Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Dubious Victories and a Sad Anniversary

And so, another day has arrived (well, actually, it’s more than half over already) in Israel. Ariel Sharon has won a marginal victory in the Likud Central Committee, keeping party primaries from being brought forward from next April to this November. I can’t say I’m thrilled with his success – at best, it seems like a Band-Aid when the patient needs surgery, and at worst it could condemn us to a year with a place-holder government unable to make any real decisions. Of course, this could be a good thing: maybe after the Disengagement, we need some time to lay back and see how things play out before confronting yet more big changes.

What frightens me, though, is that if something doesn’t happen, we’ll wind up with another Likud victory next November (or whenever the Labor ministers get tired of their Volvos), and another government hamstrung by the “Likud rebels”. Something has to change, or Israel will continue to be handicapped by the schizophrenia of its ruling party.

*     *     *

Today is a significant, if sad, anniversary. Five years ago, Sergeant David Biri was killed by a roadside bomb at the Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip; this attack marked the beginning of the “al-Aqsa Intifada”. I had hoped that today would be the first day of the post-Intifada period; but my optimism was at least a little premature.

At times like this, it’s foolish but probably inevitable to try to keep score. Who “won” the Intifada? The first answer that comes to mind is that both sides lost; but I’m not sure that it’s really true. Of course, everything depends on how one defines victory and defeat in a low-intensity conflict: it’s not like a conventional war, where one side surrenders and the other side dictates terms. Still, though, we can look at the political, social, and economic gains and losses of each side, and perhaps come up with at least a subjective answer.

In economic terms, both sides clearly lost – compared with what would have happened had the Intifada not occurred, and even more so compared with the possible economic benefits of Israeli-Palestinian peace. At the same time, it’s difficult to measure exactly how much the Intifada cost Israel; its damage occurred at the same time as a global economic slump and a sharp high-tech “bust”. In absolute terms, Israel paid a higher price than the Palestinians; but this is deceptive, as Israel’s economy is so much larger and healthier than the Palestinians’ that there is no real way to compare the relative impact of the Intifada on the two societies. Lacking any way to determine which side’s economy ultimately suffered more, I’ll declare this aspect of the conflict a tie.

Territorially, it’s tempting to say that the Palestinians won. After all, Israel has left the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank, and by building the Separation Fence (which I prefer to call the Arafat Line, if anyone cares) we’ve given a pretty good indication that we’re ultimately going to leave most of the West Bank as well. On the other hand, we should keep in mind that the offer Ehud Barak made at Camp David would have given the Palestinians at least as much as they’ve gained from the Intifada (assuming that the Fence represents Israel’s ultimate border with Palestine – an assumption that is unlikely to be completely true) at a much lower price. I can’t think of any territorial gain that the Palestinians have achieved that wouldn’t have come to them much more easily had they not started the Intifada, or had they ended it much sooner. Israel, on the other hand, has gotten American recognition that at least some settlements east of the Green Line will ultimately become part of “Israel proper”, with no mention of a “land swap” to compensate the Palestinians for the loss of this territory. In this sense, Israel has at least potentially come out ahead, compared with what was being negotiated at Camp David and Taba. Putting all of this together, I’ll declare another approximate tie, although my personal inclination would be to give Israel a slight edge in this category.

Had the Palestinians ended the Intifada a short time after it started – anything from a few months to two years or so – they would have been the clear victors in the public-relations category. In the early days of the conflict, the overwhelming majority of the fatalities were on the Palestinian side, and Israel’s responses to Palestinian rioting were draconian and inept. Over time, though, Israel began to do a better job of protecting its citizens without killing quite so many innocent (and semi-innocent) Palestinians; and the Palestinians seemed to become more and more addicted to terrorism as the primary expression of their version of nationalism. The Disengagement appears to have given Israel a significant public-relations boost, and the Palestinians don’t seem to have any real idea what to do about the new post-Disengagement reality other than to make feeble claims that the Gaza Strip is still, despite all appearances, “occupied”. I’ll declare yet another tie here; but considering the Palestinians’ advantages in this category and our governments’ perennial inability to understand how things look to the non-Israeli world, this is one area where the Palestinians’ failure to win has to hurt.

It’s hard to measure the social aspects of this conflict, since (as in economics) the two societies are very different. Israeli society managed to hold together even during the worst terrorism the Palestinians were able to dish out; according to reports, Yasser Arafat and at least some of his cronies thought we’d fall apart at the seams. Palestinian society also seems to have survived, more or less; things are pretty chaotic there, but they weren’t so wonderful beforehand. Some will claim that the Disengagement has “created a rift in the Israeli nation” – and thus, perhaps, that Israel has voluntarily and needlessly lost in the social category – but I would counter that whatever rift exists now already existed before the Disengagement, and was going to become painfully obvious whenever Israel began rationalizing its borders. In my view, the cause of the rift – if the rift really exists – was the establishment of settlements without any real effort to form a national consensus on which areas should be settled and why. The bottom line? Another tie, more or less.

My last category (after Economics, Territory, Public Relations, and Society) is Political Thinking. The Palestinians today do not appear to have changed very much in their understanding of their relationship with Israel, the need for compromises, the role of terrorism in their national movement, or anything else. (Caveat: I don’t speak or read Arabic, so I’m unable to judge these things based on my own observations.) Palestinian society, at least as judged from outside, seems once more to have wasted a great educational opportunity.

Israel, on the other hand, has undergone (or perhaps is in the midst of) a quiet but profound revolution in its thinking. For years, we thought that the only way to get out of the occupation business was to reach a settlement with the Palestinians, trading land for peace – or, more realistically, land for a peace settlement. This made us a hostage to the Palestinian leadership: as long as they refused to come to terms with us, we were stuck in the position of Occupier while they enjoyed playing the Victim of Oppression role and avoided the tedious responsibilities of statehood. But after a few years of the Intifada, some of Israel’s leaders (and, apparently, a lot of Israeli citizens) came to the realization that there is no point in negotiating with the Palestinians (at least for the present) or in maintaining the status quo. Accordingly, Israel has now effectively declared its independence from Palestine: we reserve the right to leave territories we decide aren’t all that important to us, whether there is a Palestinian partner ready to write us a receipt or not. And, with Israel the Occupier exiting, the Palestinians are left on stage without a script; Palestinian nationalism doesn’t seem to be ready or eager to assume the rights and duties of statehood. So in this category – and thus in the conflict as a whole – I’ll give Israel a clear victory. By granting ourselves the right to act unilaterally, we’ve gained new freedom, begun to repair our international image, and thrown the Palestinian national movement into disarray.

So we’ve won the Intifada. How nice.

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