To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin is apparently under the illusion that the mass expulsion of Jews from their homes in further acts of “disengagement” is a sound alternative for Israel [“Israel After Disengagement,” October 2005]. He feels that if Israel were to undertake such a “bold and courageous decision in order to help solve its conflict with the Palestinians,” Europe and other countries would welcome Israel back into the comity of nations. Even the Arab powers would be relieved to know that the battle between the Palestinians and the Israelis had at long last ended.
All this could be achieved, Mr. Halkin writes, if the U.S. were to declare that after withdrawing from the West Bank, Israel would be in “full compliance with UN Security Council resolution 242,” and the U.S. would recognize its borders with the Palestinian Authority. No doubt, he concedes, there would be continued trouble from Palestinian irredentists, but the situation would be “infinitely preferable to the present state of affairs.”
Does Mr. Halkin’s desire for Israel to be accepted by Europe and others merit a third major retreat by Israel after the disasters of Oslo and Gaza? How far does he think the U.S. will go to oppose Arab demands for the Arab refugees’ “right of return” to Israel? Would he be shocked if the Arabs waged another intifada to secure such a right? He does not consider that the Arab states need the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to continue so that they can avoid dealing with their own problems.
To the Editor:
At the beginning of his article, Hillel Halkin expresses doubts about the wisdom of the Gaza disengagement and the strategy behind it, and about the ability of the Israeli populace to endure another, larger-scale disengagement from the West Bank. By the end of the article, he has overcome his doubts and is willing to support the evacuation of Jewish areas in Judea and Samaria if the United States were to step in and guarantee the resultant borders.
Why should the U.S. government support Mr. Halkin’s plan? President Bush has insisted that progress toward peace depends on the growth of democratic institutions among the Palestinians. But Mr. Halkin, like Ariel Sharon, is not interested in Palestinian democracy or even in a peace process. All that matters to them is Israel’s ability to retreat behind its security fence and its U.S.-certified borders.
I believe that Bush and Natan Sharansky have it right, and that it is a mistake to ask nothing of the Palestinians. Without some kind of decent society and government in the Palestinian areas, Israel cannot be assured of its safety from rockets launched over the security fence, or from explosives smuggled into the country among the thousands of Palestinian workers and their vehicles that will continue to enter it legally.
Nor, it must also be said, will decent Palestinians fare too well in an anarchical or despotic Gaza and West Bank. This should at least give pause to all those who press for unilateral Israeli withdrawal on moral or humanitarian grounds. (“Hard-liners” like myself are supposedly disingenuous when we say such things.)
Under a negotiated settlement with a decent Palestinian leadership, however far off that seems today, Jews would (one hopes) be able to live and travel in the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, just as they can today. The unilateral action that Mr. Halkin advocates would forclose this possibility for the foreseeable future by giving in, for all intents and purposes, to the Palestinian desire for territory that is Judenrein. And to what fate would his withdrawal consign the Jewish landmarks, monuments, and holy sites in these areas? No doubt they would be destroyed as quickly as the synagogue in Gaza was torched the day Israel withdrew from there. One does not have to be a messianist to be troubled by the abdication of Jewish and democratic self-respect that Hillel Halkin’s proposal entails.
Gilad Bar Hen
Rosh Pinah, Israel
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin has now changed his mind three times in the pages of Commentary. In 2002, he argued that the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip should stay. In 2004, he reversed himself and supported Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan. Now he concludes that the strategy behind disengagement has been “revealed as unworkable.” Still, he proposes that Israel negotiate with the U.S. to disengage from close to 90 percent of the West Bank, in exchange for which the U.S. would recognize the resulting borders, endorse them as complying with UN resolution 242, and “guarantee” Israel’s “interests” in Jerusalem.
But Israel has already negotiated the way forward with the U.S. In his April 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon, President Bush promised that the U.S. would not support any peace plan other than the Road Map, which requires that the terrorist organizations and infrastructure be dismantled before any further large-scale withdrawal on the part of Israel. Bush also committed the U.S. to support “secure” borders by which Israel could “defend itself, by itself”—which undoubtedly requires a permanent Israeli presence in the unpopulated areas of the Jordan Valley. Finally, the U.S. recognized it as “unrealistic” to expect a withdrawal from major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria. Rather than propose new Israeli concessions, the focus should be on commitments the U.S. has already made.
Los Angeles, California
To the Editor:
In December 2000, just after the Oslo process had collapsed and the second intifada had begun, Hillel Halkin asserted in Commentary that “unilateral separation” by Israel from the Palestinians and the “evacuation” of settlements would not “reduce the level of violence” between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians would follow with “a unilateral declaration” of a state “claiming as its borders the 1967 ceasefire lines between Jordan and Israel.” As long as Israel kept any portion of the land captured in 1967, the Palestinians would use violence to try to recapture the “occupied” parts of their state.
