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Israel’s Plan to Pullout of Gaza

October 26, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, Israel’s decision to move out of Gaza. We start with a report narrated by Spencer Michels.

SPENCER MICHELS: Today’s historic vote in the Israeli parliament came despite strong opposition from members of Prime Minister Sharon’s ruling coalition. His victory margin was provided by the opposition Labor Party and other leftist parties.

The plan, which is supported by the U.S., means Israel will unilaterally disengage from Gaza by next summer by pulling out all 8,000 settlers and most of the troops who protected them. Israel will keep control of Gaza’s borders, coastline and airspace. Four small West Bank settlements near Jenin will also be evacuated, but some 230,000 West Bank settlers would remain. The territories were captured at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967.

Since then, settlers in Gaza have been living in the midst of 1.3 million Palestinians. The prospect of withdrawal has failed to stop fighting in Gaza; 17 Palestinians have died in the past two days, bringing the total to more than 100 Palestinians and five Israelis killed since late September. The Israeli incursion was aimed at ending Palestinian mortar fire into Israel.

The plan has aroused deep rifts within the ruling Likud Party and has forced Sharon to do battle with his political allies. Yesterday, he made an impassioned defense in a turbulent session of the Knesset.

ARIEL SHARON (Translated): I know what the consequences are for thousands of Israelis who have lived for many years in Gaza, and were sent there by Israeli governments, and had children there who didn’t know another home. I know. I sent them. I was a participant and many are my personal friends. I am aware of their pain, their anger, their despair.

SPENCER MICHELS: That despair and anger was evident outside the Knesset today, where some protesting settlers called Sharon a traitor. Before the vote, conservative Knesset member Benny Elon pleaded for a reprieve.

BENNY ELON: I hope and wish and pray that the results today will be “yes” for the land of Israel, “yes” for the children of Israel that are coming back to the land of Israel, and “no” for the withdrawal under the circumstances of blackmailing, terror and other things.

SPENCER MICHELS: But an opinion poll published today shows Sharon’s strategy has the support of 65 percent of Israelis.

SPOKESMAN: Sharon has shown a lot of courage by taking on the right, and taking on the settlement movement, taking on so many of the rebels in his own party, the so-called rebels, and I think it is potentially a great opening for Israel.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nevertheless, Sharon has indicated the peace process on the West Bank could slow down. He told an Israeli newspaper: “It is very possible that after the evacuation (disengagement), there will be a long period when nothing else happens.” Meanwhile, construction continues on the controversial security barrier separating Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has more.

MARGARET WARNER: And for that broader look, we turn to: David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; he was previously with the Jerusalem Post and the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz; and Hisham Melhem, Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper As-Safir and host of a weekly program on the Arab news channel al-Arabiya. Welcome to you both. Welcome back.

David, are you surprised that Sharon managed to pull this off given the opposition within his own party?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Yes, well, he demonstrated a sort of determination, the single mindedness that as one Likud member told me in Israel this summer, we liked him when he was more of a bulldozer and dealing with the Palestinians, but now he’s turned the bulldozer against us, his own party and against the settler movement. He has shown that sense of determination, and I’m not surprised; he has gambled his entire political future on this issue, and he wants to prevail.

MARGARET WARNER: Hisham, this is a man known as the architect of the settler movement; you heard him talking about his own role in front of the Knesset. Why is he doing this?

HISHAM MELHEM: I don’t believe that Sharon who is 76 years old has changed his spots, he is still the biggest architect of settlement activities, but I think Sharon realizes that continued control of the Gaza like that is a painful enterprise, financially and in terms of losing lives too.

