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Israeli politics and policy are undergoing a revolutionary transformation—one of the most important developments in the nation's history. As dramatic as recent events have been, equally important is the emergence of a new strategic paradigm that reverses 30 years of debate and practice and overturns some of Israelis' most basic assumptions.
Why have perceptions, politics, and strategy changed so dramatically? The shift began when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered a complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, including the dismantling of Jewish settlements in those areas. Within a few months, Sharon's Likud Party had revolted against him; Sharon had quit Likud and formed another party, Kadima; the Labor Party had chosen a populist outsider as its leader; the governing coalition had collapsed, necessitating new elections; Sharon had been physically incapacitated by a stroke and replaced by a top deputy, Ehud Olmert; and Olmert had gone on to win in the March 2006 elections. Hamas' victory in the January 2006 Palestinian elections only underscored already existing trends.
The emerging new policy is based on a broad Israeli recognition that holding on to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is simply not in Israel's interest, despite the fact that the Palestinian leadership has been uninterested in and incapable of making peace and that both Fatah and Hamas will use that land to try to launch attacks on Israel. The territories no longer serve a strategic function for Israel, given the unlikelihood of a conventional attack by Arab state armies, and Israel could better defend its citizens by creating a strong defensive line rather than by dispersing its forces. Moreover, because a comprehensive peace deal is not likely to be reached for many years, the territories are no longer of value as bargaining chips. During the long era before the Palestinians will be organized and moderate enough to make peace, Israel has to set its own strategy based on these realities.
The international situation changed drastically in the 1990s, but until recently, Israel was too busy with shorter-term crises and closer-to-home issues to integrate new external realities into its thinking. The Cold War ended, the Soviet Union fell, and the United States became the world's sole superpower. In 1991, a U.S.-led coalition defeated Iraq and forced it out of Kuwait. Meanwhile, Arab states became less interested in waging the Arab-Israeli conflict; the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), after decades of battling Israel without achieving its goals, had reached a low point.
At first, it seemed that such changes—plus an accumulation of Palestinian defeats and internal troubles—would push Palestinian leaders, Syria, and most Arab states toward a peace agreement with Israel. The peace process was an experiment to see if this would in fact happen. In 2000, both Syria and the Palestinians (under the Clinton plan and the Camp David accords) rejected peace, proving those expectations wrong.
That result, most Israelis concluded, was not a product of some misunderstanding, U.S. or Israeli intransigence, a slight diplomatic misstep, or a need to make minor changes in the deal being offered. On the contrary, the Palestinian and Syrian leaderships were simply not ready for peace—because of radical forces and ideologies, hard-line personalities, extremist goals, and the fact that the conflict bolstered dictators who would otherwise have faced serious domestic problems. With their own hopes shattered, Israelis from across the political spectrum reluctantly accepted that the conflict would endure for a long time.
The Israeli response to this realization was defined by a historic Israeli debate over national strategy, the perceived lessons of the Oslo experience, and the Israelis' analysis of Palestinian political realities. A sector of the Israeli public had always wanted to keep the territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War for religious or nationalist reasons, but this was always a minority position and not—except in the case of East Jerusalem—government policy. The real galvanizing arguments for retaining the territories were strategic and diplomatic: first, holding on to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip gave Israel strategic depth, which it could use to defend itself against a conventional military attack; and second, the territories could be used as bargaining chips when there was a Palestinian partner ready to make a lasting peace—"territory for peace," as the slogan went. Labor and Likud alike invoked these arguments in supporting Jewish settlements in the territories. Both parties favored holding on to the West Bank and Gaza until real progress was made on the diplomatic front.
This position was rational for several reasons. For much of Israel's history, the main strategic threat to the country was a conventional war on its borders with Arab states. In this context, it was vital to possess the West Bank, especially, in order to control the Jordan Valley and use the north-south ridges to its west as positions to defend against an attack by Iraqi, Jordanian, Saudi, or Syrian forces. Holding the territories also gave Israel a buffer against Palestinian terrorists striking from across the border, a threat magnified from irritating to existential by the fact that such forces had Arab and Soviet-bloc help. At the same time, it was assumed that those "behind" Israel's defensive lines—West Bank and Gaza Palestinians—would present only a limited security problem.
