Israeli conspiracy or Palestinian opportunity?

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Israel’s periodic retaliatory penetrations deep into the Gaza Strip nourish a number of assessments about the nature of PM Sharon’s anticipated disengagement plan. Most of these assessments are in reality little more than conspiracy theories, and most are without foundation. Both Palestinians and Israelis who oppose disengagement would be far better off if they saw in Sharon’s plan an opportunity rather than a conspiracy.

For example, for some Palestinians confronting the IDF forays into Jabalya and elsewhere, the disengagement plan seems to have brought little more than painful reoccupation. Indeed, one could speculate that even after the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip the IDF may repeatedly reinvade Gaza in response to future Palestinian Qassam rocket attacks.

Some Israelis and most Palestinians are certain that Sharon’s disengagement plan for Gaza and northern Samaria is a conspiracy to freeze the peace process and hold onto the remainder of the West Bank. In an interview a week ago in Haaretz, Sharon’s former chef de cabinet, Dov Weissglas, offered precisely this interpretation of the plan.

Still other Israelis point to the Qassam attacks and argue that Israel cannot implement its disengagement plan precisely because Gaza is so dangerous and insecure. This reasoning is mirrored by those in the Israeli security establishment who interpret the rocket attacks as an attempt by Hamas to portray disengagement as an Israeli retreat in the face of a victorious Islamist enemy. The logical corollary of this reasoning is to insist that disengagement not take place unless and until the Strip is pacified and Hamas neutralized.

Finally, another camp of Israelis on the left does not understand why disengagement cannot be negotiated as part of the roadmap or some other peace process. And of course, we haven’t mentioned the settler camp on the right that opposes disengagement for ideological/territorial/messianic reasons, and accuses Sharon of having lost his Zionist fervor.

Nearly all these opponents of disengagement seemingly fail to understand its most fundamental rationale: demographic security, or the need to consolidate Israel’s population on the one hand, and Palestine’s on the other, so as to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish and a demographic state and that we stop the current gradual decline into a South Africa-type situation. That is why disengagement is more about removing settlements from Gaza than removing the IDF, which indeed will periodically continue to enter the Strip if it is used as a base for attacking Israelis, just as the army and the air force continue to interdict and deter terrorist attackers in southern Lebanon long after we ceased to occupy that territory.

Nor do the doubters on both sides even begin to appreciate the dynamic of rolling back the settlement movement in the West Bank that will be unleashed by the act of dismantling even a single settlement in Gaza.

On this issue it appears that the settlers do understand the real meaning of a minor disengagement in Gaza, whereas Weissglas–if he was sincere in his interpretation–and possibly Sharon as well, if Weissglas was speaking for him, do not. It is naïve to believe that you can throw the international community the bone of disengagement from Gaza, thereby proving that the settlement movement is reversible, and thus silence its growing appetite for creating a settlement-free Palestinian state in both the West Bank and Gaza. On the contrary, you will be showing the world precisely how it can be done, even without a peace process if necessary.

Sadly Sharon, who is clearly unwilling to enter into genuine peace negotiations–or even disengagement security talks–with our neighbors, is also unwilling and possibly emotionally or intellectually unable to explain to the Israeli public the urgent and vital demographic rationale for far-reaching disengagement. That is why he could conceivably lose a referendum on the issue: the settlers will smother the Israeli public with protestations of their pioneering Zionist dedication and willingness to man the front lines against the terrorist threat, while Sharon and the 70 percent of Israelis who support him will remain largely passive.

Here the Palestinians hold a trump card. If they can overcome their inclination to see everything Israel does as a conspiracy, they might also detect in the Gaza pullout an opportunity. If Yasser Arafat were to direct his security services, which in Gaza are largely intact, to restore order in the Strip, a structure of parallel Israeli and Palestinian unilateral moves would be put in place. The world would see that Israeli withdrawal means Palestinian law and order. The pressure for Israel to continue to withdraw from additional areas of the West Bank would increase, to the benefit of both parties.

Instead of buying into this scenario, Arafat and his supporters insist that Israel release him from his confinement in Ramallah. Many additional parties demand that Israel negotiate the security arrangements with the PLO. But whether we like it or not, Sharon’s refusal is firm on both counts. Coupled with his hidden motives for disengagement and his inability to articulate to the public the demographic rationale, Sharon makes his own plan look bad.

This is unfortunate. Under the circumstances, and particularly under the disastrous leadership of Sharon and Arafat, disengagement is not merely the only game in town: it is a potentially revolutionary option that should be pursued almost at any cost.

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