Sharon is telling his own people indirectly and he’s playing to history, keep your eyes on the real prize; the real prize for him is the West Bank and not Gaza. And I think the focus will be on continuing settlement activities in the West Bank, and his advisor Dov Weisglass really revealed the real truth when he said this whole enterprise is to abort the birth of a Palestinian state, and we got that with the blessing of the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it that way, David, that this is a way for Sharon to essentially provide cover for continued settlement activity in the West Bank, while giving away Gaza?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I disagree with Hisham. I think first of all what he said in his Knesset speech is vitally important. He made it clear that Israel first has to yield Gaza to preserve Israel’s democratic character. And if you look at the demographics of Israelis and Arabs, it’s clear that this is critical for how Israel perceives its demographic self interest. So that’s point one. And I disagree –.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry, let me interrupt you, just explain that. You mean because Palestinians so outnumber Israelis there that even when added to the population of Israel as a whole it weights the balance away from Israel.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right, there’s basically in terms of within the ’67 line so to speak, the green line, Israel, it’s an 80 percent Jewish state. But if you look Israel West Bank-Gaza, you’re talking about 5 million Jews and about 4, 4.5 million Arabs.

And within a decade and maybe even within six years, the Jews could be the minority. And Sharon has awoken to this. He thought the mass of immigration of the 1990s would reverse this demographic trend, it did not. And even within the Likud Party they’re saying that democracy and the demographic self interest trumps the land. This is a major change for the Likud.

And I think that’s the primary motivating factor, not to trade for the West Bank, and I respectfully disagree with Hisham and the Weisglass interview that he’s citing, you know, trade Gaza for the West Bank, and I’ll tell you why — because first of all, you know, we’ve had four years of terrorism and violence, there’s zero trust. You’ve got to begin somewhere. And if this is what it takes to end occupation in Gaza, I don’t think anyone can say it’s a bad thing. The second point is the dynamics is more important, in my view, than the intentions.

When we had a disengagement agreement with the Egyptians in the early ’70s we the United States didn’t believe it would lead to a peace treaty, but it did. And now someone said well Sharon has got a 20-year plan. He’s 76 years old, who knows if he’s going to be in power in two years.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Let me get back -

DAVID MAKOVSKY: But by Nixon going to China, if he could start the pathway, others will widen it.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Let me get back to Hisham. And, Hisham, if we can move the ball along a little bit, and the Palestinians reaction. I mean, they were completely excluded from this, there’s no negotiations, there’s unilateral steps, explain their reaction to us.

HISHAM MELHEM: Just quickly, I want to say something, that Israel’s real battle is not with terror, Israel’s real battle is with demography. And that’s why -

MARGARET WARNER: So you agree with David on that point?

HISHAM MELHEM: On that issue, yes, but he wants to consolidate his control over the West Bank. The Palestinians are in the bind, I agree nobody wants to maintain that awful nightmare of an occupation that lasted too long and was very painful to the Palestinians. On the other hand, they are in a bind because this is a disengagement; Israel will continue to control Gaza’s territorial waters, air space and border crossing points. Even the border with Egypt will be controlled.

The question that should be asked now, why the Palestinians would like to see the Israelis out is who is going to be responsible for Gaza, who is going to be responsible technically, politically and most importantly legally?

MARGARET WARNER: All right and -

HISHAM MELHEM: Because there’s no sovereign power in Gaza.

MARGARET WARNER: So answer your own question. Are the Palestinians prepared for this politically? Who will run it–

HISHAM MELHEM: They cannot be prepared politically because they’re not a sovereign power. This is a unilateral decision imposed by Israel. On the one hand, it’s fine to see the Israelis leave, if they are going to leave, and if it is a withdrawal and not only a disengagement because they retain the right to go back and forth as they please. The problem is there is no sovereign power.

I wonder what the international community was doing, including the United States and the United Nations, if have you the breakdown of civil order and this is very likely to happen, this is not, it’s not a theoretical issue, it is on the ground, they have all the seeds for that, who is going to be responsible. The Palestinians do not have the wherewithal to control the situation. Sharon destroyed their security services, and there is no sovereign power.