That strategic concept worked very well for 20 years—until the first intifada in the late 1980s—and reasonably well for another decade. As time wore on and many Israelis came to believe that there was a real possibility of a negotiated resolution, the "territory for peace" argument became even stronger. That notion was the basis of the 1993 Oslo agreement with the PLO. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and other Israeli leaders thought that yielding territory would be the confidence-building measure that would persuade the Palestinians that Israel was ready for a deal.
Israel's experience with the Oslo peace process from 1993 to 2000 reshaped that strategic thinking. Believing peace was possible, Israel made big concessions and took real risks, and a majority of its leaders and people accepted the creation of a Palestinian state and withdrawal from almost all the territory captured in 1967 as tolerable compromises for peace. Israel recognized the PLO, let its forces—including many terrorists—return from exile to the West Bank and Gaza, and gave it guns and control over territory. This policy was based on the PLO's promises that it would recognize Israel and cease incitement to destroy Israel, stop its own terrorism, and dismantle groups based in the territories that were trying to attack Israel. Even as few of these commitments were kept, many Israelis argued that all these problems would be resolved when final negotiations began and the Palestinians saw real progress toward an end to the occupation and received a state of their own and billions of dollars in compensation aid.
But the Oslo process failed—and whatever Israel's responsibility for this failure, the Israelis concluded that the main fault lay with the other side. Until 2000, many Israelis believed that if they just kept offering and giving more—if they only did a better job of implementation or showed more empathy—it would be possible to reach comprehensive peace. This yearning, along with the blistering self-criticism so typical of Israeli society, inspired much wishful thinking. In the end, however, even a majority of the left came to realize that such optimism neither accorded with the facts nor provided a basis for policy—at least not if Israel was to survive.
When, in 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians an independent state with its capital in East Jerusalem in exchange for full peace, the Palestinian leadership passed up the opportunity. Instead, what followed was a five-year terrorist war in which over a thousand Israelis were killed—many of them with weapons Israel had permitted the Palestinian Authority (PA) to have and by gunmen Israel had released from prison or allowed to return to the territories. Anti-Israel incitement in official PA statements and in Palestinian schools, mosques, and media urged Israel's destruction and the murder of its citizens. Israeli concessions were turned into weapons that were used to kill Israel's people—a lesson not easily disregarded. Although they would have preferred not to reach this conclusion, the overwhelming majority of Israelis came to doubt that the existing Palestinian leadership would ever be a real partner for peace.
At first, the Oslo experience appeared mainly to have subverted the position of the left in Israel, but it actually proved that both the left and the right had been wrong. The left had thought that Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat would make a deal and keep it, and the right had expected him to make a deal and break it. Advocates of the process argued that if Arafat was offered a good deal—a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, much of East Jerusalem, an end to the occupation, and a lot of compensation money—he would make peace. The resulting Palestinian state would have a stake in maintaining stability and raising its citizens' living standards; Palestinian refugees would return with billions of dollars raised abroad; Arab states would line up to make peace; and the conflict would be over. Meanwhile, the right was critical of the peace process not because it rejected peace but because it assumed that the process was a trap. It thought Arafat would take the West Bank and Gaza, make a Palestinian state, and then use that state as a springboard to try to wipe Israel off the map. With cross-border attacks, and Arab states or Iran potentially sending arms and armies, there would be no end to the conflict—and Israel's strategic position would have deteriorated.
Neither outcome came to pass. No one foresaw that Arafat would be offered the bargain the left proposed, reject it, and resort to all-out war. For the Israelis, the year 2000 was a revelation. Palestinian and Syrian leaders thought ready for peace instead chose to continue the conflict. Palestinian leaders kept the refugees' "right of return" as their highest priority, which the Israelis saw as a sign that destroying Israel was more important to Palestinian leaders than ending the occupation. The Israelis concluded that their long-standing belief in the Palestinians' desire for peace was fundamentally flawed.
