In Israel, a land of many bumper stickers, there is one that reads: “CNN Lies.” During disengagement from Gaza over the last few weeks, CNN hasn’t exactly been lying, but the media has done a poor job conveying the issues driving Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four remote settlements in the West Bank. The media has viewed what is by definition a unilateral process through a bilateral lens. The questions have focused on what will happen next and how it will affect relations between Israelis and Palestinians. How will Hamas and the Palestinian Authority coexist? How much will Israel continue to intervene in Gaza? Will the withdrawal stimulate peace negotiations? These are speculative questions that are unanswerable in light of a one-sided process that, despite popular perception, has not significantly changed the negotiating climate.
Amidst these questions, what’s been largely ignored are the real reasons for Israel’s disengagement, reasons that have little to do with peace and more to do with internal Israeli affairs. No matter how many olive branches The Economist superimposes on Ariel Sharon’s mouth, he is as far from being a man of peace as he is from being youthful. “It is no secret that, like many others, I had believed and hoped we could forever hold onto Netzarim and Kfar Darom,” Sharon told Israelis Aug. 15. The withdrawal from Gaza was a soldier’s decision, and war, certainly not peace, is Sharon’s area of expertise.
The most obvious reason for disengagement is the blatant impracticality of maintaining the settlements in Gaza. The numbers have been cited numerous times: 9,000 Jews on 20 percent of Gaza’s land surrounded by 1.3 million Palestinians. There is also the risk of turning Israel into an apartheid state with a Jewish minority ruling a Palestinian majority (though some claim this already exists). But the demography issue has been on the radar for years and therefore fails to answer the relevant question.
In his speech, Sharon recognized a second reason for disengagement: the “changing reality in the … world required of me a reassessment and change of positions.” Disengagement provided the opportunity to respond to that changing reality and even to relieve international pressure on Israel. TV viewers likely forgot that many of the protesters had infiltrated Gaza despite not living there; the squalid conditions of Palestinians living in surrounding areas under occupation; and the absence of any reason for the settlements other than Israeli leaders’ poor strategy after the 1967 war. (Claims of Gaza being a part of the land of Israel are suspect at best and are worthless outside of the yeshiva.) But the emotions onscreen last month were very real and as a result, the Israeli government could not have garnered more international sympathy for its action.
If all the settlers of Kfar Darom and Netzarim had left voluntarily before the deadline, there would have been no crying little girls, prayer vigils, and synagogue roofs full of people. These very real emotions conveyed the strain caused by this unprecedented move. For now, Sharon has earned some international capital and deflected international attention from the security fence/wall/barrier, for which his government recently confiscated more Palestinian land. Meanwhile, the future of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, which are housing some of the ousted Gaza settlers, is also temporarily on the media back burner. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri’s meeting in Istanbul last week is partially a product of disengagement’s impact on Israel’s worldwide image. Sharon has put the ball in President Mahmoud Abbas’ court.
But this is still tangential, because since when does Israel do things to satisfy the international community? Disengagement occurred because a majority of Israelis wanted it to occur. Reservists, full-time soldiers and tax-payers were sick of making unnecessary sacrifices for the 9,000 settlers and asserted themselves as political moderates.
Since the state’s inception in 1948, a religious minority with political beliefs entrenched in theology has exercised an inordinate amount of power, and while not all Gaza settlers and their supporters are religious, the most vocal were. Roughly 15 percent of Israeli Jews identify as either ultra-orthodox or religious while 51% self-identify as secular. The coalition government system has also augmented religious parties’ influence.
Disengagement can be viewed as a direct challenge to the system, opening a Pandora’s box that gets to the heart of Israel’s existence: What does it mean to live in a Jewish state and a Jewish democracy? Sharon hinted at this in his speech: “The disengagement will allow us to look inward. Our national agenda will change.” These are the most vexing and internally challenging issues Israelis will face in a post-disengagement world, for while the status quo vis-a-vis the Palestinians has not changed, these matters have.
Alongside this massive shift in Israeli political culture, the conflict with the Palestinians remains. While disengagement was by definition one-sided, and therefore its explanation must also be largely one-sided, the question the cable news networks like to focus on remains the question of peace. Whatever emerges in Gaza following the withdrawal, it will not drastically change the framework for negotiating peace. Gaza was never one of the crucial issues in peace negotiations — Jerusalem, the Right of Return and terrorism were and continue to be the deal breakers. Thus, unless you (mis)interpret disengagement as simply an act of good faith, the Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to a resolution than they were a few months ago. The withdrawal hopefully will jumpstart negotiations. But that would only be a byproduct, because disengagement is not about the peace process but rather its failure.
Sean Singer is a senior in Berkeley College.