Unilateral redeployment, Likud style

The most fascinating aspect of Israeli politics in recent weeks is the intellectual and political ferment within the non-religious political right. Spurred on by a decline in public support, reaction to the Geneva accord, harsh criticism from serving and retired senior security officials, and American pressure, right wing politicians and academics have begun seriously discussing a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and Gaza.

As one prominent right wing academic put it to me recently, "Okay, the left is right about the demographic threat. We have to withdraw on our own to avert it." While this may sound to many like a painfully belated realization of the obvious, it represents a significant recognition on the part of important figures within the Likud that Israel must not seek to hold onto all of the land, and that only separation into two states will enable Israel to remain a Jewish and a democratic state.

Thus Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s dramatic statements of recent days concerning unilateral redeployment should not be understood as an ideological departure by a lone Likudnik, nor, alternatively, as merely an explicit echo of the leaks and hints emanating from the prime minister’s office over the past month. Rather, something is happening within a broad circle of Likud politicians and supporters, and Olmert wants to grab the reins of leadership.

Welcome as these voices are, they unfortunately represent a very partial, hence dangerous, understanding of the ramifications of the demographic and political reality. In short, this "new right" appears to believe that it will "solve" the demographic problem by effecting a limited dismantling of a relatively small number of settlements, fencing in the remaining 50 percent or so of Palestinian territory in the West Bank, unilaterally designating this enclave a "state", declaring this political process–which could be presented as fulfillment of phase II of the roadmap–to have guaranteed Israel’s long term welfare as a Jewish and democratic state, and emphasizing that any further negotiation is either impossible, or could be resumed in no less than five, or 10 or 15 years–which in our part of the world is an eternity.

Here we confront yet another instance whereby ideas and proposals generated by the Israeli left are embraced by the right, but only at a cost of hopeless distortion. First the right hijacked the fence idea and moved it deep into the West Bank, where it takes on a political rather than security significance. Now it is proposing to politicize unilateral withdrawal as well. This began as a move by the left to save Israel demographically while not creating new political facts, and leaving all territorial issues (i.e., the fate of the Jordan Valley and other territories remaining in Israeli hands following unilateral withdrawal) for further negotiations, to be renewed as soon as the Palestinians field a realistic and responsible leadership that is truly committed to a two state solution. Now it is presented by the right as the creation of a political fait accompli: we create a Palestinian enclave state; we may even annex the remainder; we postpone any further discussion for an indefinite period of time; and we expect the Palestinians and the rest of the world to acquiesce in this new reality.

They will not acquiesce. Indeed, Palestinians could react with an escalated terror campaign in Israel and abroad, and/or by dissolving the Palestinian Authority and appealing to the world to "rescue" them. The conflict would get uglier, and conceivably draw in Israel’s neighbors as well.

How representative this thinking is of Prime Minister Sharon’s real strategic approach–or, alternatively, to what extent these proposals influence his strategy–is not at all clear. While they do satisfy Sharon’s fundamental commitment to maintaining control, however indirectly, over the West Bank and Gaza, it is still hard to imagine the prime minister dismantling settlements to make it happen, insofar as in recent months and years it is he who has presided over the expansion of those settlements with the aim of fragmenting the Palestinian presence and ensuring long term Israeli control over key roads and hilltops. But if this is merely a game of smoke and mirrors by Sharon, such is clearly not the case with other key right wing personalities who have become genuinely alarmed by the demographic threat, yet do not seem capable of thinking through the dangerous consequences of mere half-measures that ignore the basic political needs of the Palestinians and actually exacerbate the conflict. (An alternative and more sympathetic analysis suggests that this pragmatic right fully understands the situation but cannot for the moment move any further away politically from its more hawkish constituency.)

Unfortunately, too, events on the Palestinian side seem unlikely to confront the right with a realistic alternative. Even if a ceasefire of sorts emerges from Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei’s current efforts, it will not involve any serious effort by him to confront the terrorist infrastructure, which is really too powerful now for him to challenge. True, Israel helped bring this about, but the real catalyst remains Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and he is now comfortably back in full control.

These developments would appear to preclude any serious effort at a renewed peace process, even if Sharon were willing and US President Bush were inclined to get involved–which they are not.