Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for an Israeli pullout from Gaza and a few more settlements in the Shomron has found extensive initial approval among Jews in the Diaspora.
At first glance, this is understandable. The absence of a credible Palestinian negotiating partner, combined with Israel's vigorous desire to create a more peaceful atmosphere in the Middle East, has made a partial segregation from the Palestinian Arabs appear to be a step in the right direction.
But before we leap, let's look. Let's pay attention to the serious voices of dissent.
Avi Dichter, outgoing head of Israeli intelligence, declared a few months ago, in front of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, that the evacuation of the northern Shomron (Samaria) would reproduce at Israel's southern border the dilemma of constant mortar shelling that used to afflict the northern border. It required the intervention of Israeli ground forces to stop cross-border shelling from Lebanon.
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Schlomo Ben Ami, a member of the Labor Party, as well as Shabtai Shavit, former head of intelligence, stated in near unison that the unilateral abandonment of the Gaza Strip under prevailing conditions would destabilize the region.
"The plan does not create the necessary minimum of balance that would enable long-term co-existence," Shavit said.
Many in Israel and abroad see Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, as representing a basic change in the strategic goals of the Palestinians. However, his past as a close confidant of the late Yasser Arafat and his alarmingly militant statements about the future status of Jerusalem and the "right of return" raise doubts.
"Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] is not Arafat," Zalman Shoval, Israel's previous ambassador in Washington, stated last month. "But his objectives -- not only according to intelligence assessments, but according to his own statements, as well -- are no different from those of this predecessor."
The Gaza pullout offers an appropriate opportunity to verify Abbas' support for peace, and to test his influence for pursuing peace within the Palestinian Authority. This giant endeavor -- the compulsory evacuation of some 10,000 Israeli citizens -- could be set up in complete coordination with the Palestinian authorities. Lacking such agreement, the disengagement may cause devastating aftermaths:
In the absence of clear-cut accords with Abbas, the security situation in Israel could decisively degrade. Outgoing Chief of General Staff Moshe Yaalon said recently that in addition to Sderot, many other places are likely to be surprised with missiles from the Gaza Strip.
Terrorist groups would proclaim Israel's unilateral step as their own victory, and this would likely aggravate future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. As former General Security Chief Ami Ayalon stated: "Retreat without getting anything in return is liable to be interpreted by some as surrender, and likely to strengthen extremist forces."
The political situation could become much more complicated, and the pressure on Israel to continue making unilateral steps could also, according to Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, be enormously intensified. The pullout from Gaza now is considered as a step within the "road map" (peace plan) and no longer as a unilateral act in the absence of a Palestinian interlocutor. After the withdrawal, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States will probably force Israel to make additional, far-reaching concessions.
The inner discord in Israel could become huge and almost unbridgeable, especially as Israelis are getting nothing from Palestinians in return. We should not forget that the large majority of Israelis who supported Sharon and Likud voted for a party that was strictly against any unilateral abandonment of territories -- which is exactly the policy Sharon advocates now. He defied the will of his party that opposed the Gaza pullout, and refused to conduct a referendum -- even though the Israelis of Gaza asserted that they would have accepted the results of a referendum.
The Jewish ethos would be strongly tarnished. Dozens of synagogues and Torah centers, built with the full backing of the Israeli government, are slated to be violently destroyed by the IDF. The pictures of these holy houses, destroyed by Jews themselves, will be satellite-transmitted all over the world.
What a terrible negative impression such devastating pictures would leave with all viewers, Jews and non-Jews alike. It is and remains incomprehensible that such a traumatic action should happen without a binding accord with the Palestinians.
Finally, the Zionist ethos would be substantially enfeebled by a unilateral pullout. A impressive settlement in the desert, explicitly subsidized by the government, in which barren land was made miraculously fertile in the Zionist pioneering spirit, is on the verge of being devastated by Israel itself. A large swath of land that had been settled by Jews in the days before the 1948 War of Independence now shall become "free of Jews," without any quid pro quo. By contrast, an orderly turnover of the Gaza Strip would allow many practical problems to be solved, such as the fate of the Israeli houses, farms and orchards in the Gaza Strip. On the condition that the Palestinians deliver real tradeoffs, the disengagement could become a meaningful step toward co-existence between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors.
A relinquishing of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians is not to be rejected principally. An abandonment of the Gaza Strip -- if done in the scope of a bilateral peace process involving Abbas -- would certainly weaken the strong opposition against disengagement. The settlers' great sacrifice then would make more sense.
However, one-sided concessions are dangerously counterproductive. In this, former Israeli minister Natan Sharansky stands by his political credo consistently, unflinchingly. Sharansky's thesis is that democracies do not war with each other, and that a peace with the Palestinians, therefore, can only be achieved in partnership with a democratic Palestinian authority. According to him, Israel gives up far too much when it pulls out from Gaza before the Palestinian government has fulfilled its promises for democratization and other reforms, which must include forswearing all future terrorism.
It is not surprising that the backing for Sharon's disengagement program has fluctuated greatly, dipping below 50 percent at times.
People fail to understand why Israel does not require from the new Palestinian leader a meaningful bilateral negotiations for peace, especially as Israel prepares to do something so remarkable and unprecedented for the sake of peace.
Arthur Cohn is the Academy Award-winning producer of numerous films, including "The Garden of Finzi-Continis" and "One Day in September." He lives in Basel, Switzerland.
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