The Search for a Syria Strategy
What Biden Can Learn From Trump’s Successes and Failures
As the latest battle between Israel and Hamas in Gaza wears on, there are two schools of thought -- one on the right and one on the left -- about what Israel should do next.
The first take, on the right, is that renewed fighting in Gaza proves that Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 was a mistake. According to this view, the withdrawal empowered Hamas, inviting rockets from above and tunneling terrorists from below, while earning Israel no international credit for having ended its occupation of the coastal strip. That pattern, the thinking goes, would repeat itself should Israel disengage from the West Bank. For that reason, any pullout now would be dangerously misguided.
The second argument, on the left, is that Israel’s mistake was not that it disengaged from Gaza, but that it did not sufficiently support the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, thereafter. By failing to reward Abbas’ nonviolent resistance, this theory suggests, Israel robbed Palestinians of the hope that anything but Hamas’ rockets could achieve their aims. The best means of countering Hamas in Gaza, then, is to present an alternative in the West Bank and immediately return to negotiations with Abbas to demonstrate the efficacy of a nonviolent approach.
Both positions are understandable. Israel has fought a string of wars with Hamas since leaving Gaza in 2005, each more threatening to its civilians than the last. For that reason, maintaining some control in the West Bank seems to be the most sensible option. On the other hand, those hoping for more Israeli support for the PA would like Israel to bolster the notion that Palestinians can succeed without resorting to armed resistance. Yet closer examination reveals that neither of these positions is tenable. And, in fact, there is a third option. Israel correctly, if not faultlessly, disengaged from Gaza. And now, to protect itself in the long run, it must do so again from the West Bank. Israel must abandon the peace process in order to save the two-state solution.
Before Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, prominent policy figures within Israel had started reviving the notion of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. Disengagement, long supported by Ami Ayalon, the former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, earned the endorsement of Ehud Barak, then Israel’s defense minister, in 2012. More recently, Amos Yadlin, the former chief of Israeli military intelligence, wrote a policy brief arguing that unilateral withdrawal is the only viable option to meet Israel’s strategic goals while improving the prospects for future negotiations with the Palestinians. Meanwhile, in February, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, called for unilateral withdrawal should the peace talks led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry fail (which they did a few months later).
The most recent strife in Gaza, however, will likely silence these voices. For starters, Israelis widely regard their country’s previous unilateral withdrawals as unmitigated disasters. The Jewish state’s evacuation from southern Lebanon in 2000 emboldened Hezbollah; the group portrayed the withdrawal as a victory and then amassed weapons rivaling those of a standing army, setting the stage for the 2006 war. Similarly, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza gave Hamas the space to create a terrorist enclave replete with rocket factories and attack tunnels into southern Israel. Given this history, many believe, an Israeli pullout from the West Bank would place the country in unbearable danger, exposing its heart to West Bank rockets.
These concerns are valid, but they rest on several flawed assumptions. The first is that all disengagements are alike. In fact, Israel’s previous withdrawals failed for tactical reasons related to their specific circumstances. To begin with, the withdrawal from Lebanon took place following more than a decade of a war of attrition with Hezbollah, which led to a perception that Israel had been forced out in the face of armed resistance and increasingly bold militants on Israel’s northern border. Given that no rockets have been launched at Israel from the West Bank and that Hamas’ foothold there is tenuous, an Israeli disengagement would not be seen as handing Hamas a military victory. Israel would not withdraw from the West Bank in the same way it did from Gaza, either. When Israel left Gaza, it completely withdrew its forces and all settlers (albeit later maintaining, with Egypt, a blockade of Gaza’s borders). It did not determine the withdrawal line for itself because the borders around Gaza were already set. A disengagement from the West Bank would be different in both respects, as Israel would determine precisely how far to withdraw and whether to leave security forces (and if so, how many) in the Jordan Valley. This would provide the Jewish state with greater flexibility to protect itself.
The second assumption is that, absent Israeli control, the West Bank would automatically devolve into chaos as southern Lebanon did and as Gaza did under Hamas. In Lebanon, though, Hezbollah already controlled the country’s southern reaches before Israel withdrew and was thus perfectly positioned to solidify its control and launch another war. In Gaza, likewise, Hamas was well positioned to take over. The PA in the West Bank may be far from perfect, but it differs qualitatively from Hamas in terms of both temperament with regard to Israel and a willingness to refrain from rocket fire. In coordination with Israel, Abbas’ forces have prevented the smuggling of rockets into the West Bank and the creation of indigenous weapons factories. Even so, some critics suggest, soon after an Israeli withdrawal, Hamas could simply oust the PA from the West Bank, putting Israel’s population centers at risk from nearly point-blank rocket attacks. That possibility is not as likely as many would believe. Hamas’ footing in the West Bank was unsure before Israel’s efforts to root it out of the territory following the group’s abduction and killing of the three Israeli teens in June, and it has traditionally proven stronger in Gaza than it has in the West Bank. In addition, since the West Bank borders Israel and the Jordan River, Hamas likely could not replicate the kind of tunnel system that sustains it in Gaza, nor could it easily smuggle weapons aboveground. Even if Hamas staged a coup in the West Bank or the PA joined its rocket war, the means to amass a Gaza-level arsenal would be limited.
