Rabbi’s Essays

Israel 2005: A Unilateral Withdrawal
How Did We Get Here?

It is mid-June. The spring-like weather has begun to turn to summer. As it gets warm and green in Poughkeepsie, it is simply getting hotter and hotter in Israel. This summer, the Israeli government plans to have Jewish settlements in the Gaza removed. The action has set off loud protests from a cohesive minority of Israeli citizens, and the prospects that the relocation of settlers will occur without violence are quite dim. How did this state of affairs come to be?

In February 2001, the Israeli electorate turned out Ehud Barak as Prime Minister, after a record short administration of less than two years. (The previous record for a short administration had been the three years of Barak’s predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu.) Ariel Sharon received a massive mandate over 70% of the vote to form a new government.

Sharon had been one of Israel’s more controversial figures. He was widely admired as a daring and brilliant military strategist, a genuine hero in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. When the conservative nationalist Likud Party, with Menahem Begin as its leader, took control of the government in 1977, Sharon become the architect of an aggressive settlement-building project in the territories Israel had acquired as a result of Six-Day War ten years earlier. Then, in 1982, he engineered a ferocious attack of Yasir Arafat’s PLO bases in southern Lebanon, carrying the battle all the way to the outskirts of Beirut. The PLO was forced to evacuate to Tunisia, but Sharon’s actions fomented both the Shaba and Shatila camp massacres of Palestinians at the hands of Christian Phalangist militia, and the Shiite Hizbollah uprising as Israeli troops bogged down in the south.

Sharon was relegated to a political exile. He slowly worked his way back into the leadership structure of Likud, and found himself as leader of the party after Netanyahu’s fall. Ironically, his rise was probably facilitated by the ultimate withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon in the spring, 2000. In that summer, Arafat virtually shut down the Oslo peace process with his firm ‘no’ to the final status offer of Clinton and Barak. At the end of August, Sharon took a tour of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (a maneuver more aimed at his party leadership struggle with Netanyahu than at the Palestinians). Palestinian anger and frustration‹directed at both Israelis and their own corrupt leadership‹spilled over into what has been called the Second or Al-Aksa Intifada. In November (or December, actually), George W. Bush won the Presidential election, presaging a definitive change from the previous eight years of U.S. involvement in the peace process. In February, 2001, Israel had a new Prime Minister.

I was in Israel in late January, before that election. Observers across the political spectrum were viewing Sharon’s victory over Barak as inevitable. Further, most observers were sanguine about the prospects. Even the most ardent supporters of Oslo felt that Barak had failed, and were prepared to give a laundry list of failings on his part. As for Sharon, an individual who had not been shy in expressing his disdain for both Oslo and Arafat, the most oft-expressed opinion was, ‘it took a Nixon to go to China.’

From the start of his administration, there seemed to be some truth to this assessment. The 2001 election was unique in Israel’s history. The Jewish State has a parliamentary system in which the Prime Minister is the head of the dominant party in the legislature (Knesset). A change was instituted with the 1996 general election, where candidates for Prime Minister could run independently of party lists. So it was in ’96 and ’99. In 2001, however, there was no general election. Only the position of Prime Minister was contested. Sharon therefore became head of government in a Knesset in which his party‹Likud‹had fewer seats than the rival Labor Party.

Sharon reached out to Labor, creating a ‘national unity’ government, and pursued a policy of a careful military response to the intifada, with continued though relatively low-level contacts with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Through the next two years, any real movement toward political and territorial accommodation was non-existent. With the introduction of suicide bombing, the violence became more intense. The Bush Administration engaged in a few half-hearted stabs at getting a political process going, but after September 11, 2001, became more occupied elsewhere. In the Fall 2002, the Labor Party allowed the government to fall, precipitating new general elections. (The separate election of a Prime Minister had been scrapped.) Sharon had not ‘gone to China,’ but Israelis were more prepared to blame Arafat and the PA for the stalemate. Likud received the plurality of seats, and Sharon continued as Prime Minister.


At the beginning of the second intifada, a number of analysts predicted that it would last two to three years at most, then the anger and emotion that had precipitated the uprising would have been spent. While the analysts had not foreseen the intensity of the violence as represented by the suicide attacks, they were right. After a particularly bad 2002, suicide bombings and other attacks became less frequent through 2003 and 2004. By the spring of 2004, Sharon began to indicate that he was ready ‘to go to China.’ The plans for an evacuation of all the settlements in the Gaza Strip, plus a few settlements in the West Bank region, were announced.

