Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Hillel, stop Halkin us a chinik!

As one might conclude from the portrait over his column, Hillel Halkin is in a funk. Unlike the rest of us, contrarian Halkin watched the uprooting of Jews from Gaza and concluded that the anti-disengagement camp has won. The outline of his case:

  1. "No formal, negotiated end to our conflict with the Palestinians is possible on terms acceptable to both sides"

  2. "Unless we Jews want to become a minority... between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, we have to retrench to new borders that we draw ourselves, e.g., to the West Bank security fence. A withdrawal from Gaza alone would be at best a temporary demographic palliative."

  3. "[The settlers] have shown us what it takes to move 8,000 Jewish settlers out of a far corner of the land of Israel having no great strategic value or Jewish historical significance. Does anyone care to imagine what it would take to move 60,000 or 70,000 settlers out the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria, which sits smack in the middle of this country, scant kilometers from Jerusalem? Just the physical logistics of it would be mind-boggling."

Hence, he concludes, there will be no disengagement from the West Bank, leaving Israel with the demographic problem only half solved.

In the second half of the essay (read it yourself), Halkin challenges settler supporters to explain, "Exactly where do we go from here?" And he wants a good answer, not one of the many unrealistic "solutions" often proposed by the Israeli right.

Readers responded. And this week, he reviewed their e-mails and found them lacking. More precisely, he lamented "the sheer, unmitigated, dunderheaded, hallucinatory unreality of the thinking of the 'Undivided Land of Israel' proponents who responded to my challenge. There wasn't a single halfway - halfway? hundredth of the way! - serious idea in the lot."

"Anyone want to try again?" he asked. "I'm still listening."

I'll try, Hillel, though I doubt you will be pleased by my response. (I should note, though, that like you, as much as I love the land of Israel, I could support territorial concessions were I convinced they would yield benefits commensurate with the loss.)

Challenging the premises
I must start by challenging your premises. Premise 1 is correct, and Sharon should be commended for taking as his starting point the assumption that there is no conceivable basis today for a negotiated solution.

Premise 2, however, needs improvement. Assuming that the gloomy demographers are right - and you surely are aware that their statistical assessments are questionable - what strategic significance is there to the percentage of Jews between the Mediterranean and the Jordan? Absent a decision to annex the disputed territories, the demographic balance of the Jewish state is not affected by the Palestinian growth rate. Palestinians have no right to vote in Israel; they do not live in Israeli towns and cities; they even retain voting rights for the semidemocratic Palestinian Authority with its limited powers and territory.

What, exactly, would change if Arabs became 51% or even 60% of the population between the river and the sea, instead of the 40-45% they represented for most of the last five decades? If anything, they enjoy greater political representation today than they did in the 1980s when they were a smaller percentage of the whole. Should we be making far-reaching strategic decisions out of fear of shifts in statistical analyses?

Furthermore, I hate to break it to you, but disengagement from Gaza has not changed the demographic balance between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. Last I checked, Gaza remains on our side of the Mediterranean. It also hasn't changed the demographic balance of the State of Israel, since Gaza was always outside the sovereign territory of the state.

So what has been changed? The demographic balance of the territory under military control of the IDF? So what? If the Arabs has comprised more than half of the population between the river and the sea in 1967, would Israel have ceased to be a democratic state the moment it won the Six-Day War?

Before you demand clear, rational solutions, you must provide a clear, rational statement of the problem. I'm looking forward to it.

Regretfully (to me), Premise 3 is simply wrong. The Gaza operation (plus northern Samaria) demonstrated the ease of uprooting settlements. Most settlers have middle class, working families. There was no real violence because they are not violent people. There was no mass disobedience because they are devoted patriots, with an acute sense of the need for national unity in times of crisis. They put up a token resistance to emphasize their love for the land and their homes, and then they left, with heavy hearts.

No, sixty to seventy thousand settlers in central Samaria could not be evacuated at once. But the Gaza operation has demonstrated the strength of numbers. Salami tactics would work easily, taking one area at a time, with phalanxes of soldiers and police easily outnumbering the locals and imported protestors. Some nuts may be harder to crack, such as Kiryat Arba or Bat Ayin, but few would put up more than token resistance. I don't look forward to seeing that day, but I can see how easy it would be to carry out.

So, Hillel, from your perspective the way forward is visible: Disengagement II, III or IV. I reject that, as I did Disengagement I. So where do we go from here, were it up to me?

A shifting stalemate
Let me start by taking your first premise one step further: There is no foreseeable solution to our conflict with the Palestinians, or to the Israel-Arab conflict as a whole. Regardless of whether we strive for an elusive negotiated agreement or a unilaterally imposed arrangement, Israel will fail to achieve long-term security and stability, not to mention peace. Without a recognition and acceptance of this fact on the part of the public and its leaders, we are doomed to new rounds of anticipation and disappointment, negotiation and breakdown, over and over again.

Arguably, Israel and the Arabs have since 1949 been locked in a shifting stalemate. We are too strong militarily to be defeated but too weak diplomatically to reap the fruits of victory; they persevere in wringing diplomatic success from military failure, often wearing down our resolve but never breaking us. They have far more allies, but we have at least one strong enough to balance the scale.

There is no reason to believe we can break this pattern, barring inconceivable geopolitical changes.

Leveraging our strengths
What we can and must do is leverage our strengths, while ratcheting them up over the long haul.

Oil is currently booming, but this will not last forever. Ultimately, any commodity can be replaced, and commodity values inevitably decline over the long run. Israel, however, produces goods with no easy substitute: unique technologies, scientific research, military equipment. If Pakistan is warming to us, it is less due to disengagement and more in response to Israeli sales of leading-edge military technologies to its rival, India. Israel has even surpassed Saudi Arabia as Britain's largest trading partner in the Middle East. As Israeli exports grow, especially of high-value-added products based on intellectual property, so will its diplomatic leverage. Over time, Israel will grow stronger, wealthier and more influential.

Meanwhile, we will face round after round of military conflict with our hostile neighbors. What form that will take I can't say. It will be intense at times and quiet at others. We will need to remain vigilant, employing passive measures and, at times, active ones in deterring and combatting forces such as Hizbullah, Hamas, and presumably the Palestinian Authority.

We will need to maintain diplomatic pressure, enlisting our allies to actually support us in bodies such as the UN, demanding that the Arabs display good faith in restraining their terrorists, threatening force where necessary, while always holding out the prospect of tangible concessions in the context - and only in the context - of a genuine "end of conflict" agreement. Until then, we need not hand over more territory.

No peace in our time
We need to be strong, and vigilant, and steadfast, and sober in our assessments. No peace in our time, no rosy horizons, not until our enemies have geniunely undergone fundamental changes. Changes I don't expect to see in my lifetime. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

When I hear an Israeli leader honestly admit that he cannot promise us peace, we will at least be on the right road. It is not the Yellow Brick Road, but neither is it the Road to Perdition.

What is it about us Jews that makes us always demand visions of peace and security? There is no solution, Hillel, and I do not propose one.

Is that what you wanted to hear?

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