Bitter Fruits of Occupation
Whatever the circumstances and regardless of the Palestinians' internal struggle, Israel must recognize that continued occupation is not only non-sustainable but insidiously eroding rather than enhancing its own national security. This is why a responsible Israeli government must develop a framework for withdrawal and implement it in stages at a pace consistent with prevailing conditions. Time is not on Israel's side. The longer it holds onto the territories, the greater and more ominous the danger.
Despite this reality, after nearly 40 years of occupation many Israelis still argue, especially in the wake of the withdrawal from southern Lebanon and Gaza, that their country is safer because of the occupation. The truth is that by any measure, the years of occupation have set the stage for ever-growing resistance to Israel not just by the Palestinians or the Syrians, but by the larger Arab and Muslim communities. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and many other moderate Arab states feel threatened and undermined by external and internal forces that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have galvanized. The social, economic, and political plight of the Arab masses are manifested in ever-growing expressions against the West and their own governments for failing to end the Palestinian crisis by ending the occupation. Even more ominously, the occupation has provided Islamic extremists, both Sunnis and Shiites, with the rationale and the motivation to wage an existential struggle against Israel. Iran is now leading this crusade by attempting to de-legitimize Israel's very existence. Israel is being portrayed as the cause of all evils, a notion reinforced by the occupation and the endless violence. If the situation continues, in a few years, Israel will find itself pitted against a regional, if not global, Islamists movement bent on its destruction–a prospect only the most irresponsible and oblivious Israeli government can ignore.
Yet, many voices in Israel, chief among them Likud's leader Benjamin Netanyahu, promise the people peace for peace but have never articulated how they might achieve that miracle without relinquishing Arab land. Right-wing Israelis should know that no improvement, not to speak of normalization of relations, is possible with the Arab and Muslim world until Israel decides to end the occupation. Their argument that the withdrawal from southern Lebanon and Gaza has simply made these areas into staging grounds for more violence is disingenuous. Unlike the complete Israeli withdrawal from Egypt and Jordan, the pullout from Lebanon has not been settled entirely (Hezbollah continues to claim the Sheba Farms); while the withdrawal from Gaza is seen as partial, since the West Bank remains occupied. Only by ending totally the occupation, will Israelis be able to walk the high moral ground and be viewed as justified in dealing with Palestinian provocations however they deem appropriate, because they will then be acting not as an occupying force but as defenders of their homeland.
Wounded politically by the war in Lebanon, Prime Minister Olmert may be too weakened, at this juncture, to stick to his original plan of withdrawing unilaterally from most of the West Bank. In addition, the violent internal power struggle among Palestinian groups precludes, at least temporarily, major territorial withdrawal even through negotiation. This situation is, however, transitory; in contrast, ending the occupation must remain the very core of Israel's strategy. If withdrawal from the territories seemed a good idea when the Kadima party was created, it is even more so now. Withdrawal must occur under any formula that Israel can work out–as long as its national security is not compromised–with the international community, especially the quartet of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia. Meanwhile, Mr. Olmert needs to send clear signals that he remains committed to the idea of ending the occupation by: a) making it abundantly clear that he will not tolerate the building of illegal outposts and will dismantle all existing ones, b) ending the expansion of existing settlements with only minor exceptions, c) providing economic incentives and sustainable development projects to Palestinian communities that do not engage in violent activity, d) removing all road blocks that are not absolutely critical to Israel‘s security, e) allowing Palestinians to legitimately build, plant, and develop their land with no undue restrictions, f) forsaking any form of collective punishment and, finally, g) releasing all prisoners who came from Palestinian communities that have not been actively engaged in violence. With or without the support of the Palestinian Authority and regardless of the Authority's political convictions, Israel must build positive inroads into the Palestinian community because; in final analysis, Israelis and Palestinians must co-exist.
Israel must remember that the present inability of Palestinians or Syrians to recover their land by force offers a false reprieve because it does not improve the Israeli position over time. Israel can hold onto the territories for another 50 years and at the end of that period, the occupation will remain the beating heart of the conflict-except that Israel will have been consumed by the agony of self-defeat for not realizing that it was betrayed rather than buttressed by time.