By Scott Lasensky
Supporters of Israel, not to mention Israelis themselves, are trying to make sense of Prime Minister Sharon's recent announcement about plans to dismantle Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. At first glance, it's easy to be unenthusiastic about such a unilateral step. But a deeper analysis reveals a range of benefits, prominent among them that such a move could save Israeli lives and improve the long-term prospects for a negotiated settlement.
Why is there so much unease? First, the idea of evacuating settlements in Gaza holds a false promise. Even if Sharon follows through, Israel will need to remain engaged in the day-to-day affairs of Gazans -- most prominently by maintaining a robust military presence at the border with Egypt, the boundaries with Israel and on the coast. Longtime opponents of the occupation wonder why they should get their hopes up if Sharon's promise is not tantamount to a withdrawal from Gaza.
Second, Sharon's proposal will not end Palestinian terrorism, not even in Gaza. In fact, in the short term, acts of violence may increase. Which leads to the third reason for unease: a potential security vacuum. In the immediate aftermath of such an evacuation the winners are likely to be Palestinian extremists, not Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and the moderates who are still willing to negotiate a two-state settlement.
Fourth, it is hard to see how removing 7,500 Israeli civilian settlers from Gaza promotes the peace process. The current American-backed peace initiative, the "road map," does not require such dramatic action from Israel. Moreover, Sharon's version of unilateralism carries the scent of disdain for resuming serious diplomacy with the Palestinians. Fifth, some fret that unilateral settlement evacuation in Gaza will "reward" Palestinian terrorism and damage Israeli deterrence. Sixth, cynics of all political stripes see Sharon's announcement as nothing more than a flagrant move to escape the darkening cloud of political scandal.
But scratch the surface and the potential merits of Sharon's initiative come into view. First, bringing the Gaza settlers back to Israel will save lives. Too many settlers, including children, have been killed, and too many soldiers have died in the last three years protecting settlements that most Israelis know serve no strategic or national purpose.
Second, removal of the settlements will be a morale booster for Israel's military. For the most part, Israeli soldiers have demonstrated a remarkable sense of commitment and unity. For example, very few have signed onto the public protest petitions circulated by soldiers who oppose Israeli policies in the territories. But there is a growing sense of weariness. Above all else, it is missions like guarding Gaza's settlers -- one of the deadliest jobs of the occupation -- that most demoralizes Israeli soldiers (and infuriates their parents).
Third, removing settlers from Gaza could give a boost to Israel's standing in the international arena. By providing unequivocal evidence that Israel's actions in the territories are rooted in a drive for security and defense, rather than in territorial aggrandizement, Sharon's proposal would make defending Israel on the international stage a great deal easier.
Fourth, a unilateral evacuation will not come at the expense of Israel's deterrent power. In fact, concerns about deterrence are largely misplaced. Let's not forget that traditional deterrence does not work with suicide terrorists (one of the gravest, but not the only Palestinian threat to Israeli security).
To those who still regret Ehud Barak's hasty and inelegant withdrawal from Lebanon, and who believe that Palestinians adopted Hezbollah's strategies and goals, the thought of another unilateral move raises alarms. But the withdrawal from Lebanon relieved Israel of a problem that did more to erode deterrence than promote it. Moreover, Lebanon is not Gaza. If a civilian presence in Gaza is not Israel's ultimate objective, withdrawing the settlers merely transforms Israel's remaining presence into a more rational, more strategic posture.
True, withdrawing the settlers could throw the Israeli political scene into upheaval, but it won't destroy Israeli deterrence. (Whether Sharon's prisoner exchange with Hezbollah damaged Israeli deterrence is another matter.)
Fifth, Sharon's proposal could unexpectedly pave the ground for future negotiations. Even if the prime minister's ulterior motive in relinquishing Gaza is to tighten Israel's grip on the West Bank, by removing this source of friction he could unleash a series of events that ultimately favor a resumption of negotiations. True, Palestinian extremists might gain in the short term, but the inevitable security vacuum will also increase demands for international intervention, perhaps along the lines of the proposal by former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk for an American-led trusteeship.
There's no guarantee the net effect ultimately will promote a peaceful settlement, but that's no reason to stick with the status quo. Is anything worse than the current mix of an intensifying Israeli occupation, thousands of deaths and growing anarchy in the Palestinian territories.
Finally (and most relevant to readers of this paper), Sharon's initiative has the potential to revive the debate in this country about America's role in Israel's future. With the collapse of the Oslo process, the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada and then the horror of 9/11, supporters of Israel in America turned to campaigns of unity and solidarity, and old habits like media vigilance, instead of pursuing an open and vigorous debate about what Israel might do to end its worst period of violence since the founding of the state.
A serious debate about the American role has also been missing. Rather than consider what Washington can do to end Palestinian violence against Israel (or address the increasing threat from Hezbollah), most of the pro-Israel leadership has only sought blank checks and blanket immunity for the Jewish state. Some community advocates may prefer a Bush administration that acts like Israel's bodyguard, but what rank-and-file supporters really desire (along with, ironically, many of Israel's leading strategic thinkers) is an American ally that behaves more like a big brother.
Remember the bodyguard from your schoolyard days? The big, tough guy ready to swing fists at any sign of provocation. The role of a bodyguard begins and ends with protection. But a big brother must also keep his ward's best interests at heart. The bodyguard deals only with present, visible dangers, but a big brother also keeps an eye on the horizon.
Stop for a moment and consider this fact. More Israelis -- men, women and children -- have been killed or injured in the last three years than in any comparable period since Israel's founding. Still, many supporters of Israel inside the Beltway continue to lobby against a more active American role.
Rather than a bodyguard like George W. Bush, what Israel really needs is a friend like Bill Clinton, or even Richard Nixon -- American leaders willing to extend whatever Israel needed for its defense, and to put America's military might behind Israel, but at the same time ready to encourage leaders in Jerusalem to take reasoned and responsible risks for peace.
As the merits of Sharon's Gaza proposal continue to be debated, Israel's advocates should consider whether their preference for the status quo -- particularly America's do-nothing diplomacy -- is truly in Israel's long-term interests, or whether it is simply the function of misplaced frustration about the ever-worsening social, economic, political and security challenges facing Israel today.
Scott Lasensky, who has served as a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, is a professor of international relations at Mount Holyoke College.