As might be guessed by my earlier comments, the initiative was met with general support in Israel. In the Knesset, the centrist and more liberal parties were prepared at once to back the withdrawal. The nationalist and right-wing parties immediately expressed their opposition, backed by the influential Yesha movement (the organized settlers in the West Bank and Gaza). Likud, which historically had been reluctant to engage in territorial compromise, was obviously divided. [The Orthodox Jewish religious parties tended to remain neutral. These parties are not Zionist, tending to believe that only a rabbinically directed, strictly halakhic state is legitimate, and that involvement in the current secular State is merely pragmatic.] There has been a great deal of political maneuvering over the past months‹the Labor Party, for instance, rejoined a government coalition‹but the determination to go ahead with the withdrawal has not wavered.

Israel’s history, particularly with respect to its search to establish a stable and secure place for itself in the Middle East, has always been filled with twists and turns. The Sharon initiative is among the most dramatic and far-reaching. The most significant and unusual feature about it is that it is unilateral. Last year, Sharon announced that Israel was abandoning Gaza regardless of Palestinian actions. Yes, Barak pulled Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon without any negotiated deal, but that was a withdrawal from lands to which the State made no claims. It had been a security occupation, and the calculation had to be made as to whether the State was more secure with troops stationed over the border or not. The Gaza, however, falls within disputed boundaries of the land of Israel itself. For some Jews, living along the Mediterranean coast has not been occupation, but rather merely settlement in one’s land.

The key factor in this initiative is its boldness as a unilateral action. Before commenting on the politics and principles involved, we should have a better idea of what is meant by the land of Israel.

In the book of Genesis, God projects for Abraham the extent of the territory on which his descendents will dwell: “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, Euphrates (15:18).” This promise comports with an assertion found in I Kings (4:21): “Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the river Euphrates to Philistia and as far as the frontier of Egypt.” I think it is fair to surmise that the passage in Genesis is a retrojection of the reality described in Kings. At its fullest extent, under David and Solomon, the kingdom of Israel did indeed extend from the eastern end of the Sinai peninsula (this is the ‘river of Egypt,’ not the Nile on the western end), to the western reach of the Euphrates; land encompassing Edom, Moab, Aram and Ammon.

This maximal empire did not last very long. During Solomon’s reign, peace and prosperity was maintained by the judicious granting of autonomy to the outlying territories. The book of Numbers provides a more modest projection. In chapter 34, the boundaries are established as being from the ‘Wilderness of Zin” starting at the south end of the Dead Sea, crossing west to the Mediterranean, then north along the coast to Mount Hor (in modern day southern Lebanon), east to Mt. Herman, and finally south along the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. In this context, the petition of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and a portion of Menashe to settle on the grazing plains of Aram (southern Syria), even though it is outside of the designated boundaries (see Num. 32), makes sense.

Although David had created a relatively large kingdom, most of Israel’s population was concentrated along the high ridge that ran down the center of the land, from the Galilee down to Hebron. The coast plain and the Jordan River were marked by two major trade routes that Israel could only occasionally control. Jewish settlement in ancient Israel‹up to the time of the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E.‹tended nonetheless to be distributed through the territory described in Numbers (perhaps with a northern border further south, closer to current northern border of the State). Both the West Bank (traditionally called “Judah and Samaria”) and the Gaza Strip (the ancient land of the Philistines) fit within this region.

Skip ahead to the beginning of Zionist immigration in the late 1800s. Jews moved into the established cities, especially Jerusalem, Haifa, Acre (or Akko), Beersheva, Hebron and Jaffa (later Tel Aviv). They also started agricultural settlements along the coastal plain, in the Jerusalem region and in the Galilee. The initial U.N. partition map of November 1947, described the Jewish territory as the eastern Galilee, the coastal plain from Acre to Ashdod, and territories in the Negev. This was determined with respect to where Jews were actually living. Jerusalem, which had a Jewish plurality but an Arab (Christian and Muslim) majority, would be a neutral international region.

When the partition scheme was not accepted by Arab leadership, Israel was given independence by the U.N., a war was fought and armistice declared in 1949, the borders of the new State included all of the Galilee and Negev, and thrust of territory eastward connecting the western portion of Jerusalem to the coastal populations. Over the next eighteen years, Jews began to move into areas, such as the coast north of Acre. After the fivefold increase of territory following the 1967 Six Day War, Jewish settlement expanded throughout Jerusalem, particularly into a region known as the Etzion Bloc southeast of the city, which had been abandoned in 1948. They also established communities in the southwest portion of the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, around Hebron, and throughout the West Bank. With the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, a few settlements over the “Green Line” (1949 Armistice boundary) in the Sinai peninsula, were dismantled.

