Focus on Disengagement and Democracy
Part 2 – “Defining the Jewish State” by Asher Susser – appears below.
Israel and the Palestinians:
Defining the Jewish State
The following is a summary of a presentation by Asher Susser to an IPF audience. Susser is a distinguished Professor of History at Tel Aviv University and Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw settlements and troops from the Gaza Strip is probably the most important decision that any Israeli government has made since the establishment of the state. This withdrawal is absolutely necessary to preserve Israel as we know it.
If Israel does not go through with the disengagement plan, it will find itself faced with a one-state dynamic: the occupation will continue, and Israelis will gradually see the development of a single state in between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And in that state Israeli Jews will be the minority. That would be, to put it simply, the end of Israel.
What Sharon is doing with the disengagement plan is regenerating the two state dynamic, which was on the retreat in the last four or five years of war between Israel and the Palestinians. Sharon is creating conditions on the ground: Israel will withdraw from Gaza shortly, and there will probably be further withdrawals from the West Bank in the next phase. This new situation will be conducive to the formation of two states living side by side.
A two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in Israel’s interest. And paradoxically, this is a time where Israel has more of an interest in the creation of a Palestinian state next door than the Palestinians themselves do. If there is no Palestinian state the Palestinians can sit and wait for the one state dynamic to take over and put Israel in an unenviable position. Whereas the two-state dynamic will lead to a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. The creation of a Palestinian state will help Israel define itself, very similar to what happened in Jordan seventeen years ago. They disengaged from the West Bank in order to define Jordan as Jordan, and not to confuse Jordan with Palestine.
The very fact that Israel can act unilaterally gives Israel much greater room to maneuver than ever before. Sharon can withdraw from Gaza and much of the West Bank even if the Palestinians cannot get their act together to fight terrorism and function politically. If Israel waits for the Palestinians, it creates a situation of dependency: Israel’s most vital interests would hinge on whether Fatah or Hamas had control of the Palestinian Authority. This is a situation Israel cannot afford. Mahmoud Abbas is doing what appears to be his best to contain Hamas, but his best may not be good enough. Fatah seems to be in disarray, and if Israel is totally dependent on whether Fatah can take control of the Palestinian Authority and win the elections for the Palestinian parliament in the summer, Israel will be placing itself in a rather poor position.
The fact that Sharon has made the unilateral decision to evacuate settlements, the fact that it went through the Knesset, and the fact that people in Gush Katif seem to be coming around to accept a nonviolent transition into Israel, indicates that this is indeed a new chapter in Israel’s history.
Abbas’ election as president of the Palestinian Authority, together with the fact that there will be elections in the summer for the Palestinian parliament, are also critically important developments. Not because they foretell democracy in the Palestinian Authority - which they probably do not - but because they represent the institutionalization of the Palestinian state in the making. These are the institutions of the Palestinian state-to-be in the West Bank and Gaza Strip separate from the PLO (which represents Palestinians throughout the world, particularly the Palestinian diaspora, a population for which Israel has no great solution). Sharon’s withdrawal plus this institutionalization of the Palestinian state in the making simultaneously accelerates the two state reality, which is absolutely critical to Israel’s future. This is an historic turning point which is of enormous importance.
A New Middle East?
Why is this possible now? This is possible now because the Middle East is changing. It is possible for Israel to seriously consider withdrawing from territory unilaterally because Israelis feel much less threatened by the region. The Arab world is weaker than it has ever been relative to Israel. This is not just because of the American action in Iraq. The American action in Iraq was possible in itself because of this decline of the Arabs, and the fact that the Americans have taken over Iraq and destroyed its military infrastructure makes Israel more secure. Israelis can think differently in terms of territory and security. In some respects, territory is no longer an asset of security; it has become a demographic liability.
At the same time, Iran is emerging as a greater threat, which provides all the more reason for Israel to think seriously about reducing its level of conflict with the Palestinians. With a threat from Iran, it matters not whether the West Bank is under Israeli control. The Iranian threat is of a totally different category for which territory is no advantage whatsoever.
It’s also important to address the consequences for Israel of regional democratization. I’m a bit more skeptical than the American press about the “domino theory” of democracy bursting out of Iraq. This is not exactly the way it’s seen here in the region.
What happened in Iraq in the January elections was the victory of the Shia and the Kurds over the Sunnis (who did not participate in the elections because they did not want to participate in their own political funeral). What the Americans have done in Iraq is dispossess the Sunnis and to empower the Shia. That does not necessarily signify democracy in our time, but it does mean that there will be a Shiite Iraq. It also means that Shiite Iran will have greater influence in the region. The American action weakened Syria considerably, emboldening those in Lebanon who want to see the Syrians leave. Their high-profile protests are about Lebanese independence of Syria – they have little to do with democratization as such.
Democratization in the Middle East is a great ambition, but it’s not clear whether it serves Israel’s long-term interests. It probably won’t happen anyway, but even if it did, it could very well empower those who would not exactly be the ideal partners for Israel in the future. Those who would probably take advantage of democracy in the countries adjacent to us are the Islamists, whether it is in Egypt, in Jordan or in the Palestinian territories.
In this ocean of Arab inaction and disarray, it is only Israel that has the power and the wherewithal to reshape the regional agenda. Sharon, of all people, is the man of the moment. I would not have believed years ago that I would ever be saying this. But if it were not for him, I cannot see the person in Israeli politics who could perform the role that Sharon is performing now: he is doing for Israel in the Gaza Strip what Charles de Gaulle did for France in Algeria.
In short, this is a moment of decision for Israel, not only in terms of territory, but also in terms of defining what kind of country Israel will be. Will Israel be a secular liberal democracy in which elected governmental institutions make the decisions, or will it be the rabbis who decide what constitutes the holy land?
These decisions are about the very nature of the Zionist enterprise, and Israel is taking a turn in the right direction: territorial contraction and the preservation of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. After all, that is its raison d’être.
by IPF staff in Washington, DC and Jerusalem.