Commentary Magazine


Questioning Max

A few days ago, Max Boot cited my post about the reduction in terror in Israel in 2007, suggesting that this proves that Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza strip was the right move. I’d like to question Max’s conclusions.

The arc of Israel’s conflict with the Arab and Muslim world is a long one, and it begins with the belief, prevalent throughout the Arab world, that if Israel cannot be defeated through direct armed conflict, it can be brought to its knees through terror. This was first employed in the early 1960’s–before Israel ever captured the West Bank and Gaza–when Egypt and Syria helped create Fatah and the PLO, the two Palestinian terror groups which were later united under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. The idea was that just as the French had been successfully driven from Algeria through terror, so too could the “colonialist” Zionists from Palestine. This has remained the central tenet of Arab terror, the article of faith upon which all of it seems to rest, whether it be “Islamist” or “secular.”

In conceding Gaza, Israel’s actions were interpreted as a major vindication of that reasoning. How else can we interpret Hamas’ immediate rise to power, when polls had previously shown only a minority support for that organization among Palestinians? Nor should we be too surprised at the ricochet effect to Israel’s north, in which Hezbollah, encouraged by a rising Iran and Hamas, needed to prove its own worth by throwing itself into a headlong terror conflict with Israel? That war last year, it will be recalled, began with Hamas’ successful kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, followed just days later by a copy-cat crime by Hezbollah. Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza may have had a short-term benefit in Israel’s freedom to fight terror, but in the big picture, it seems unlikely that it did anything other than (a) bring to power an enemy far more hostile to any long-term resolution with Israel and the West, and (b) put a lot of wind into the sails of the West’s enemies.

Contrast this with the conditions which allowed Israel to turn up the heat on Hamas: It is true that world opinion shifted in favor of Israel. But such shifts have frequently proven to be of temporary value. They depend, to a great deal, on political winds that rustle like the autumnal leaves we are still enjoying in Jerusalem in January. Five or ten years from now, with a different Washington and a different Europe, Israel’s green light may have long turned red, and Hamas’ continuing rise may convince the diplomats of realism that Israel must deal with Hamas instead of Fatah as the new representative of the Palestinians. Israel’s defense will be forgotten, but the concession of land will be long remembered as the starting point for the next phase of war.

Military conflicts, like the football games that imitate them, are often a matter of momentum: When the tide shifts against one side, psychology kicks in, a narrative of defeat emerges in people’s minds, and collapse is at hand; when it shifts back, a narrative of victory prevails, and everyone gains the courage and strength to pull it together and muster new resources. Major events like the withdrawal from Gaza remain in memory for decades as a key building block to conceptions of who’s winning and who’s losing, of what is needed to defeat the enemy. Regardless of its (evident) advantages, the withdrawal was seen by most people in the region as a massive setback for Israel and a victory for the logic of terror. The effects of this go way, way beyond the number of terror attacks launched against Israel from Gaza–beyond into the West Bank, to Lebanon, even to Tehran, where the calculus of momentum is constantly being reconsidered. This is a price we may have scarcely begun to pay.