The only good news is disengagement

Just a few months ago, a number of observers were ready to pronounce the intifada “over” as it neared the end of its fifth and least violent year. Now it appears that a sixth year of some sort may be in the offing, with the relative quiet of recent months ascribed at least in part to the disengagement and to a temporary internal Palestinian political truce. In the latest spiral of violence, Hamas and Islamic Jihad took the lead in both the West Bank and Gaza, and Israel reacted with disproportionate counter-violence in the hope of weakening Hamas, sending a message that it did not leave Gaza out of weakness, and establishing a deterrent against further violence. Israel also now encounters a Hamas with political aspirations–a byproduct of that movement’s relative success (compared to Fateh) both militarily and in societal terms in the past five years.

This evolving situation only underlines the single positive achievement of the past five years: the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. Disengagement is good news, but its advent merely reflects the fact that the roadmap, the sole international political initiative of the intifada years to which disengagement was in many ways a reaction, was stillborn. Indeed, from Camp David II via the roadmap to disengagement we have narrowed our horizons, in the course of these years, from a conflict resolution mode to little more than conflict management.

Five years of intifada appear to have persuaded a majority of Israelis to readjust their strategic outlook: to prefer demography to geography, unilateralism to negotiations, strategic consolidation to strategic depth. At the tactical military level, too, these five years have produced innovations. On the part of the Palestinian side these comprised waves of suicide bombings and of Qassam rockets. The suicide bombings, in turn, provided the impetus for Israeli security innovations: the fence that has been remarkably successful in curbing the bombings, and targeted assassinations, a collection of highly sophisticated techniques that have been improved so as to radically reduce bystander casualties, and that succeeded, albeit temporarily, in decapitating the terrorist leadership. Both Israeli tactics, however necessary and successful, can do little more than contain the conflict, and have proven problematic from the moral and humanitarian standpoints. Moreover, Israel still has no effective defensive measure against the Qassams, and has now opted to reply in kind, with artillery–an escalatory measure.

The causal link is not only between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli military innovation, but between terror and political innovation, too–between the suicide bombings and Israel’s newfound reliance on the unilateral measures of both the fence and disengagement. Coupled with the Israeli public’s disillusion after the collapse of the peace process, the suicide bombings appear to have persuaded a majority of Israelis that, first, the Palestinians are not a viable peace partner, and second, Israel has to create a physical distance between itself and them without a peace process, i.e., by unilateral means. This dynamic evolved in the course of the past five years in a totally unscripted way: Palestinian beliefs to the contrary, there was no conspiracy, and the prime minister was dragged into it unwillingly by an anxious and insistent Israeli public.

How can a sixth year of intifada (some may call it a “third intifada”) be prevented or mitigated? By leaving more Palestinian land where we should not have stayed so long in the first place: the West Bank mountain heartland and Arab East Jerusalem. If a negotiated process is impossible–and at this juncture it appears that none of the necessary leaders, Sharon, Abbas and Bush, is a strong and viable candidate for negotiations–then more unilateral disengagement is called for. Completion of the security fence along a rational path that largely follows the green line and the settlement blocs will in any case reduce the profile of Palestinian violence. But if we don’t remove the remaining settlements, there is no chance that this conflict will ever end.