Heavy internal challenges

In recent weeks a small but growing number of opinion-makers in the Israeli public, including former senior security officials, have begun advocating a new departure in Sharon government policy concerning the disengagement from Gaza.

Rather than risking bloody and divisive clashes between the Israel Defense Forces and settlers who refuse to leave on their own volition, these people suggest that the government should simply present the settlers with an ultimatum: cooperate with the IDF, receive generous compensation and leave by a designated date–or you will be abandoned. We will seal off the settlement area, cut off electricity and water supply and phone service, and you will be on your own. The recalcitrant settlers, according to this scenario, will not last long on their own. They will soon request repatriation, their tails between their legs.

This is an irresponsible proposal. It advocates that the government of Israel abdicate its sovereign responsibility toward the settlers, including the obligation to remove them. It assumes that the more obstinate settlers can be coerced into leaving by passive means. It ignores the hardliners’ capacity, under these circumstances, to use violence against their Palestinian Arab neighbors, as well as the likelihood that Palestinians would use violence against them. It assumes the settlers, reinforced by thousands of supporters who are already moving into Gaza, will not have accumulated large supplies of food and water, ammunition, generators, fuel, and whatever else they need to survive on their own. In short, it replaces government by anarchy, with near certain disastrous consequences.

It is almost inconceivable that PM Sharon’s new disengagement coalition would even consider such an option. For the sake of the future of Israeli state sovereignty, the state must be prepared to use absolute force against those who would themselves oppose legitimate state decisions by force.

Yet a variant on this scenario, a more chaotic option, is certainly liable to evolve in the course of the disengagement operation. Suppose, for example, that a few fanatic settlers open fire on IDF soldiers, while fanatic young settler mothers use their babies as human shields to defy the troops. Suppose that after 7,000 settlers have been removed from Gaza there are three dead and 30 wounded, including several babies, while 1,000 extremists remain barricaded in two settlements, with supplies to last a year. Just as, in 2000, PM Ehud Barak’s peace coalition disintegrated the closer he got to Camp David, so Sharon’s disengagement coalition begins to fall apart: the rabbis leading the religious parties, whose sole motive for joining the government was to obtain budgetary allotments for their flock, now refuse to countenance the shedding of any more Jewish blood; new Likud "rebel" members of Knesset, appalled at the scene in Gaza, threaten to vote against their own government.

The IDF, which has a contingency plan for everything, informs the prime minister that it is ready to storm the remaining two settlements; it estimates there will be another 20-50 dead, soldiers and settlers. Under these circumstances, even PM Ariel Sharon might consider simply abandoning the remaining settlers and waiting them out.

This sort of worst-case scenario, or something chaotically similar, is easily imaginable in the reality that is unfolding before our eyes. This is where the state of Israeli-Palestinian security relations becomes of paramount importance. Has this drama unfolded while Palestinian militants are lobbing rockets and mortars at the settlers and the soldiers, even as they fight one another, thereby possibly strengthening the hand of those who oppose disengagement on security grounds? Is there a modicum of liaison and coordination between the IDF and Palestinian security authorities that might enable them to develop some new "rules of the game" to handle such a contingency in which Israel abandons Israelis deep inside Palestinian territory?

At the time of writing this was not the case. Indeed, following the ugly incident at the Karni crossing on January 13, in which Palestinian security forces ostensibly loyal to PLO/PA leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) appear to have allowed Palestinian terrorists to attack and kill six Israeli civilians whose job it was to facilitate the flow of food and other vital goods to the Palestinian population in Gaza, Israelis have more doubts than ever whether Abbas can make good on his campaign pledge to end Palestinian violence.

The scenarios discussed here are Israel’s creation and Israel’s dilemma. The worse they get, the more likely it is that this will be not only the first but also the last attempt to remove settlements–a disastrous prospect for the long-term well being of both Israelis and Palestinians. These contingencies, like everything else in the Israeli-Palestinian reality, will be heavily influenced by the durability of Israel’s government, together with its ability to coordinate its moves with a strong Palestinian government.

At this point there is room for concern whether either government will prove capable of delivering the goods.