It is too early to determine definitively who won and who lost in Gaza. And it is certainly premature to know whether and how the losers will learn the lessons of their setbacks. So the following must be taken as a very tentative, and provisional, judgment.
Broadly speaking, Israel prevailed in the five year low-level war between Palestinians and Israelis that culminated in the Gaza withdrawal. The past six months have seen a radical reduction in Palestinian violence. Palestinian terrorists and their leaders know they can be tracked and eliminated by Israel virtually anywhere. Israeli success in combining air, land, and sophisticated intelligence forces in real time to locate and take out terrorists constitutes an outstanding military victory. Disengagement from Gaza was easier because it took place at a time of military victory. The IDF and Israel Police emerged from the withdrawal operation itself as big winners in Israeli and international eyes.
And yet the Israeli disengagement also, at a certain level, constitutes a victory for Palestinian violence. The demographic and security folly of an Israeli settler and military presence inside Gaza would have been less obvious to many Israelis, less painful and more tolerable, had there been no sustained Palestinian campaign of violence. The same, we well know, could be said of the Israeli military presence in southern Lebanon, which ended five years ago with the first unilateral withdrawal.
This assertion must be heavily qualified. In both cases, Lebanon and Gaza, Israel retreated from areas it should never have continued to occupy in the first place. Those withdrawals reflected a measured sense of priorities, however painfully slow to manifest itself, among a very democratic public. Palestinian assertions (including in recent days by Hamas military leader Mohammed Deif) that the lesson of Gaza is that Israel can be forced out of Jerusalem and Haifa, or even Maaleh Adumim, confront a very different set of Israeli priorities, and hence reflect muddled Palestinian thinking.
Israeli sensitivity to violence is a double-edged sword. Take for example the Palestinian "strategic weapon" of suicide bombings. Israel did not leave Gaza because of suicide bombers, because none penetrated the security fence around Gaza and few penetrated the settlements there; correspondingly, the Israeli reaction to suicide bombings emanating from the West Bank has been to build an effective security fence there too, at great cost to Palestinians’ welfare. As a "strategic weapon", suicide bombings have only hurt the Palestinian cause. Palestinians who take too seriously the assertion that "Israelis only understand the language of force" are destined to replay the mistakes that have postponed Palestinian statehood for the past 27 years, ever since the first Camp David agreements offered them a violence-free route to sovereignty and they rejected it. As President Mahmoud Abbas well knows, Palestinians could today achieve a lot more without force.
The religious-ideological settler movement is a loser. It lost its settlement foothold in Gaza and it lost a lot of Israeli public tolerance for its messianic fundamentalist message. Whether it will draw the appropriate lessons and act to maximize the settlers’ territorial gains (the settlement blocs) while ceasing to offend simple demographic, political, and security logic, remains to be seen.
Ariel Sharon is a winner among the Israeli public, but a loser within his own right wing Likud party. How he will maneuver out of this dilemma is not at all clear.
Mahmoud Abbas is a winner: he successfully persuaded Palestinian militants to hold their fire and show Israelis and the world that dismantling settlements need not involve Israeli-Palestinian violence. But can he translate this achievement into an extended ceasefire, a peaceful election, and consolidated PA/PLO rule in Gaza and elsewhere? If he fails, this will have been a temporary, tactical victory on the way to yet another defeat for the legitimate Palestinian aim of a viable Arab state next to the Jewish state.
Finally, this writer is both a winner and a loser. I won because I have been advocating unilateral withdrawal for around four years now. I lost because some three years ago I bet several colleagues, and published the fact in these virtual pages, that Ariel Sharon would never remove a single settlement. If he did, I offered to eat my laptop.
Suggestions as to the proper seasoning and mode of preparation are welcome.