Gaza Striptease

The cover of Challenge No. 84. Click to visit their site.

When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his decision to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and dismantle 17 settlements, there was reason, one might think, for celebration in certain quarters. Yet few rejoiced. There is the uneasy feeling that his words do not bode an end to the 37-year-old Occupation, rather further entanglement.

Some call the would-be withdrawal an escape, some call it a threat against the Palestinians, and some call it a means to strengthen Israel’s hold on the West Bank. One thing it is not: a step toward resolving the conflict.

In Israeli eyes, Gaza was always damaged goods. The campaign slogan of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 was “Pull Gaza out of Tel Aviv”. The Oslo Agreement originally bore the title, “Gaza and Jericho First”. (Hamas and others are mistaken, then, when they present an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as a victory for the resistance.) It suits Sharon, whose approval rating has plunged, to propose “disconnection” from this unwanted place. It makes a show of progress toward security, and it may distract the public from corruption scandals in which he is mired to the neck.

Under present conditions, however, Sharon will find it almost impossible to disconnect from Gaza. The hurdles are high:

Hurdle 1: The White House

First Sharon needs to persuade the Americans. The Bush Administration is fixated on the Road Map, which has won United Nations approval. If only for the sake of its own prestige, the US cannot countenance a situation where its protege withdraws and leaves a vacuum of sovereignty, in which no one is legally responsible for the area. (The PA, after all, does not preside over a sovereign state.) That is why the Americans insist that Sharon “coordinate” the move with the Palestinians. “Coordinate” means “negotiate”. Once you have to “coordinate,” however, you can no longer be “unilateral”. Ex-mediator Dennis Ross has coined an oxymoron for the situation: “coordinated unilateralism”. Verbal blankets keep no one warm.

The Bush Administration will not give voice to its opposition. It must not appear to disagree with Sharon. Otherwise, the Arabs will sit back, hoping for a rupture. The White House wants to keep the Palestinians under pressure. It wants them to move forward on the Road Map. Of Sharon’s proposal it says, therefore, “Great idea! But coordinate.” A White House official has advised the Israeli leader, “Think about ‘the day after’.” Wise words indeed from the folks who brought us the war against Iraq!

Hurdle 2: Sharon’s Coalition

Within his own government, Sharon has no majority for a unilateral withdrawal. He did not raise the proposal in his cabinet, therefore, preferring to announce it in an interview with Yoel Marcus of Ha’aretz. With a view to holding his right-wing government together, he has recently broached the idea of a package deal. In return for withdrawal from Gaza, the Americans should give him a “green light” for building in those West Bank settlements that, under any “conceivable” agreement, will be annexed to Israel. There is little chance that the Americans would grant him that, forfeiting their relations with the Arab world - unless, of course, the Palestinians agree. So again there is nothing unilateral here.

Without such a package deal, the right wing will not go along. As for the Labor Party, it is in dismal condition since the last national unity government. It will not join Sharon in a new one unless it sees a chance for major electoral gains. Labor too will insist on coordination.

There is, then, little chance for unilateral disconnection. But if the first two hurdles were somehow passed, there would still be:

Hurdle 3: The settlers

They will resist.

SHARON’S proposal, in short, does not make sense, except as a threat to get a positive move out of Abu Ala, the Palestinian Prime Minister. The hope may be that Abu Ala (and Yasser Arafat behind him), fearing the result of unilateral disconnection (i.e., further chaos), will agree to coordinate, taking responsibility for the Gaza Strip, as well as 40% (Areas A and B) of the West Bank. That would be the beginning of a long-term interim agreement, which is the kind of thing that Sharon might be able to sell to his party, the Likud.

There are indications that such is Sharon’s thinking. For example, when Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon first heard the idea of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, his response was that it “would only encourage terrorism.” He leaked his position to the press under the cover of “senior army officer”. After Sharon scolded him privately, Ya’alon changed his tune: “The disconnection plan is a good one, as an act that will get negotiations started.” (Quoted by Nahum Barnea in Yediot Aharonot February 20.) Sharon persuaded Ya’alon, it would seem, that the plan is a striptease to get some movement out of Arafat and Abu Ala.

The Palestinians have had their fill of interim agreements. Given the present chaos in the Territories, however, it is (just barely) conceivable that they might agree to such an arrangement, hoping then to stabilize the situation.

Two historical footnotes

1. In going out on a limb with his “unilateral disconnection”, Sharon will do well to remember the fate of his predecessor, Ehud Barak. The parallels are striking. Barak too tried to save his skin by means of a daring political venture - against his coalition and against all odds. He attempted a virtuoso stunt, leaping over the heads of his cabinet and the Knesset. After stuffing them with bitter herbs, he sought to force the Palestinians to confer at Camp David “until white smoke appeared,” that is, until he extracted an agreement to end all Palestinian claims in accordance with his dictation. The talks collapsed. Barak fell from power. He had sown the seeds of the chaos that grips the Territories today.

Barak had one major asset, however, that Sharon does not: Bill Clinton in the White House.

2. There is one thing that the Americans and others find hard to grasp. If Sharon is ready to disconnect from Gaza, why didn’t he do this when Abu Mazen was Palestinian PM, strengthening the latter by appearing to make a concession? Israel was so unforthcoming with Abu Mazen that his government collapsed. This caused loss of face to the Bush Administration, which had supported him. It also derailed the Road Map. Yet now Sharon is willing to pull out unilaterally - with nothing in return!

The explanation for such odd behavior may lie, after all, with the scorpion who wanted to cross a river. He asked the frog to carry him on his back. The frog was wary: “You’ll sting me,” he said. The scorpion replied, “Why in the world would I do that? If I sting you, I won’t get to the other side!” The frog was persuaded. In the middle of the river, however, the scorpion stung him. “What have you done!” exclaimed the frog. “Now we’ll both drown.” “Couldn’t help it,” said the scorpion. “It’s my nature.”

Unlike the scorpion in this parable, Israel has reasons to sting - but the result is the same. Israel regards the West Bank (not Gaza) as its strategic hinterland. It has no interest in a peace accord that will establish, next door, a sovereign state with real independence. It wants an entity that is nominally sovereign but in fact dependent on it. That is why it stings all the frogs that try to carry it across. The first was Yasser Arafat (the Oslo Accords), and the second was Abu Mazen (the Road Map). The third, Abu Ala, still hesitates on the river bank, but if he is persuaded, Israel will sting him too.

With the kind of arrangement Israel wants, no Palestinian leader can stay in power. Both sides drown. The Palestinians sink into poverty and chaos, while Israel makes memorials from bombed-out buses. The two societies are torn apart. Havoc, so apparent in the one, has begun to undermine the other as well.

This editorial is found in the March-April 2004 issue of Challenge magazine. Challenge is a bi-monthly leftist magazine focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a global context. Published in Jaffa by Arabs and Jews, it features political analysis, investigative reporting, interviews, eye-witness reports, gender studies, arts, and more.