Relative Ease of Gaza Withdrawal Could Affect Israel’s Future Agenda

In the long run, the ease with which Israel evacuated Gaza Strip settlements could prove to be as significant as the pullback itself. The fact that the withdrawal went relatively smoothly challenges the long-standing belief that Israel will not be able to dismantle large numbers of settlements in the West Bank, shores up Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s international and domestic standing, and suggests that the settler movement will not be able to set the national agenda in quite the same way as it has for more than three decades.

Despite apocalyptic forecasts of conflicts approaching civil war, it took the Israeli army and police less than a week to remove the roughly 9,000 Gaza settlers and about 3,000 radicals who had infiltrated the settlements to stiffen resistance.

The strategy was to isolate the settlements and send overwhelming numbers of soldiers and police into one or two at a time. The military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, explained that the huge numbers made it possible to do the job using minimal force.

The settlers expressed their anguish at being forced to leave their homes: There were tears, harsh words and some ugly physical clashes, but no bloodshed.

Indeed, what violence there was seemed to set clear limits to future resistance after Israeli society unanimously condemned waving sticks, hurling wooden beams and pouring down oil, paint and turpentine to fend off soldiers and police as “intolerable hooliganism.”

All this could have major implications for the West Bank. For decades, many Israelis have argued that the settlement project was irreversible. Now pundits are challenging that view.

Writing in Ha’aretz, Zvi Barel argued that the ease of the evacuation had shattered the irreversibility theory.

“Suddenly it becomes clear that the logic that dismantled the Gaza settlements can also be applied to the West Bank. The fears that drove the state are also reversible: no civil war or military mutiny. Only curses, nails and oil,” he wrote. “This is precisely the time for the state to continue down the same path it charted in Gaza and proceed to the West Bank, the illegal outposts, the tiny settlements, the lawbreakers — even the state’s fear of the settlements can be reversed.”

Only six weeks ago, Yonatan Bassi, the official in charge of resettlement and compensation, argued that a similar operation in the West Bank would be impossible because of the large number of settlers involved: If Israel annexes only the three large settlement blocs close to the pre-1967 boundaries, the estimate is that 50,000-80,000 settlers would have to be moved from far-flung settlements.

That could mean up to 10 times the effort and 10 times the amount in compensation, compared to the Gaza operation. That, Bassi had insisted, made it impossible.

Six weeks ago many analysts would have agreed, but Bassi’s thesis seems far less convincing today.

The speedy evacuation also is helping Sharon. The fact that he didn’t shrink from the Gaza operation and carried it out with such impressive efficiency has enhanced his international reputation.

An Italian group has nominated the Israeli prime minister for the Nobel Peace Prize, and Sharon himself feels confident enough to address the U.N. General Assembly next month, a forum in which Israel regularly is criticized.

Even some Palestinians have been impressed by the Gaza operation. In a rare expression of empathy for Israeli suffering, journalist Daoud Kuttab, writing in The New York Times, argued that “whether Palestinians and Arabs will admit it or not, the powerful images of the last few days cannot be ignored.”

The “new view of Israel” that such images inspired could help the cause of peace, Kuttab suggested.

Sharon’s domestic situation has improved, too. The way in which the evacuation was carried out won him plaudits in the media and could translate into several percentage points of support in polls.

More importantly, there are signs that he may be gaining ground in his Likud Party, where he faces a leadership challenge from former Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Though recent polls showed Netanyahu ahead in the party, there is a growing perception among Likud activists that Sharon would be a much more electable candidate in a national election.

Sharon’s recovery in the party could prove temporary, however; much will depend on the Palestinians’ next moves. If there is a renewed outbreak of terrorism, Netanyahu will blame the Gaza withdrawal. If there is quiet, Sharon’s comeback will gather pace.

Most importantly for many secular Israelis, the balance of power between their vision of a democratic Israel and some settlers’ vision of a theocratic state seems to have swung dramatically in the democrats’ favor.

Novelist Amos Oz articulated the mood in an article in the Yediot Achronot newspaper.

“For more than 30 years,” Oz wrote, “the settlers’ dream has overwhelmed the dream of secular Israelis. Day in and day out, the vision of Greater Israel and the reign of the Messiah crushed the hope of being a free people and building a just society.”

But now, Oz wrote, the tables have been turned: The settlers no are longer setting the agenda, and they’re experiencing distress similar to what they caused mainstream Israelis for nearly three decades.

The settler defeat has put the Yesha settler council under enormous pressure. Hard-liners, who blame the Yesha council for the failed anti-evacuation campaign, say the group was not militant enough.

But Sharon maintains that Yesha’s leadership did little to curb violence and that, consequently, he will not allow the group a role in government plans to develop the Negev and Galilee to host evicted settlers.

For now, secular, pragmatic Israel, with Sharon as its chief representative, has the upper hand. The extremists on both sides are at bay. The question is, for how long?

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