians and the greater Arab world, that in case the referendum passed and Sharon then withdrew from Gaza, that Israel was being driven out (which would preserve Arab dignity), and not leaving as a result of Sharon's following  the will of the populace in a democracy, a concept that means nothing to the autocratic fascists and imams who run the Arab world, and who have trained their people to worship and fear the power of the gun, and not the voice of the people


It will be more difficult now for Sharon to fight that perception. Had the withdrawal been approved by the Likud, it would next been taken to the Cabinet, and then to the Knesset. The withdrawal itself was not scheduled until 2005. So no precipitous withdrawal was to take place in any case.


But fighting Arab notions of dignity and humiliation is a losing proposition for Israel.  If a withdrawal improves the security for Israelis, and eliminates the cost in dollars and lives of defending a few isolated settlements, then it is the right thing to do. Israelis, all of them, will probably soon get the chance to decide that.  This is not Syria, or Egypt, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia, where a few people, or just one, decide for all. 


As for President Bush, the vote by the Likud has made Sharon out to be a moderate among the hawks of his party.  Those who attacked Sharon for not offering more, now appear to have been unrealistic critics. This is a plus for Bush. he supported a Likud leader who risked his career on a withdrawal. As for Bush's statement of support for border adjustments, and his opposition to a Palestinian right of return, Bush spoke the truth.  He merely reiterated what Clinton (the 'peacemaker') had voiced support for in the negotiations at Camp David and Taba. And Bush said what every diplomat knows (whether he says so publicly or not) will be the outline of a peace between the parties, should the Palestinians ever agree to one, instead of putting all their efforts into undermining and destroying Israel. 


The public outcry by 52 British diplomats last week against Prime Minister Tony Blair, for supporting President Bush in his effort to get Israeli settlers out of Gaza, only demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of the diplomats, many of whom are on Saudi—funded Middle East think tank payrolls.  This group will not rest until Israel no longer exists, and their sinecures from their Arab paymasters are assured.


It is interesting to note, how Crown Prince Abdullah, the good friend of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, and author of the much ballyhooed (by Friedman) Saudi peace plan, explained the attack in Saudi Arabia on foreign oil field workers last week. The Crown Prince said it was the Zionists' fault. The obsession with Israel in the Arab world is incurable, and this is especially true in Saudi Arabia, which is neither a moderate Arab state, nor our (America's) friend.


It is worth noting that the European attacks on Bush and Blair for backing Sharon, and for Bush's new policy pronouncements on the conflict, were targeted on the border (and settlements) issue, and not on denying a right of return for Palestinians (95% of whom are descendants of refugees, and not refugees themselves). This emphasis is not accidental. Europeans would have very large right of return issues of their own to deal with if they walk down a path supporting that right, which is not grounded in international law in any case. Europe has resettled its refugees from World War II, and more recently from Bosnia, as the Palestinians and Arab states should have 55 years ago, after they started and lost a war that created their refugee problem.