Straddling the Fence
Israel's controversial security barrier is not the harbinger of a new stalemate, but a catalyst for political change.
To many outside observers, Israel's security fence is a symbol of failure, a razor wire-festooned monument to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's inability or unwillingness to negotiate a final peace settlement with the Palestinians. But what the fence actually represents is the failure of Israel's rival ideologies -- and, ironically, a way out of the stalemate that has afflicted both sides of the Green Line.
To many outside observers, Israel’s security fence is a symbol of failure, a razor wire-festooned monument to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s inability or unwillingness to negotiate a final peace settlement with the Palestinians. But what the fence actually represents is the failure of Israel’s rival ideologies — and, ironically, a way out of the stalemate that has afflicted both sides of the Green Line.
For decades, the left preached that if Israel made the Palestinians an offer they couldn’t refuse, then peace would be achieved. Yet, when former Prime Minister Ehud Barak made such an offer at the 2000 Camp David talks, the Palestinians not only refused but reverted to terrorism and suicide bombings (blessed in this way or the other by then Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat). For its part, the right proclaimed that if Israel hit the Palestinians hard enough, they would give in. Well, Israel did hit the Palestinians — repeatedly, in harsh and cruel ways — and though this tactic reduced the ranks of suicide bombers, it did not stop terrorism.
Eventually, the security fence emerged as the only alternative. And lost amid the international outcry over the legality of the barrier is the undeniable fact that it’s working. Israel is more or less returning to normal life, with people no longer afraid to walk the streets.
Such news is small succor to the right, which had long opposed the fence on the grounds that it ended the dream of a "Greater Israel" encompassing Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). Yet, it is Sharon, the standard-bearer of the right, who — after initially opposing the idea — supported the fence and then committed the even greater heresy of announcing his intention to dismantle all Jewish settlements in Gaza and an isolated few in the West Bank. Sharon did not become a dove. As prime minister, he simply understood what he had failed to see when he was a general or defense minister: Israel’s security does not depend on whether it controls this hill or that wadi, but whether it has a strategic understanding with the only power that can meaningfully support Israel: the United States. Sharon realized that Israel needed U.S. support to maintain its strategic edge, ward off unfriendly attempts to isolate it internationally (especially at the United Nations), support its basic positions on borders and refugees in eventual negotiations with the Palestinians, and last but not least, lead the international effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
This strategic understanding with the United States, however, had a price tag. Israel would have to put an end, one way or another, to most of the occupation, while also creating an effective barrier that would end the brutal cycle of retaliation between the Jewish state and the Palestinians. And the only way Sharon could pay this price was to strike a bargain with the left, because the more extremist ideologues in his own Likud Party and two smaller right-wing parties stuck to their guns and left his government. As such, the Gaza disengagement and the security barrier are not the harbingers of a new stalemate, but catalysts for forward momentum. With Labor in the government, the pressure for further disengagement from the isolated settlements on the West Bank will continue. Eventually, Sharon will have to comply, as he will depend on Labor for his government’s survival.
On the other side of the Green Line, Arafat’s recent death helped end the stalemate by unblocking Palestinian politics in ways that were unthinkable only months ago. Although the election of Mahmoud Abbas has not brought to the Palestinian leadership a person different from Arafat in his basic principles, it is obvious that the atmosphere has changed dramatically. Lo and behold, Abbas has denounced the armed struggle. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has urged Palestinians to support Sharon because "he is the only one." And for good measure, Egypt is now helping Israel and the Palestinians coordinate post-withdrawal security in Gaza.
The evacuation of the Gaza settlers, coupled with the completion of the fence and an end to the constant cycle of suicide bombings and reprisals, could move both societies toward a less confrontational mode. Under these circumstances, it will be easier for the Palestinian leadership to maintain the Weberian monopoly of force and avoid a further descent into a scenario like that in Lebanon, where lawless armed militias roam the land. Tough decisions are still required from both sides: The Israelis must accept that many of the settlements will have to go, and the Palestinians must come to terms with the fact that the 1948 refugees and their descendants will not be returning to Israel proper. Ironically, it is the security fence — the solution no one favored — that may make such tough decisions possible by creating an atmosphere of relative tranquility that has eluded so many diplomatic "confidence-building" measures in the region.
Politicians such as Sharon should be judged by their acts, not their statements. There are few cases in which an army forcibly evacuates its own population from what is considered part of its homeland. Yet, due to the emerging political dynamics that are largely of his own making, it now appears that the "Bulldozer" (one of Sharon’s less offensive nicknames) may be as good as his word when he promised to make "painful concessions" four years ago. It couldn’t happen to a nicer man.
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