The facts on the ground in the West Bank are also different from those in Gaza. Gaza has always been more crowded and impoverished. When Israel withdrew completely, it lost every last shred of leverage there -- Hamas was not interested in negotiating toward a state, and there was little incentive for Hamas not to fire its rockets. In the West Bank, however, the economy is much better, the quality of life is much higher, and Palestinians there understand that they have much to lose in a large-scale Israeli military incursion. What’s more, whereas Hamas had no interest in negotiations, the PA may prove more willing to discuss final borders following an Israeli withdrawal that would almost certainly leave Palestinians wanting more.
The biggest fallacy in the argument against disengaging from the West Bank goes back to the heart of the debate -- whether the 2005 withdrawal was, indeed, the right call. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reluctance to now reoccupy Gaza hints that it was. Netanyahu, who resigned from the cabinet in 2005 to protest the disengagement, recently all but held his own cabinet hostage to ensure that no ministers went on record supporting a reoccupation of the territory. Netanyahu, it seems, has recognized that the true threat from Gaza is not rockets but occupation.
Hamas knows that it cannot destroy Israel militarily. Short of that, its strategy is to keep Israel bogged down in the territories and exploit the country’s true existential crises. First, by keeping Israel in its current position of blockading Gaza and occupying the West Bank, Hamas weakens the perceived legitimacy of Israel’s self-defense and exposes it to the increasing threat of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaigns and even to international sanctions. And by keeping Israel in the West Bank through its actions in Gaza, Hamas imperils the long-term viability of a Jewish and democratic majority in Israel. By maintaining its presence in the West Bank (or by reoccupying Gaza), then, Israel gives Hamas the closest thing it can get to victory.
Many in the center and the left in Israel propose escaping this dilemma by securing a peace treaty with Abbas. But a comprehensive settlement with the PA is as much a false hope as the reoccupation of Gaza. The last several years have demonstrated that Israel and the PA remain far apart on core matters, particularly Jerusalem, refugees, and the delineation of final borders. Simply put, Jerusalem and Ramallah have not yet found a lowest common denominator. And even if both sides somehow miraculously resumed where they left off -- and did so with the full support of their parties and publics -- the yawning gap of distrust between them would make a final status agreement nearly impossible. In the absence of any viable peace negotiations, disengagement is the best of an array of bad options.
Disengagement would create a de facto two-state solution, albeit an imperfect one. By withdrawing to the security fence rather than to the 1967 border, Israel would draw its own borders, incentivizing the PA to return later to negotiate a final settlement closer to its own preferences. It would also blunt international criticism of the occupation. Disengagement would thus allow Israel to alleviate, if not permanently solve, its twin existential concerns. Meanwhile, a withdrawal would give the PA a functionally independent state. This would allow it to discredit the catastrophic experiment of Hamas sovereignty and negotiate with Israel from a position of confidence. With this new reality established, both sides could postpone final border arrangements until a more suitable time.
A unilateral disengagement will not silence all the critics. To be sure, Israeli domestic support for another pullout would initially be weak, and the challenges of a disengagement from the heartland of Jewish tradition would be far more technically challenging and fraught than the withdrawal from Gaza. For the Palestinian public, Israeli control over large settlement blocs on the wrong side of the 1967 border will rankle many, as will an Israeli unilateral solution that does nothing to address claims of refugees and their descendants that have been harbored since 1948. The PA, meanwhile, may fear another Hamas-like takeover in the wake of a West Bank pullout and would likely object to any border demarcations that Israel made on its own.
The United States can and should help to overcome these legitimate concerns. Rather than foisting negotiations on Israeli and Palestinian leaderships that are not ready for a final status accord -- and in doing so inadvertently raising expectations that could spark further fighting -- the Obama administration should recognize that the time is not ripe for the traditional peace process. It can best foster the conditions for an eventual agreement by supporting disengagement now. Washington could ensure that Jerusalem coordinates its withdrawal closely with Ramallah by conditioning aid and security assistance for settlement evacuation on a smooth and surprise-free withdrawal. It could also offer Israel incentives to withdraw, including military resources to prevent the free flow of militants back and forth between Jordan and the West Bank and the acceptance of Israel into the U.S. visa waiver program. Additionally, it could vigorously advocate for Israel’s disengagement in the international arena, to prod Europe and other powers to reward the pullout. Meanwhile, to win Palestinian cooperation, the United States could support Palestinian efforts, short of International Criminal Court recognition, to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank. In coordination with other nations, it could launch a sustained Marshall Plan for the West Bank. And it could insist that the parties return to the negotiating table later to firm up final borders.
In the end, even if the worst fears of those who criticize unilateral withdrawal come true, Israel should still pursue this course. The recent fighting in Gaza demonstrated the efficacy of the Iron Dome system in shielding Israeli population centers from rocket attacks, and the technology will only be improved as Israeli engineers analyze the data from Operation Protective Edge. To address its security concerns, Israel is better off relying on such technical marvels than on an occupation that comes with added dangers. Israel thus faces this choice: address its international isolation and looming demographic takeover and manage security as best it can, or focus on security at the expense of all else. It would be smart to opt for the former.