Thursday, March 03, 2005


The Disengagement Trigger

Yesterday I went to see Gershon Baskin, one of the founders of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, speak. Though I enjoyed his lecture, I found myself less and less satisfied with Baskin's approach to disengagement, an approach not unique to Baskin but pretty widely held in the Israeli left (and the international left as well, for that matter). This view is that Sharon's disengagement from Gaza is going to be the snowflake that sets off the avalanche. It will begin an unstoppable and irreversible process which will end with the settlers being removed from the West Bank as well, etc etc. Allow me to explain why I do not hold this view.

First of all, this view is also held hand-in-hand with the idea that Sharon is the only one who will be able to pull off a Gaza withdrawal-type stunt. Given his military, anti-compromise, right wing, pro-settlement credentials, Sharon is somewhat impervious to the criticism of the extreme right. The protrayal of Sharon as a traitor willing to sell out the Jews to terrorists doesn't really stick to him in the eyes of the broader Israeli public. Baskin also expressed a belief that the Israeli Left parties (Yahad, to some extent Labor) would probably emerge in the next elections no stronger than they are at present. Without massive support for the left it seems true that somebody from the right, somebody like Sharon and perhaps only Sharon, is the one to be able to remove settlers from Gaza at this point in time. However, Sharon, and the right in general, does not seem interested in taking the same action in the West Bank. The statements from Dov Weisglass reflect this. The building of the wall reflects this. The continued construction in West Bank settlements reflects this, as does recognizing formerly "illegal outpost" settlements.

So where, then, will this snowball effect come from? I asked Baskin this, and he gave two possibilities (from what I gathered). One, Sharon may have more tricks up his sleeve. My response to this: I doubt it. See the paragraph above. Furthermore, Sharon has taken quite a political beating from this disengagement plan already. Polls show that Netanyahu would beat him in the Likud primary if it were held today. He has managed to slide through by cobbling together different coalitions along the way, starting with Shinui, adding far-right parties like the NRP, hauling in Shimon Peres and Labor. He counts on the votes of not only Labor, but Yahad and the Arab parties to get things done! Baskin thought that the budget would be passed, thus allowing Sharon to continue as PM, but only with the support of Yahad and the Arab parties. Although these parties would also support removal of West Bank settlements, proposing such would certainly destroy any remaining right-wing support from Likud members or any religious or far-right party.

The second response that Baskin gave was that there is widespread public support for removing settlements. Polls show that over two-thirds of the Israeli public is no longer interested in pushing the settlement enterprise further and is willing to evacuate some settlements (most of these polls, in actuality, are not very clear about what settlements would be allowed to stay, etc.). However, the opposition to disengagement is trying to push a referendum. Why? Not only to draw the process out even further (when did we start talking about all this? it's been a while, hasn't it?) but also because there is the good possibility that the Gaza disengagement plan would not win a public referendum. The public, in general, tends toward the status quo. Given that there is the possibility that a referendum would not support Gaza disengagement, and given the fact that the Gaza settlements are much less popular than the West Bank settlements, I find it hard to believe that the public is going to rise up and demand West Bank withdrawal. Especially if the political power remains in the hands of the right-wing parties and not the left, as seems probable. This public opinion about the settlers is not new. It's been this way for years! So why will this unstoppable force spring into action now as it never has before?

So why then, do people hold this belief? First, I think it has to do with general optimism. I can understand that. Everybody wants (well, maybe not everybody, but most people do) to be hopeful about things. However, I think it also has much to do with the left convincing themselves of this justification for essentially supporting Sharon. It also allows certain Israelis and internationals to justify or avoid their failure to organize an effective leftist movement to counter Sharon and the right. And in keeping Sharon afloat and warding off the attacks from the ultra-right against him, the "left" has had to reconcile itself to many things that it may not otherwise have done. If the budget does pass with the support of Yahad and the Arab parties, it will be a budget that most on the left find unacceptable. It will slash many remaining vestiges of the welfare state that Israel once imagined itself to be, it will be very bad for the impoverished or underpriveleged in Israeli society, those groups that the left-wing parties supposedly support. And they will vote for it simply to keep Sharon, a man most of them have spent much of their lives loathing, in power. So in order to convince themselves that they are doing the right thing, they buy into this idea that the Gaza disengagement will set off a chain of events that will make it all worth it.

I, personally, don't think that's the way it's going to happen.

Finally, this post should not be seen as an attack on Gershon Baskin, per se. He is hardly the only one who has expressed the ideas I attributed to him, nor is he the worst, by any stretch of the imagination. It is only that his lecture provoked these ideas that had been rattling around in my head, so I used it as the jumping off point.

Step 1: Disengage from Gaza
Step 2: ???????
Step 3: Peace!!!

What step 2 is supposed to look like is a very good question.
Absolutely. I'd be a bit more enthusiastic if I saw the Israeli left doing a little bit more organizing instead of saying "We'll let the process unfold and everything will fall into place." Not that I don't want to be proved wrong. Desperately so.
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