From then on, the Palestinian leadership was seen as being unready—and certainly not eager—for peace. The confidence-building process had failed. Concessions had come back to bite, rather than reward, the country. How, Israelis asked, could they respond to these revelations in order to develop a new approach?
Since the failure of the peace process in 2000, the thinking of the Israelis has been very much affected by the experience of having to defend themselves against one of the bloodiest onslaughts of terrorism in history, along with an international campaign to brand Israel a pariah state that does not deserve to exist. But other developments elsewhere also helped create a new strategic paradigm. These included the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the war on terrorism, Saddam Hussein's overthrow, the rise of an Arab democracy movement challenging the status quo, Arafat's death and the lack of any strong nationalist Palestinian leader to replace him, and the rise of Hamas and other radical Islamist movements in the Arab world. Many of these events increased the underlying sense in Israel that the problem stemmed not from Israel's lack of generosity but from the nature of its adversary. Achieving peace, the Israelis concluded, would be harder and take longer than they had hoped or expected.
At the same time, a number of other developments suggested that although the conflict would continue, it would not spread or escalate. For one, Saddam's fall removed a major threat. Meanwhile, other Arab regimes—challenged by Islamists and strategically weak—started to be willing to sacrifice some of their support for the Palestinians in exchange for improved relations with the United States. Even if they would not make peace with Israel, they also did not want war, and their support for the Palestinians hit rock bottom. And all of this reinforced the trends set off by the ending of the Cold War and the consequent shift in the international balance of power. Israel's security environment started to look very different. Arab armies and arms appeared less dangerous, and occupying territory became less important than having clear defensive lines that did not enclose a hostile population.
What emerged from the shock of the failure of Oslo and the five-year-long terrorist war that followed was a new synthesis in Israeli thinking: a national consensus along centrist lines, drawing ideas from across the political spectrum. From the left came the idea that Israel should withdraw from the captured territories, dismantle many of the settlements, and accept an independent Palestinian state in exchange for real peace. This melded with the right's belief that there would be no partner with whom to make real peace for a long time to come.
These two notions fused into a new paradigm, which dominates Israeli politics and thinking today, even as the Palestinians stick to a policy that combines weakness and intransigence. Although the Israelis' most optimistic hopes have been dashed, most Israelis now believe that the situation can actually be made more secure with the right approach.
The Israeli military played a considerable role in developing this new viewpoint. Its main mission, the generals concluded, had become patrolling the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where it protected roads and settlements while combating terrorists on terms largely set by the enemy. Not only did this stretch forces too thin, but it also sacrificed the strategic advantages Israel held. Moreover, protecting Israeli territory and citizens was made harder by the lack of a discernible or defensible boundary. This problem could not be remedied as long as the army was required to defend every Jewish settlement and deal with a large, hostile civilian population.
The idea of a defense based on a clear line laid out along advantageous terrain was far more attractive to strategists. Dangerously exposed settlements could be evacuated, and new security fences would offer additional protection to Israeli citizens. With the protection of marine patrols off the Gaza Strip, airpower, and short-term raids into the territories, the only remaining vulnerability would be from missiles fired over the frontier, which was as much of a problem when Israeli forces were actually on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza.
Along with the military officers, both Israeli politicians and the Israeli public recognized that adopting a sustainable framework for defense would mean giving up on the idea that the PA would ever be of help in fighting terrorism; experience had taught Israel that the Palestinian leadership was at best useless and at worst a de facto ally of terrorists. In an October 2004 interview with Haaretz, Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Sharon, said that for a long time, the "assumption was that when the Palestinian majority gets national satisfaction, they will lay down their arms and the occupiers and the occupied will emerge from the trenches and embrace and kiss." But Sharon understood that no Palestinian leadership would force a moderate policy on Palestinian society and that, in the words of Weisglass, "Palestinian terrorism is in part not national at all, but religious. Therefore, granting national satisfaction will not solve the problem of this terrorism."
