All Writings
August 15, 2005

An Opportunist’s File

Israel must regain the high moral ground before it can defeat Palestinian militancy

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is one of the most significant developments in the long and violent struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, with the potential of changing the dynamic of the conflict and bringing it closer to a negotiated solution. Opponents of the pullout, especially former finance minister Benjamin Natanyahu, are reckless gamblers ready to trade Israel's future for their own ambition. To suggest that the Gaza withdrawal undermines Israel's security, as Mr. Natanyahu contends, is baseless and dangerously misleading. Better than most he knows that the occupation is the core of the conflict and Israel can never reclaim the high moral ground it needs to deal effectively with Palestinian militancy unless the occupation ends. In his recent letter of resignation from the cabinet, Natanyahu cites a litany of innuendos, charging that the withdrawal will only bring new peril to Israel. But he does not offer a shred of evidence to show how continuing occupation reduces, let alone will end, Palestinian militancy. "It is becoming increasingly clear that the unilateral withdrawal under fire does not give us anything," he writes, in fact: "The opposite; it endangers the security of Israel, divides the nation, and set the principle of withdrawal to the 67' lines that are not defendable." One might ask how has it become increasingly clear? If Mr. Natanyahu is alluding to Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, the whole world knows that even though Hizbullah continues to have some territorial claims (the Shiva Farms), the level of violence between the two countries has actually diminished to mere nuisance levels. In the present situation, yes, Hizbullah and Hamas and other Islamic groups have claimed that Israel is withdrawing under fire, and they will continue to make such claims no matter under what conditions the pullout takes place. That they do is a matter of culture imbedded in the national psyche of a people under occupation and also, as a means to sustain their political and military relevance in the eyes for their followers. But if we look beyond such rhetoric, we see that at a minimum, and to Prime Minister Sharon's credit, there exists a cease fire reinforced by a major effort by the Palestinian Authority to prevent shooting at Israelis during the withdrawal.

In his letter, Natanyahu also rhetorically asks, "What are we receiving for uprooting families with their children, their homes, their graves!" He then answers himself, "We will receive an Islamic terror base." It is the prolonged occupation and the miserable existence of most Palestinians in Gaza that have already created the "terror base" he fears will result.

Surely, neither the Palestinian's militancy nor their demand for more territorial concessions will necessarily end with the withdrawal from Gaza, but there must be a beginning to their ending. Unlike his predecessor Arafat, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is committed to a peaceful solution, and Israel must strengthen his hand to give peace a chance. For how much longer, Mr. Natanyahu, must Israelis and Palestinians die on the altar of misguided policies such as yours that have brought nothing but death and destruction? With Israelis out of Gaza, Israel will be much freer to deal with violent provocations by inflicting intolerable damage to militants should the violence persist.

Natanyahu also contends in his letter that "The international community understands more and more that it is impossible to fight terror by running away from it, because the accumulating experience shows that the terror only strengthens and pursues us." No one suggests that we should run away from terror, but terror does not end by simply killing would-be terrorists. This course the Bush administration has pursued since 9/11, and it has met with dismal failure. We must deal with the root-causes of terror and the root-cause of Palestinian terrorism is the Israeli occupation. Yes, some people may disagree, and yes, radical Palestinian groups like Hamas openly seek the destruction of Israel itself and see the recovery of all territories captured in the 1967 war as a first stage to this end. They mean what they say, and no Israeli leader should take their pronouncements lightly. Yet again, as long as they have nothing to lose, they will continue to make untenable demands. The second Intifadah has caused the utter ruin of the Palestinian infrastructure, economy, and institutions. Poll after poll strongly shows that a clear majority of Palestinians want an end to the conflict. They are sick and tired of the bloodshed and of looking into a hopeless future. Give them something of value to lose–an opportunity to grow, flourish, educate, and build–and the people will fight their own militants because they want to live and prosper. But if that turns out to not be the case, once Israel rids itself of the stigma of occupation, it can then walk the high moral ground and deal with Palestinian aggression in a forceful manner that leaves no doubt that there will be no Palestine or Palestinian way of life established on Israeli graves. This is the lesson the Egyptian, Jordanians, and Syrians learned in the 60's and 70's that ended the infiltration of terrorists into Israel from their territories.

Typical of Natanyahu's putting party interest above that of the nation in his letter of resignation is his accusation that "A balanced government that reflects the will of the people in the last election has turned into a government that carries out automatically policies that oppose the principles of the Likud and the mandate that we received from our voters."It is true that a relative majority of the Likud party opposed the Gaza withdrawal, but then the overwhelming majority, 69 to73 percent (depending on the poll) of Israelis, support the pullout. Prime Minister Sharon, who no one can accuse of being a less fervent nationalist than Natanyahu, and who is indeed the father of the settlements, has finally but correctly concluded that it is impossible demographically, politically, economically, and certainly from a security perspective, to sustain the occupation while preserving the national identity of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Mr. Sharon ran for election on a platform that called for peace with security. No member of Likud, including Natanyahu, can possibly be under the illusion that peace or security can be secured without major territorial concessions. Sharon has shown statesmanship and incredible resiliency in dealing with the political storm precipitated by his withdrawal plan. Can Natanyahu make the same claims? He, like the other Likud ministers who quit their government posts, may have remained loyal to a strict party line, but at the cost of betraying the Israeli public because they have placed their personal and untenable ideology of greater Israel above the national interest.

Near the close of his letter, Natanyahu invokes patriotism: "Now in these days before us, the need for reserve, control and responsibility from all parts of the nation and the government is greater than ever." How hollow and disingenuous. What control and responsibility is he alluding to? Does being shortsighted and a quitter symbolize control and responsibility? Israel has had more than its share of suffering and loss, and it is time to coalesce around a leader who can pull it out of the morass of occupation. A small segment, perhaps representing no more than17 percent of the Israeli population, cannot impose its will on the majority. If Natanyahu were a true patriot he should listen to the people, young and old who paid with their blood, a price that his family too has paid but he apparently has forgotten why. Israelis have made the ultimate sacrifice to live in a free and democratic nation. Israel was not created to rule and occupy other people and in the process lose its reason for being as a home and a refuge for the Jews.

Natanyahu concludes his letter by saying: "I am not prepared to be a partner to an irresponsible move that endangers the security of Israel." He may as well say this, for Natanyahu does not deserve any credit for what might turn out to be a watershed in Israeli-Palestinian relations. His resignation, just days before the withdrawal, raises questions not just about his personal integrity but about his intentions and manipulative designs. In an editorial, Israel's leading newspaper Haaretz summed it up aptly, stating that the resignation, "Puts him, finally, in the spot that suits him as the leader of the extreme right in Israel . . . [and he] cannot be accepted by the public as suitable candidate for a future prime minister."

In the end, Natanyahu is a demagogue who will say and do anything to become prime minister again. Many Israelis remember his unwillingness when he held that office between April 1996 and May 1999, to live up to many of the Oslo provisions, his stifling of every opportunity for progress with the Palestinians, and, only under intense American pressure, his making some minor concessions. When these policies greatly contributed to the increase in violence, he was forced to go for an early election to seek a new mandate, only to lose to Labor's Ehud Barak. Now, as then, he is pursuing a dangerous course that offers no compromises to the Palestinians, and which, in the unlikely scenario of his becoming prime minister again, will inevitably ignite a perpetual bloody conflict that destroys any prospects for a negotiated settlement. He and his policies must therefore be rejected.