A withdrawal from Gaza needed to create trust in Israel's intentions to ensure further progress in the peace process. The one that has occurred has failed to do so.
By Jonathan Lindley, Middle East and North Africa Programme
The Gaza Disengagement Plan has already achieved a remarkable result: re-injecting a sense of progress and anticipation into the Palestine-Israel peace process. However, this hubris is itself the enemy of clarity.
The Gaza withdrawal is not the ‘high water mark’ of the territory of Israel: Israel had occupied Sinai but renounced it following peace with Egypt in 1979-1980.
It is not the first time Israel has acted unilaterally, renouncing control of land without securing a promise of peace: in 2000 Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon without receiving any promises.
It is not the first time Israel has offered to relinquish Gaza: Begin offered Gaza to Egypt during the peace negotiations in the 1970s.
It is not the first time Israel has dismantled settlements in the biblical land of Israel: settlers were withdrawn from Sinai, in the face of the opposition of the right.
It is also not the first time Palestinians have had to face the challenges of territorial government: under the Oslo accords of the early 1990s Gaza and the West Bank became autonomous and faced the same policing challenges the withdrawal from Gaza will bring.
Finally, it is not the end of the Gaza issue: economic development, travel between Gaza and the West Bank and guarantees against future Israeli incursions into Gaza remain illusive.
None of this, however, renders the disengagement from Gaza any less significant. It remains the first time that Israel has withdrawn settlements from the contested area of Palestine that was divided in 1948. And it is doing so without any strings attached.
In this lie both the promise and the danger of the withdrawal from Gaza. Palestinian opinion, after five years of intifada, has great difficulty believing that the Gaza withdrawal is a gesture towards peace. They recall that the root of the plan’s unilateralism is in the Israeli refusal to talk to Arafat; they remember Prime Minister Sharon as ‘Godfather of the Settler Movement’ and as the ‘Butcher of Beirut’. For the past five years they have lived with intrusive measures for the security of others and restrictions on their basic liberties.
By withdrawing unilaterally, Israel appears to gain nothing from the disengagement: not even the ‘peace’ that is widely seen as their legitimate right under the widely accepted ‘land for peace’ formula. Gaza appears as a gift from the Palestine’s enemy: a Trojan horse, out of which will come a renewed Israeli hold on the West Bank. There is little reason why they should wish to give Israel’s intentions the benefit of the doubt, or believe that Israel would give something for nothing.
Failure to dispel this scepticism has been a critical weakness in the Israeli government’s strategy to use the Gaza withdrawal to kick-start the peace process. The withdrawals from a limited number of settlements in the northern West Bank have done little to dispel the image of Gaza as a tactical manoeuvre within the ongoing fight, and count for little against the hawkish asides of Sharon’s confidante, Dov Weisglas.
The Sharon government has failed to learn the lessons of the Sinai withdrawal: that any concession must look painful for the government of Israel- for the State of Israel- and not just fringe groups. In Sinai, the timing of the withdrawal could be explained by an Egyptian initiative and the success of Arab forces in the Yom Kippur War. Furthermore, the move was supported by US pressure and conceded by Menachem Begin with notable ill-grace. Above all, Arab opinion could see what they were being forced to give in exchange for Sinai. None of this is true of the Gaza withdrawal.
For the Gaza withdrawal to provide a basis for future peace talks, the concession must necessarily be matched by an Arab counterpart: not for the sake of Israel, but for what it does to Arab perceptions of the move. To provide a basis for future movement in the peace process the move must generate trust, and that can only occur if Palestinians think they understand why Israel has acted, and that Israel acted for peace. A withdrawal from Gaza could have done this, but the one we have got does not.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.