The consensus was that there was little chance of a deal with the Palestinians due to the nature of their politics and their leadership. Virtually no one in the Palestinian leadership had really tried to alter that nature in the 1990s, and Palestinian leaders increasingly and openly endorsed radical positions after 2000. Whatever good intentions Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas may have, he is too weak to impose order or to make the tough decisions necessary for peace, especially given the absence of any strong moderate faction that could help remake Palestinian politics. While in control, Arafat's Fatah movement simply did not offer such leadership, and its corruption and incompetence were destroying it (as became evident with its downfall in the January 2006 elections). Moreover, the sheer multiplicity and fractiousness of the various Palestinian factions made the imposition of order—or any coherent policy, other than the lowest-common-denominator option of simply continuing the conflict—almost impossible. And even as Fatah was overwhelmingly dominated by extremists, including both unreconstructed old hard-liners and a younger generation that glorified the terrorism of the al Aqsa Brigades, Hamas was becoming steadily more powerful.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians' desire to eliminate Israel came to seem too strong, their glorification of violence too powerful, to overcome. It seemed that Palestinian leaders would never stop inciting terrorism or arming terrorist groups. Palestinian leaders, Palestinian activists, and the general Palestinian public continued to believe that total victory, meaning Israel's destruction, was possible. Even when polls showed the existence of more moderate views among average Palestinians, these never made it into the programs of the leadership, much less onto the agendas of the gunmen who attacked Israel and sowed chaos among their own people.
This analysis is summarized in Weisglass' description of Sharon's views, which were shaped in large part by Olmert, his closest lieutenant and now his successor. Weisglass explained: "Sharon doesn't think that after a conflict of 104 years, it's possible to come up with a piece of paper that will end the matter. He thinks the other side had to undergo a deep and extended sociopolitical change." Most Israelis saw no sign that this process was even starting. On the contrary, Palestinian politics was moving in the opposite direction, as the later election of Hamas would so clearly demonstrate. With Hamas in power, Abbas now has become even more powerless, Fatah is turning more radical and violent in a desperate attempt to compete with the Islamists, and there has been an intensification of incitement of the younger Palestinian generation to continue the struggle for many years.
The Israelis hope that someday things will be different—but they are aware that that day might be very far in the future. In case it does come, however, Israel's new policy has made clear its willingness to make a real compromise peace. Meanwhile, however, Israel needed a new strategy to fit existing conditions. In Weisglass' words, "When you're playing solitaire, when there is no one sitting across from you at the table, you have no choice but to deal the cards yourself."
When Weisglass said the peace process should be put in "formaldehyde," he did not mean that Sharon sought to kill it. One does not kill something with formaldehyde; one preserves it for the future. Weisglass was saying that Israeli policy must keep open the chance for successful negotiations with the Palestinians—but that there needs to be an interim era before that could happen.
This was the context in which Sharon decided on complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the dismantling of several West Bank settlements. As the next step, during the 2006 election campaign, his successor, Olmert, announced a policy of "convergence," in which Israel would withdraw from most of its remaining positions in the West Bank, dismantle many more settlements, and consolidate those "settlement blocs" that it intended to claim in the future.
The idea of separation between Israel and the territories has a bipartisan history. It was first raised by former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, of the Likud, then by Barak, of Labor. Unilateral withdrawal was advocated by Labor in the 2002 elections (although voters rejected the idea, and Sharon opposed it, when it was presented as part of an effort to persuade the Palestinians of Israel's good faith rather than as part of a coherent strategic policy). In his first years in office, Sharon was also unenthusiastic about building a security fence in the West Bank. Historically, the political right in Israel opposed this project for fear that it might demonstrate Israel's readiness to give up almost all of the West Bank. On this point, as on the question of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Sharon would make a total turnaround.