MARGARET WARNER: David, answer that question briefly, you have both Hamas and then you have the Palestinian Authority, and clearly there’s a struggle for control there.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Absolutely. And therefore, I think, I was in Cairo meeting with senior Egyptian military officials to continue the dialogue here, what’s fascinating here is the converging interests between the United States, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the Egyptians, that there is no Hamas state in Gaza. And therefore in my view this is not going to be as unilateral as it sounds, and the World Bank is involved, and I think who ever wins it here in the United States on Nov. 2 in terms of their first order of business will be to broker this Gaza disengagement, working with all these parties.

I do not believe it’s a foreordained conclusion that it’s going to be chaotic. You can’t just take the keys and throw them over the fence and see who catches them. Everyone has an interest that this is smooth and orderly. I think there’s some creative ideas to avoid the sort of scenario that Hisham mentioned of Israel just ringing Gaza. It can be done while safeguarding Israeli security requirements.

Over the next eight to ten months, in my view, will be vital, and whoever wins here in the United States is going to have a key role in being the choreographer to make this happen, and make sure that a Gaza pullout leads to greater stability and greater hope and dignity to the Palestinians, which we all want to create a two-state solution.

I think this could happen, and in the words of the economist that has been a critic of Sharon, this is an opportunity for the Palestinians to showcase, to show that this model in Gaza can then be transferred to the West Bank, and that could win a widespread Israeli support. Gaza is a test case and a model, and everyone I think has a stake in its success.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Hisham, let’s talk about the run up to the beginning of the withdrawal, which is eight to ten months from now. There has certainly been increased violence just in the run up to this vote. Is the violence going to increase or decrease in Gaza and sort of in and out of Gaza?

HISHAM MELHEM: You cannot rule it out, obviously, because of the Israeli continued control, and the people of Gaza are going to feel that control. They would be worried in terms of security and politically also. How can the World Bank work in Gaza if there’s no authority that is recognized as legitimate?

MARGARET WARNER: But I’m talking about in the interim: is it going to be that Hamas wants to try to demonstrate to the world and to the their own people that in fact Israel is being pushed out and so they’re going to be further attacks on the Israelis?

HISHAM MELHEM: I think there would be a bid on the part of Hamas and the other Islamist groups to control the situation, not necessarily to declare legally and politically they are responsible but definitely they are also competing with the Palestinian Authority.

And if there is a vacuum, they will probably fill it, try to fill it, but not necessarily take the responsibility. I think they are smart enough not to provoke not only the Israelis but even the Egyptians and the United States and the international community.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And, David, let me ask you about the climate in Israel in this same interim period. I mean, the settler movement, not just the settlers in Gaza, but the whole settler movement is adamant against this, and has used some very harsh language against Sharon. You’ve had some leading rabbis calling on Israeli soldiers not to participate in the evacuation. How combustible is that mix?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Extremely combustible, Margaret. I think you put your finger on it. I mean, you’ve got — the polls say 40 percent of Israelis think there could be a civil war in the country.

I don’t know if that is, you know, that overstates it somewhat, but you head of the Shinbet – the head of the Israel secret service saying 200 people want to kill the prime minister of Israel. This, you know, today is the ninth anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, the Hebrew anniversary, also the 10th anniversary of the Jordan- Israel peace treaty. It’s a symbolic day, a historic day, but there are some very tough times ahead.

The question is how does Sharon reconfigure a government, given some of the actions of his critics today, does he broaden it, bring in labor, or is he going to be forced to elections and run on this platform of disengagement. I think you just have to put the tray tables in the upright position and fasten your seat belts; it is going to be one heck of a ride in the months ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: Brief final word from you, Hisham, do you think anything could derail this?

HISHAM MELHEM: Oh, I think so, of course. The fear is that Gaza first will be Gaza last too. And if the Palestinians get a sense that this is going to be the situation, whether they are living in Gaza or the West Bank, this is going to lead for the prolongation of the confrontation, you will have a situation similar to the situation in South Africa, in which the communities continue to fight with each other as long as there is no political process and there is no political horizon for the Palestinians, i.e., negotiate the settlement with the Palestinians.

MARGARET WARNER: Hisham Melhem, Dave Makovsky, thank you both again.

HISHAM MELHEM: Thank you.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Thank you.