Friday, October 09, 2015

Unilateral Withdrawal: Something Everyone Can Agree On

Unilateral withdrawal is not a popular idea in Israel right now. The dominant narrative is that Israel tried that in Gaza (and Lebanon), and was met with rockets and terrorism from Hamas (and Hezbollah). I'm in what I take to be a pretty distinct minority in thinking that unilateral withdrawal was a success, albeit not a rousing one. Did it lead to peace? No. But it wasn't like there was peace when Israel still maintained an occupying presence. And my general sense is that both Israelis and Palestinians would be better served if their conflict could be reformulated into a standard, not-particularly-remarkable dispute between two sovereign nations; rather than the current ghastly hybrid of independence war cum counter-insurgency cum war of survival cum border dispute cum everything else that we have now. So while I'd be of course very happy if unilateral withdrawal and the establishment of a Palestinian state provided permanent peace and happiness to Israelis and Palestinians alike, the point is that even if it doesn't it's still no worse under that dimension than the status quo, and comes with significant other benefits besides.

Liel Liebovitz has an article in Tablet today that makes a conservative case for unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank along roughly the same lines as I outlined above. It begins with a lot of tendentious hyperbole purporting to show that the sole cause of any Israeli/Palestinian animosity is irrendentist Palestinian maximalism and/or Jew-hatred, and that anybody who thinks that the ongoing occupation or lack of a Palestinian state might also play a role is a dupe. This is nonsense of the same degree and caliber as the idea that the conflict persists solely because of Israeli aggression and oppression as against saintly Palestinian suffers. The truth is, of course, that there is plenty of blame to go around and plenty of bad actors and bad acts on both sides of the equation that play their part in preserving the delightful status quo.

But the point is that, for purposes of this argument, none of that matters. As Liel observes, it is a silly mistake to premise unilateral withdrawal on the idea that it will create a perfectly just, tolerant, and peaceful state of affairs between Israel and Palestine (and within each nation) such that we'll all wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place. I mean, maybe that will be the result -- in which case, huzzah! -- but it's not a requirement for success. If a viable, functioning Palestinian state is created and its first move is to lob rockets at Israeli border towns, well, that's no different than what we have now, except for the fact that it would be definite expression of Palestinian sovereignty and the resulting conflict would be no different from any other armed conflict between sovereigns. Liel's view of the likely outcome of unilateral withdrawal is probably the most cynical one possible, and he still concludes it is better than the status quo of enduring occupation. I'm more optimistic -- I think it might tamp down on violence, though it won't eliminate it, and might redirect anti-Semitic and extremist anti-Israeli tendencies, thought without abolishing them -- so for me it's an even an easier call.

What is impossible to support is the idea that maintaining the occupation, and maintaining Israeli sovereignty over those lands which all agree will eventually be part of a Palestinian state, has any significant positive utility. One can think the Palestinian public sphere is made up primarily of monsters (as Liel seems to), or unblemished martyrs (as his mirrored-equivalents on the left seem to), or the usual in-between mix of saints and schmucks and regular folk (as I do); one can hold any similar range of views about Israelis. In any and all permutations, the case for Israeli clinging onto the West Bank falls apart.

1 comment:

8e1c37d4-d286-11e4-b580-4b7432e703be said...

As painful as it would be, I'd be willing to never visit Me'arat ha-Machpela again if I thought it would bring peace. But I think you and Liebovitz are wrong about the possible ramifications of unilateral withdrawal. The current occupation status quo is vastly preferable in terms of quality of life and minimizing casualties compared to what has happened in Gaza. This is true for the Israelis who, if Hamas or another radical Islamic organization took over Gaza, would be facing rockets into every city. Maybe the Iron Dome is good enough to protect all of Israel's fronts but somehow I doubt it. This is also true for the Palestinians where life is far better in the WB than it is in Gaza, even with the current tensions. Would Palestinians be better off with a Gaza style war every 2-4 years instead?

If unilateral withdrawal (as opposed to a negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestine) is not good for the Israelis, and not good for the Palestinians, then who exactly is it good for?