Like the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens and our own Max Boot, I, too, have been thinking a lot lately about the seven-year-old debate about whether Israel was wise to withdraw from Gaza. Both Bret and Max are of course right when they say that, looking back on it now, it is clear that the decision was a colossal blunder. Despite the assurances of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and many of the country’s military leaders, Israel’s security was compromised by the decision. It led directly to the creation of a Hamas terror state whose existence may not ever be undone. Just as troubling, Israel did not receive one bit of credit from the international community, let alone its foes, for removing every soldier and settler from the area. Bret summed it up nicely when he wrote:
Put simply, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect.
But unlike Bret and Max, I don’t feel obligated to offer any mea culpas about my position on the withdrawal. While I supported the move, it was not because I didn’t have doubts about whether the army was right about it being easier to fight Hamas outside Gaza rather than inside it. Nor was I under any illusions about Israel reaping any public relations benefits from the scheme. To the contrary, I was quite sure that, as was the case with previous territorial surrenders, it would merely increase the appetite of Israel’s enemies for more. So why didn’t those reservations compel me to take a stand against Sharon? It was because the decision to withdraw was the decision of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel. Indeed, I believe the defense of that principle — that Israel’s people must be accorded the right to make their own decisions about their fate — is a far more important duty for us today than the need to second-guess the decision of a leader and a government that has long since faded from the country’s political scene.
Opponents of the withdrawal have, understandably, never stopped reminding those of us who backed Ariel Sharon’s decision that it turned out to be every bit the fiasco they thought it would be and more. The talking points Israel gained by pulling out of Gaza provide more proof that the Palestinians haven’t any interest in peace, but it’s doubtful this changed the mind of a single critic of the country. But those Diaspora kibitzers who are now saying, “I told you so,” are still missing the key point about that debate.
It may be that Israel’s prime minister was dead wrong (counter-factual arguments that history would have been different had Sharon not been felled by a stroke months after the withdrawal are unpersuasive) and the majority of Israelis who backed him were equally mistaken. But, right or wrong, it was their decision to make and the Israelis are the ones who have had to live with the consequences.
Looking ahead to the next round of peace processing and pressure on Israel after the current fighting in Gaza is concluded, what friends of Israel have to keep in mind is not so much the rehashing of Sharon’s blunder but preserving the right of the Jewish state to go on deciding its own destiny.
The conceit of most of the country’s left-wing critics is that Israel must be saved from itself. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of Israelis have drawn the proper conclusions from the last 20 years of peace processing (including the Gaza withdrawal) and decided that there will be no more repetitions of the mistakes committed at Oslo or Gaza. This sensible decision frustrates Israel’s critics so much that even those who consider themselves friends of the country believe their judgment should supersede that of the Jewish state’s electorate.
But just as was the case of those Americans who opposed the Gaza withdrawal or the Oslo Accords, such a stand is simply inadmissible. Decisions about settlements, borders, Jerusalem and the territories must be made by those elected by the Israeli people, not by American Jewish wiseacres, be they of the left- or the right-wing persuasion.
No matter how strong the faith of Zion’s critics that the country is heading down the road to destruction, nothing should shake us in our conviction that no foreign power or foreign community has the right to dictate to Israel’s people. That is a principle that applies whether it is a matter of Israelis mistakenly making concessions that have come back to haunt them or, as is the case now, wisely refusing to take steps that would endanger their security.
Seven years after the Gaza withdrawal, it is useful to examine the mistakes that were made by Sharon. But the abiding lesson of that episode for us today is that, right or wrong, Israel must be allowed to make its own decisions.