What happened to make Sharon completely reverse himself, to the point where many of his party colleagues denounced him? Olmert claims that he first introduced the idea, which, along with the defense establishment's analysis of the factors mentioned above, spurred a major rethinking by Sharon.
Certainly, Israel had never wanted the Gaza Strip for much except defensive purposes. In 1992, at the start of talks with the PLO, Israel's opening offer included turning over the Gaza Strip to Palestinian rule. Since 1994, most of the territory had been under PA control. A decade later, the Israelis were reluctant to withdraw not because of any intrinsic desire for that territory, but because of their concern that the area would become a base for attacking Israel. Many also worried that withdrawal from Gaza would be taken as a precedent for giving up all of the West Bank and be claimed by terrorists as a victory, thereby inspiring more terrorism and undercutting Israel's efforts to bargain about anything else. These were impressive arguments, but by 2004 they no longer persuaded even a historically hard-line prime minister.
Withdrawing from the Gaza Strip was still painful for Israel's leaders and citizens. The voluntary relinquishment of territory captured in an ongoing war when an opponent refuses to make peace (or even accept its enemy's right to exist) is virtually unprecedented. To reach a democratic choice, overwhelmingly supported by Israeli public opinion, to implement this disengagement, basic assumptions needed to be reconsidered. Could Israel redeploy without seeming to make this a victory for terrorism? Was the country ready to uproot citizens who had lived in Gaza for decades? Did redeployment mean giving up an asset in the negotiating process while getting nothing from the other side? Would the territory abandoned simply become a base for more terrorist attacks on Israel?
In changing the country's strategic concept, Sharon had to answer these questions—at the risk of paying a high political price. Before announcing his withdrawal plan, he was hugely popular on both the right and the left. His Likud Party was certainly solidly behind him, and he could continue as prime minister as long as he wanted. Afterward, his party split, with half of it furious and ready to replace him; his political future was in doubt, if only temporarily.
Sharon had a number of a strong motives for taking such a great political and strategic risk. He wanted his legacy to show that he was a moderate who sought peace and left his country more secure. But he recognized Israel's need for a sustainable strategic stance as long as a comprehensive diplomatic solution remained out of reach. He came to realize that holding territory was no longer strategically advantageous (and was perhaps detrimental in a long war of attrition) and accepted the demographic reality that Israel, if it did not change its approach, would soon be ruling over an Arab population outnumbering its own Jewish population. Sharon also wanted to put the ball in the Palestinians' court by forcing them to show whether they could govern a territory that was, for most practical purposes, a state. Turning over the Gaza Strip, said Weisglass, meant there were "no more excuses. ... The whole world is asking what they intend to do with this slice of land." In the end, Israel even turned over control of the Gazan-Egyptian border to the PA. In response to the argument that holding on to land provided a bargaining chip in negotiations, Sharon simply asked, What is the value of having bargaining chips when there is no one with whom to bargain?
Meanwhile, Sharon believed that security fences would offer a viable line to which Israeli forces could withdraw and that, having won the 2000-2005 war, Israel could redeploy its troops on its own terms—the result of a victory over terrorism rather than a defeat by it. Israel could still retaliate as needed, and alternative defensive security measures seemed promising. According to polls, about 80 percent of Israelis viewed unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank as attractive.
If Palestinian policy had been different, the withdrawal could have initiated real progress toward peace. If the Palestinian leadership had been able to maintain order, stop terrorism, and make the Gaza Strip a showcase for a moderate Palestinian state, it would have garnered support internationally and within Israel for a comprehensive settlement. Few Israelis expected this to happen, but the withdrawal was a genuine chance for the Palestinian leadership to prove such skepticism wrong. It has not.
Translation of the new paradigm for Israel's strategy into action began with a move by Sharon that not only left out the Palestinians but also was made without consulting his own party. When the dust cleared, the political realignment put Labor on Sharon's left, his new Kadima Party in the center, and Likud on his right.