In general, a basic rule of Jewish settlement can be discerned from both ancient and modern times. Jews recognize the land of Israel as being in the territory stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, with the Mt. Herman ridge in the north and the Negev hemmed in between the Aravah Valley and Sinai peninsula on the south. This is the land such that, if Jews build homes on it, they can feel as if they are living in the Land (Aretz Yisrael), and not outside it. As practical matter, however, Jews will live anywhere on this land that they can live. The Land of Israel and the political boundaries of the State of Israel are not necessarily the same thing.

Population and Strategy

Underpinning any legitimacy within Jewish circles regarding the planned withdrawal from Gaza, is acceptance that Jews, in principle, can live anywhere in the Land of Israel. I am not making a theological or biblical argument. It is more one made out of history and socio-psychology. Unless one believes that the Bible is fiction made out of whole cloth, the text reflects the historical reality that Jews lived throughout the Land. This attachment has never disappeared. If the Jews have a right to live as Jews (and that is something more than professing faith in the Jewish religion) anywhere, it is on the land that has for roughly three thousand years been called Israel. This assertion is one unshakable principle about being a Jew. But, it is one out of many‹and some of them are competing‹principles about being a Jew.

Except for the extreme position, held by some ultra-Orthodox Jews who oppose a Jewish community politically organized on the Land of Israel absent God’s explicit permission, all of the debate is around the relative value of competing principles. We can begin with those that underpin Sharon’s initiative. The Israeli national anthem, HaTikvah, concludes with the sentiment, “to a free people in the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” The key term is ‘free.’ Jewish freedom is not only political independence, but also a national coherence. From the time of the beginning of the State, Israel has been trying to balance two not-quite-compatible ideals: the revitalization of a Jewish national polity, and the promotion of universal human rights. Thus, the State has accepted the existence of a relatively substantial non-Jewish citizenry within its borders.

In 1967, the ratio of Jews to non-Jews changed dramatically with the acquisition of the West Bank and Gaza, with their large Arab populations. The land that the State administered was now about evenly divided between Jews and non-Jewish Arabs, with the population of the latter growing faster than the former. For nearly forty years, this untenable situation has been managed simply by putting it off to some future point in time. The choices: Extend Israeli citizenship to inhabitants in the territories, and thereby destroying the Jewish nature of the State. Engage in forced relocation of all non-Jews, a position that if it were not morally objectionable, is also thoroughly impractical.

Finally, withdraw from the areas that are predominantly non-Jewish, a deceptively appealing choice, but potentially no better than the other two. Think of a sport, Major League Baseball, for instance. When one team beats another, the losing team regroups and tries to determine how it can win the next time. Even at the end of the season, when the World Series is over, it is not over for the teams. In accord with the old Brooklyn Dodger cry, “wait til next year!” As long as the teams participate, the competition never ends.

Since its founding, Israel has been in an unwanted competition with its neighbor where its existence as a Jewish state is the contest. The territories acquired in 1967, have presented Israel with numerous problems and moral conundrums, but it has also moved the competition from Israel’s existence to its occupation. Withdrawal without a satisfactory negotiation that brings the ‘competition’ to an effective end solves nothing.

Yet, now Ariel Sharon has put forward a unilateral withdrawal! Why is this happening?

The bases for the initiative begin, I believe, with Oslo. The direct contact between the PLO and the Israeli government that became public in 1993 changed dramatically the relationships among Israel and its opposition. While most observers agree that the Oslo Peace Process died with 2000 intifada, there has been, on the other hand, no going back to the circumstances that preceded Oslo. The PLO was transformed into the Palestinian Authority (PA). Even in the worst periods of violence, official, open and direct contacts between Israel and the PA continued. Oslo established the possibility, perhaps the inevitability, of the long-promoted Two-State solution. In essence, Oslo never fully died. It set up a process that is drawing toward a particular goal. With that goal being a Jewish and Palestinian Arab political entity in the biblical Land of Israel, the problem of population has become so acute that even nationalists such as Sharon can no longer ignore it.

The population ‘bomb’, however, has been present since 1967. While some Israelis might be late converts to the need of territorial compromise based on a demographic imperative, I think Sharon’s motives are more complex. Throughout his career, Ariel Sharon has proven himself to be a military genius and a political hack. Indeed, his worth to the Likud leadership in the past, was predicated on his military acumen that impelled to get things done as expeditiously as possible. If there political ramifications from these actions, then it was up to the politicians to work them out.

In later years, Sharon has shown that he is capable of some political acumen, but he still treats statecraft in military strategic ways. (I claim no expertise in the ways of war, and am relying on a variety of expert analyses for these comments.) In essence, he looks for capturing and maintaining the high ground. Conversely, he is willing to relinquish ground that is not easily secured. The settlements of the Gaza are just such ground. I would guess that if Sharon could have his way, he would cede the valleys in the West Bank to a Palestinian entity, but strive to maintain the hilltops.

