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Israel's $64,000 Question By: Ted Lapkin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Since Ariel Sharon's accession to the post of Prime Minister, political commentators have been hotly debating whether the conservative Israeli leader will end up "doing a De Gaulle."  Charles De Gaulle was another right-of-centre former general who assumed his nation's highest office in the midst of a seemingly insoluble military crisis - the French Algerian War.

During the French elections of 1958, De Gaulle successfully campaigned for the presidency on the slogan "Vive l'Algérie Francaise!"  Yet, upon assuming office, the new head of state shocked the world by severing the ties that bound France to its North African possession, and promoting Algerian independence.

Ariel Sharon's recent declaration of his intention to dismantle most Israeli settlements in Gaza might indicate that those who argued in favour of the De Gaulle scenario were right.  But, it remains to be seen whether such a unilateral withdrawal will enhance Israel's security, or detract from it.

On an operational level, Sharon's plan to uproot 17 of 21 Gaza settlements will make the life of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) much simpler.  Thousands of Israeli soldiers would no longer be required to guard vulnerable Jewish communities situated in the midst of a large and hostile Palestinian population. 

But, any tactical advantage gained by a redeployment of Israel's troop strength could be more than offset by the strategic disadvantage incurred by the fillip any such retrograde Israeli action would provide to Palestinian terrorist groups.  This is arguably what happened in the year 2000, when Israel summarily withdrew its forces from a buffer zone it had created along its frontier with Lebanon. 

Established in 1985 to protect Israel's northern border communities from terrorist attack, this narrow band of territory became a theatre of war between the IDF and Hizbullah Islamic fighters.  While the conflict in the "security strip" constituted a classic low-intensity combat scenario, it nonetheless could be quite deadly.  Throughout the late 1990s, Israel was losing, on average, about one soldier killed per month in Lebanon.

From a purely military perspective, such a casualty rate was inconsequential.  With its dedication to realistic live-fire exercises, the IDF lost more men each year to training accidents than were lost to combat operations in Lebanon. 

Yet, this incessant progression of casualties provided plentiful political ammunition to a growing public campaign in favour of a complete IDF withdrawal from Lebanon.  The locus of this advocacy effort centred on the "Four Mothers Movement," a group of middle-aged women who demanded the removal of "our sons" from the buffer zone. 

In May 2000 Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered the IDF to abandon the security strip, thus fulfilling a campaign promise from the previous year's election.  But, less than four months following Israel's pullback from Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza erupted in a wave of violence and terrorism that continues to this day.

Some analysts directly connect those two events.  Writing a year after the pullback from Lebanon, Brigadier General (retired) Shlomo Brom of Tel Aviv University stated:
"it appears that the withdrawal from Southern Lebanon had a great influence on the Palestinians.  It reinforced the perception among them that Israel is vulnerable to terrorism and guerrilla warfare, and that the staying power of the Israeli public has been damaged."

So, Israel finds itself in a very difficult position.  With an economy deeply mired in recession and with a population demoralised by suicide bombings, many Israelis find the prospect of disengagement from Gaza to be an extremely appealing concept.  Moreover, some analysts would note that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is facing the prospect of criminal indictment on corruption charges, and is in dire need of political pick-me-up. 

The supporters of withdrawal from Gaza argue that the removal of settlements, and the resulting redeployment of IDF forces, will greatly enhance Israel's defensive posture.  Yet, the $64,000 question is whether the Palestinians will interpret a unilateral pullback as a sign of Israeli weakness.  If this becomes the prevailing perception in the West Bank and Gaza, then Israel's withdrawal could bring, not quiet, but rather violence of redoubled intensity. 

One leading Israeli dove recently tried to differentiate between the Lebanese withdrawal of 2000 and the current Sharon proposal for a pullback from Gaza. "I think there's a basic difference because Lebanon was an adventure," said Hebrew University Political Science Professor Shlomo Avineri. 

Yet, with a charter that declares its dedication to Israel's annihilation, it remains to be seen whether a Palestinian terrorist group like Hamas will accept any such a distinction. 

Ted Lapkin is Senior Policy Analyst for the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.


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