Two schools of thought

A large majority of Israelis today favor separation, or, in Israeli parlance, disengagement. Indeed, the only exceptions are the political extremes, the settlers on the right and Palestinian citizens of Israel on the left, both of whom favor ongoing integration, though with radically different purposes in mind.

Yet among Israeli supporters of disengagement or separation there are also two very different schools of thought. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and parts of the non-religious right, who have only recently adopted the idea of disengagement, appear to favor an Israeli withdrawal from all or most of the Gaza Strip and from a much smaller portion of the West Bank–possibly only a few settlements in the north. Their objective is not clearly stated. Sharon refuses, at least publicly, to endorse the demographic rationale for separation, although some evidence suggests that this is his primary reason, and concentrates on the security context. He also appears to believe, without any foundation in reality, that the territory remaining under Palestinian rule can, by gerrymandering and creative construction of overpasses and bypasses, somehow be construed as "contiguous," and that it will, once abandoned by Israel, be seen by the world as a viable state.

Some of the right wing advocates of disengagement pay lip service to the notion of renewing negotiations regarding additional parts of the West Bank at an indeterminate time in the future, with a more responsible Palestinian leadership. But they also insist that the partial Israeli withdrawal they envisage must be sustainable over the long term–that it constitute a political "solution." Accordingly they seek to thicken the pattern of Israeli settlements in those parts of the West Bank where Israel remains–the Jordan Valley, greater Jerusalem and western Samaria–and if possible to use fences to define this area, which totals around half the territory. Moreover, because Sharon continues to do nothing to stop settlement expansion even inside the areas allegedly slated by him for Israeli withdrawal, his commitment even to limited disengagement is not fully credible in the eyes of many.

At the other end of the Israeli disengagement spectrum are those, primarily on the left and center, for whom separation or disengagement means Israeli withdrawal from the entire Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank, with the exception of the Jordan Valley, the green line settlement blocs and East Jerusalem. They would signal the Palestine Liberation Organization that this is an interim measure, that those parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem that remain under Israeli rule are being held temporarily, pending a renewal of negotiations, and that their status will not be altered in the interim. They want the fence to follow the green line and favor a Palestinian state with borders based on that line. And they have a clearer set of rationales: the demographic threat to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, improvements in Israeli security, and the need to negotiate a two state solution with a more responsible Palestinian leadership as soon as possible.

The Bush administration in Washington employs rhetoric that appears to reflect general support for the Israeli center-left approach: a green line fence, no action taken that might prejudice an eventual two state solution based on the 1967 borders. But its involvement in the conflict has never been particularly energetic, and it has already displayed a dangerous propensity to acquiesce in unilateral moves by the Sharon government, such as settlement construction, that more closely approximate the right wing approach.

Both schools of Israeli thought cite Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s record supporting or tolerating terrorism and his failure to convincingly acknowledge Israel as a legitimate Jewish state, and reject the option of negotiating with a Palestinian leadership led by him. This is their shared point of departure for the disengagement or separation idea. Both stop short of advocating any sort of severing of infrastructure and labor ties. They recognize that cutting these links would cause extreme hardship for Palestinians, hence more instability and extremism. Both recognize that this sort of separation will not end Palestinian terrorism, but both believe that disengagement coupled with fencing will at least ameliorate the day-to-day security situation for most Israelis.

There are exceptions to these camps and there are grey areas in between them–Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s ideas fall into such a grey area–but by and large this describes the views held today by an overwhelming majority of Israelis. For Palestinians, who are understandably apprehensive about Israel’s plans, as well as for Israelis who fear that the Jewish nature of Israel will be compromised by demography, the key difference between the two Israeli schools of thought is absolutely crucial.

One approach uses separation to perpetuate overall Israeli control and prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. In so doing it actually endangers the viability of the Israeli state. Because the Palestinian statelets it creates will not be viable, Israel will be held responsible, while Palestinians will abandon their quest for a two state solution and begin to insist on "one man, one vote".

The other Israeli approach remains committed to a viable two state solution–it certainly does nothing to preclude it–while creating better conditions for Israel to survive in the interim as a Jewish and democratic state, and better conditions for Palestine to improve its own security control. But it does not guarantee a successful two state solution.

For that we need not just Israeli, but also Palestinian and American leaders with a more realistic strategy for peace and long term coexistence.