On Sunday, May 2, 2004 Ariel Sharon faced what may have been his biggest challenge. His right-leaning Likud party rejected “unilateral disengagement” from the Gaza Strip, even after the full blessing of President Bush on April 14. The majority vote of “no” that emerged from the party referendum revived one of the most divisive scenes Israel has seen in a while. Indeed, the rejection of disengagement may have saved Israel from the fireworks of more than 20 years ago, when Israel withdrew from a settlement in the Sinai peninsula called “Yamit.”
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historical visit to Jerusalem in 1979 was a dramatic shift in Arab-Israeli relations. As part of the eventual Egyptian-Israeli agreement, then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin returned the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel conquered during the 1967 Six Day War.
When Begin was elected in 1977, the Israeli settler movement saw one of their own become the head of government. For the settlers, leaving Sinai under the Camp David agreements meant evacuating Yamit –a settlement that came to be known as the Jewish capital of Northern Sinai. That evacuation dismayed members of the settler movement, Gush Emunim, and many of them stood strong in the face of the Israeli army, which was sent to forcibly evacuate them.
Today, with the prospect of unilateral disengagement from Gaza, many of those same settlers who were forcibly relocated to the Gaza Strip after the 1979 peace treaty fear that they will once again be relocated from their homes.
The question is: would it be worth it? Does the transfer of the settlements in the Gaza Strip really act as a catalyst for achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians?
As the defunct Oslo peace process demonstrated, far-reaching territorial concessions on the part of Israel does not necessarily bring peace. During the last round of peace talks in 2000, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to uproot the majority of Israeli settlements and withdrawal from over 90% of the disputed territories, the Palestinians balked. This suggests disengagement from disputed territories will not get to the root of the problem. Rather, before disengagement takes place, peace requires permanent acknowledgment from Palestinians that they peacefully accept Israel’s existence.
Some might say that Israel gained peace from its withdrawal from the Sinai.The cold (perhaps frigid) peace between Israel and Egypt is, of course, even after 25 years still far from perfect. Egypt has withdrawn its ambassador from Israel, and Mubarak refuses to visit Israel. Trade between the two countries is minimal. In addition, Egypt still portrays Israel as she did pre-1979 – as an enemy. As professor Shlomo Avineri of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem writes, “The Egyptian press, mainly under government control, is scathing in its depiction not only of Israel and Zionism, but also of Jews in general, with state TV presenting vitriolic anti-Semitic programs; Egyptian academics, artists and sport teams refuse to visit Israel; no Israeli has ever been invited to an Egyptian university; and Egyptian schoolbooks continue to present Israel in the same way as when the two countries were at war.”
Israel and Egypt are able to have peace because there is border between the two countries and they are two territorially separate states. Palestinians and Israelis do not have such a luxury. Despite negotiations for a two-state solutions, the Palestinians ultimately seek all of Israel as their own and every proposed border is seen by one side as an attempt to take more land from the other.
Sharon no doubt recognizes that the Palestinian Authority under Yasir Arafat is not Egypt under Anwar Sadat – or even under Hosni Mubarak. The conflict will continue as long as Palestinians refuse to accept the idea of compromise for a two-state solution. Thus, the Israelis must impart the message that it would be better for Palestinians to work on finding new political leaders and working with Israel to secure a compromise peace. For Palestinians to reach that conclusion, Israel needs a strategy that forces them to recognize that terrorism will not bring them rewards. That means among others things a sustained war on the Palestinian terror groups that disrupts operations, ruins their morale and keeps their leaders (while they live) looking over their shoulders. Anything less will be a failure, which is why unilateral withdrawal from Gaza is inherently risky.