Mr. Halkin further predicted that the ongoing struggle with this Palestinian state would be difficult for Israel. “Israeli settlements would be left in putative Palestinian territory . . . , easily reached by Palestinian infiltrators and Palestinian bullets.” He contemplated the construction of a security fence, but did not think it would solve Israel’s security problems. As he wrote, “fences work both ways: while making it more difficult for the enemy to enter your territory, they hinder you from entering his in response or in hot pursuit.”
The disengagement plan that Ariel Sharon announced in 2003 turned out to look remarkably like the unilateral separation that Mr. Halkin warned against. True, the second shoe has yet to drop; Sharon has not yet announced a plan for withdrawal from the West Bank. But I am more confident than Mr. Halkin that a second disengagement will occur. In any case, I cannot understand how he can reconcile his support for that policy with what he himself in 2000 called “Israel’s nightmare.”
Mr. Halkin now writes that disengagement would reverse “the propaganda push to depict Israel as an apartheid state in which ruling Jews victimize helpless Palestinians.” He admits that this image has been fed by “anti-Israel sentiment in [Western] media and intellectual life,” as well as by “large and feared Muslim populations” in Europe. Does he really believe that disengagement would mollify Israel’s adversaries? Even if the U.S. were to follow Mr. Halkin’s advice and declare Israel to be in compliance with UN resolution 242, this would most likely be taken as further evidence of America’s unqualified support of Israel.
If Israel’s past leaders had been obsessed with international opinion, they would have never been able to take the military measures necessary to fend off Israel’s enemies. Ultimately, a state’s primary responsibility is to provide its inhabitants with physical security. It must never compromise that security in the furtherance of other political and diplomatic objectives.
The Allies did not return self-rule to the countries they occupied after World War II until they were sure that decent, non-fascist governments that would not threaten international security were in place. Why should Israel surrender territory to a Palestinian state that would continue to threaten its population? One of the most important indicators of whether a Palestinian society has become decent enough to be granted statehood would be its willingness to accept a Jewish minority in its midst. Shamefully, the Palestinians have demanded the right to exclude Jews from their state. Even more shameful is the willingness of most of the rest of the world to champion this demand.
Mamaroneck, New York
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin searches for a “realistic” escape for Israel from the present unholy state of affairs in the Middle East. But all he can come up with is retreat, fences, and (primarily) American guarantees. Then, perhaps, the Arabs and the world will agree to allow a truncated Israel to exist.
This is an illusion. The smaller and weaker and more vulnerable a country (and yes, the less strategic depth you have does make you more vulnerable, even in the age of missiles), the less able it is to protect its vital interests. Mr. Halkin fantasizes that America might step in and with a resounding declaration recognize and guarantee Israel’s new border, but when a sovereign nation cannot take care of itself, its chances for continued existence are slim.
Mr. Halkin states unequivocally that “in the absence of a negotiated agreement, Israel cannot afford . . . to remain forever in the greater part of the territories.” How does he know? Who says Israel cannot stay put in the meantime and see how things develop? Based on the past 150 years, it seems to me that the only thing that will constrain Israel’s less-than-neighborly neighbors is for Israel to hang on, stay strong, and protect its interests without apologizing or seeking anyone’s approval. \
Maaleh Adumim, Israel
To the Editor:
Whether or not one thinks it was beneficial for Israel to leave Gaza, a national government has no business telling its citizens where they may or may not live outside its borders. This is a matter for the individual and the local jurisdiction. The forcible removal of the Israeli residents of Gaza during the disengagement signified that the Israeli government agrees that Palestinian jurisdictions should be free of Jews.
There was also no need for Israel to retreat all the way back to the pre-1967 border. The Jewish villages in the northern part of Gaza could have been left under Israeli control. They were not isolated within Gaza but rather contiguous with pre-1967 Israel and situated on the Israeli side of the fence separating it from the Palestinian areas of Gaza.
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin is a consistently astute observer of Israel, but his recent contribution to Commentary begs to be debated. His thesis, put succinctly, is that while Ariel Sharon was able to concentrate enough political power, and the security forces enough logistical power, to leave Gaza, the effort and fallout were so great, and the national trauma so intense, that there can be no replay in the West Bank. The only way forward would be an American assurance that moving back to the security fence would be recognized as Israel’s completion of its obligations under UN resolution 242. He captions this basic proposition with the pithy statement that “the disengagement was a failure.”
Except that it wasn’t, as demonstrated by the most significant part of the story, which Mr. Halkin somehow manages not to mention: the realignment of Israeli politics under way since Sharon forced the disengagement through the Knesset last year.
No Israeli leader since Ben Gurion has ever been elected prime minister more than twice. No Israeli leader, including Ben Gurion, has ever left his party and remained an important political force. By late November 2005, Sharon was poised to do both. This is no fluke, no momentary aberration. Rather, it is an expression of the most significant development in Israeli politics in decades: the Center has defined its own program, has found its voice, and has lost its patience with the pristine but useless policies of the Left and Right. The Center wishes to complete the security barrier and then find the way to move behind it.
What Mr. Halkin has overlooked is the high degree of acceptance of this Center program evinced by all sides over the past year. Once it has been confirmed by the electorate, even most settlers will accept it—not eagerly, not without demonstrations, but without a need for the drastic measures he fears.