Cynicism, Pragmatism and Principle

It is easy to argue that the Sharon withdrawal plan is part of a cynical effort to create a maximally secure Jewish State, with Palestinians given at best the semblance of an independent entity. This may (or may not) be his motive, but the initiative is still worth one’s support. Let me indicate this in the context of the range of opinions being put forward in these days leading to the date of the withdrawal.

I will start with the nationalist opposition to withdrawal. Their positions range from a principled refusal to cede one inch of the Land to more pragmatic concerns regarding the efficacy of the initiative. The principle of maintaining control of the Land has already been mentioned. Among the nationalists, however, there are two types of positions: the historical-emotional one that makes it extremely difficult to give up on territory one feels is one’s own, and the more secular argument that the land was acquired fairly in a war that was started by the other side.

The no-retreat faction is not so naïve that they are unaware of the demographic and international relation problems created by demanding the entire nation stick to their principles. They believe that time will solve the essential problems. Resident Arabs will get tired of the reduced opportunities afforded them in the Jewish State, and will emigrate to the neighboring countries or further. The rest of the world will eventually become inured to current borders of Israel‹as it has to all international boundaries that were originally set by conquest—and the people will then enjoy a normative peace within their historic borders.

The pragmatic opposition feels it is not necessary to hold on to the land no matter what. Rather they believe withdrawal should take place only after certain conditions are met. First, they strenuously oppose a unilateral action, as giving something for nothing. Second, they fear that the Palestinians will perceive the withdrawal as a sign of weakness on Israel’s part, thus emboldening them to attempt continued violent acts so that Israel will retreat even further. Even a negotiated withdrawal, they contend, requires a far higher level of peaceful acceptance of Israel than the Palestinians have currently shown.

Support for the initiative, I believe, takes into account two motivations. The first, undoubtedly part of Sharon’s thinking, is that the withdrawal represents a net strategic benefit to Israel. The settlements in the Gaza, physically separated from the rest of the Jewish State and not easy to defend in any case, place Israelis and material resources at risk. It is easier to protect Israeli interests without having to be concerned about these settlements, even given the short-term psychological disability of a unilateral withdrawal.

With respect to unilateralism, there is the direct experience of Barak’s evacuation of Israeli troops situated in southern Lebanon in 2000. Certain Arab factions, particularly Hizbollah, crowed about having forced Israel out, and there was some concern that there would stepped up incidence of violence and attacks along Israel’s northern border. Even as the intifada flared through 2002 and 2003, the Israel-Lebanon border has been quiet. Of course, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, among others, will make noise about a great victory in the wake of a Gaza withdrawal, but there is no reason to believe with certainty that this will translate into extra security for Israel’s border communities.

The Unprecedented Action

I want to provide one final reason for the initiative, the one that establishes for me a compelling basis for supporting the endeavor. Throughout the Oslo peace process, the fairly obvious reality that Israeli settlements would have to be dismantled as the result of a final accord was never really discussed. The governments of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu (as conservative as he was), and Ehud Barak fairly took for granted, with a satisfactory conclusion of the peace process‹one that took into account security concerns—an orderly evacuation of West Bank and Gaza territories would be promptly implemented. Growth and development in the settlements beyond the Green Line was therefore generally ignored.

We all tended to underestimate the impact of settlement activity in the territories on Palestinians. While many Israelis—even those who were skeptical about the success of the negotiations—were confident that their country would live up to any terms agreed to in a final accord, Palestinians could wonder if the whole process was a charade, a long drawn-out never-ending negotiation intended to keep the Arabs and international community at bay.

With this background, one can see that the Gaza withdrawal is a very significant event. A final resolution of the problem of Israel and Palestine, most Israelis and Palestinians recognize, will require territorial compromise. Jewish settlements on land that would be part of a Palestinian State would have to go. With this initiative, Israel is indicating that it will actually implement such a withdrawal. Yes, Israel has removed troops from southern Lebanon, and even Jewish settlements from the Sinai (the dismantling of the northeastern Sinai village of Yamit engendered vigorous protests among some Israelis in 1980), but this is the first that the Jewish State is overseeing a withdrawal from the Land of Israel itself!

One should not belittle the anguish this action causes some Israelis, and one cannot discount how dramatic a gesture the evacuation is in the eyes of Palestinians. Sure, many in Arab leadership are going to declare the withdrawal a great military victory, and will try to picture the Israelis as engaging in an ignominious retreat. More thoughtful Palestinians will recognize it, however, as a bona fide on Israel’s part that a negotiated agreement can be both achieved and implemented.