Those remaining in Likud, now led by former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, took the traditional stance of trying to hold on to all the remaining territory captured in 1967, agreeing that the current Palestinian movement was no partner for peace but rejecting the new paradigm intended to respond to this situation. Yet even in Likud, a large faction led by former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom basically accepted the new Sharon-Olmert strategic concept.
Labor focused on an entirely different part of the national consensus. Since its past eagerness to make concessions was so discredited, it emphasized domestic social issues instead. At the same time, its leaders essentially accepted the new strategic paradigm, a stance that hardened after Hamas' electoral victory.
Kadima embodied the new national consensus—and thus won the March 2006 elections. The common goal of its diverse members and supporters was to prioritize the new strategic agenda: ensuring Israel's security by strengthening its defenses against terrorism, rejecting wishful thinking, and consolidating control over those relatively small portions of the West Bank that Israel intends to claim as part of a diplomatic settlement.
All of this rethinking and recasting of policy happened before Hamas won the January 2006 Palestinian elections. When the Israelis concluded there was no Palestinian partner for peace, they were thinking of Fatah and Abbas, not Hamas. The Hamas victory only reinforced this view, and also proved its accuracy to many foreign observers.
With Sharon incapacitated and Kadima's victory inevitable, Olmert's party did not do as strongly as expected in the March elections. Some voters stayed home; others cast their ballots to express support for special-interest parties. Nevertheless, those parties endorsing the new paradigm generally did well, and those of the far left or far right did very badly. Having made clear his plan before election day, Olmert could claim that he had received a mandate for it.
The basic elements of the new paradigm now constitute the program of Israel's new government and probably will for a long time. Israel wants peace. It is ready to be flexible, to take risks and make concessions, and to agree to a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip. The goal is not occupation but security and the right to exist as a society not under foreign attack. At the same time, the Israelis believe that there is no partner for peace, nor will there be one anytime soon. A few scattered, ambiguously "moderate" statements by Hamas will not fool them into thinking Hamas has changed, especially as it continues inciting, facilitating, and endorsing terrorist attacks.
Olmert's "convergence" policy is the expression of these beliefs. In an April 9 interview with The Washington Post, Olmert offered a succinct summary of that policy: Settlements outside the security fence will eventually be removed and their residents "converged into the blocs of settlements that will remain under Israeli control. ... The rest of the territories will not have any Israeli presence and will allow territorial contiguity for a future Palestinian state." Israel's goal, which it will seek on an interim basis, is to have borders fairly close to, but not precisely coinciding with, those of the pre-1967 period.
A key factor in this defensive orientation will be completion of the security fence to protect Israel from attack, but with efforts taken to minimize Palestinian suffering, including altering the fence's route in response to Palestinian suits in Israeli courts. Another vital element will be Israel's retention of the right of military action to prevent terrorist attacks, including missile firings, and to ensure that those carrying out such operations will not be able to do so in future.
Despite its critical evaluation of Palestinian politics, Israel will try to help moderate Palestinians, but it has no illusions about their strength or the extent of their pragmatism. What is important is not whether Israeli officials meet with Abbas or other Palestinian officials, but whether there is any reason to believe such discussions could have a real result.
Finally, given this new consensus on peace and security issues, the Israelis are focusing on domestic socioeconomic issues. Israel has succeeded remarkably well in building its economy and infrastructure and increasing its living standards given the great strains brought about by security needs and spending on settlements. Yet changes of recent years, many of them paralleling trends elsewhere in the world, have widened socioeconomic gaps, undercut Israel's sense of community, and kept health-care, educational, and other institutions from being better. With a new security paradigm in place and many old debates concluded, the Israelis believe the time has come to focus on such problems.
This revolution has promoted national unity. Those who think Israel can obtain peace simply by giving up more, as well as those who think Israel should keep all the territories, have been pushed to the margins of both politics and debate. Facing reality and making the best out of difficult conditions have triumphed over wishful thinking. This is the kind of approach that suits an Israeli political culture that has always focused on the art of the possible. Relative optimism, in this case, is the result of making the most of an apparently insoluble situation that would otherwise seem to engender only hopelessness.