Israel will do what it needs to do on its own, not as the result of a change in American policy.
Hillel Halkin writes:
Let me begin with the criticism, made by Rick Richman and Martin Krossel, that I have been a chronic mind changer. Since Mr. Richman and Mr. Krossel have probably been reading Commentary for fewer years than I have been writing for it, they may not be aware that, over the past thirty of those years, I have changed my mind about what I consider the best way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exactly one-and-a-half times.
From 1974 until recently, I believed in and argued for a two-state, Israeli-Palestinian federation with open borders, a shared Jerusalem, and Jewish settlers living in a demilitarized state of Palestine just as Palestinians live in Israel. Some time after 2002, as Mr. Richman correctly observes, I gave up this belief because, though still of the opinion that it represented the most rational and equitable solution, it no longer seemed practicable to me. Perhaps I should I have reached such a conclusion earlier, but in that case, my problem has been obstinacy, not inconstancy.
As for the remaining “half” a mind change, I continue to believe today, just as I did in 2004, that given (1) the impossibility of reaching a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians that Israel can accept or put its trust in, and (2) the fact that even after disengagement from Gaza, Jews are a precarious majority in the whole of the territory now controlled by Israel and are on their way to becoming a minority, a unilateral withdrawal to borders determined by Israel’s military, demographic, political, and historical interests is the best alternative. All that has changed since 2004 is my assessment, in the wake of the Gaza withdrawal, of the political circumstances that would make such a step possible in the West Bank as well.
Messrs. Richman and Krossel, joined by Marvin Maurer, Gilad Bar Hen, and Yaffa Ganz all believe that Israel, rather than proceeding with unilateral disengagement, should sit tight, tough it out, and wait until developments among the Palestinians make them reliable partners for peace. Since none of the five speculates about how long this will take, the question would appear not to concern them.
It should concern them, however, because with every year that goes by, roughly twice as many Palestinian as Jewish babies are born to each family between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, and the Jewish population of the West Bank, not all of it concentrated in the “settlement blocs,” continues to grow. Perhaps, indeed, if Israel does wait 10 or 20 or 30 years, a more responsible, even genuinely democratic Palestinian leadership will emerge. But by then disengagement will be impossible and the Jewish majority west of the Jordan will have either disappeared entirely or shrunk to a few percentage points, so that all that will be left to negotiate is the terms of the bi-national state that will replace Israel. Is this what my correspondents are for? And if not, what exactly are they for?
Because I do not underestimate the dangers that Israel may have to face once a unilateral West Bank withdrawal is completed, there is no need to wave them in my face. But what the critics of unilateralism ignore that it is not enough for them to explain why it is dangerous; they also owe us an explanation of why demographic swamping is less so. A few months ago I wrote a series of columns in the Jerusalem Post, whose readers are if anything more hawkish on Israel than Commentary’s, challenging them to come up with a practical plan for dealing with the Palestinian population of the territories that they do not want Israel to give up. I received a large number of replies. Each was more magnificently detached from reality than the next. Would Marvin Maurer, Gilad Bar Hen, Rick Richman, Martin Krossel, and Yaffa Ganz like to give it a try, too?
I agree with Kenneth Preiss that there was no need to give up the two or three small settlements at the northern end of the Gaza Strip that are contiguous with Israel; this may yet turn out to have been a mistake, just as the surrender of every inch of Sinai to Egypt was a mistake because it set a precedent of total withdrawal that Israel was subsequently expected by the Arabs and most of the world to live up to elsewhere.
My sympathies are also with Mr. Preiss when he says that “a national government has no business telling its citizens where they may or may not live outside its borders.” Indeed I argued a year ago, again in the Jerusalem Post, that it was wrong to insist that the Gaza settlers leave their homes; it was enough to inform them, I wrote, that on such and such a date the Israeli army was leaving Gaza and that they were welcome to join it. Those preferring to remain behind should be allowed to do so and to negotiate their own future with the Palestinian Authority.
Could this have worked? Might it have led to surprising new forms of cooperation between the settlers and the Palestinians? I must say that my confidence in my own proposal was somewhat shaken when I was told by a young cousin of mine, a Gaza Strip settler himself, that he thoroughly agreed with it. “And what would happen if it were adopted?” I asked him. “I’ll tell you what would happen,” he replied. “We’d get volunteers and weapons from all over, declare independence, and kill every Palestinian who got in the way.” Perhaps forcible evacuation was not such a bad idea after all.
I agree with Yaacov Lozowick that the Center in Israel, long deprived of the political representation that it merits, has now “found its voice” and would like to see Israel disengage from the Palestinians. But I never maintained otherwise in my article. My point there was simply that much of this Center, too, will shrink from a West Bank withdrawal ten times larger, more difficult, more expensive, and more painful than the withdrawal from Gaza unless it feels assured that this is the last withdrawal that Israel will have to make. Such an assurance can come from the government of the United States alone.