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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - June 6, 2005

Do Bush & Israeli views differ on Gaza's status post-disengagement? How to interpret departing IDF Chief of Staff Yaalon's extreme pessimism?

Q. Last week you discussed the mention by President Bush, in his Rose Garden press conference with Mahmoud Abbas, of the 1949 armistice lines. Bush also noted the need to leave open final status issues in Gaza. How does this correspond with the Israeli contention that after disengagement there will be no such issues related to Gaza.

A. Bush stated, in his opening remarks on May 26, that "Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes road map obligations or prejudice [sic] final status negotiations with regard to Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem". In contrast, the official position of the Sharon government is that completion of the withdrawal from Gaza will release Israel of its responsibility as occupying power for the Strip. Ostensibly, then, there is a contradiction here between Bush's statement and the Israeli position.

In fact, Israel is not yet actively pursuing this change in its legal status in Gaza; nor did the Sharon government protest the president's mention of Gaza. Nor, for that matter, is Israel asking the US to obtain or pronounce approval for its withdrawal under UNSCR 242 or any other international umbrella that might provide legal sanction for a change in status.

One obvious reason is the philadelphi strip: as long as Israeli forces remain there--and that is the intention, at least for the first few months after disengagement--it cannot conceivably claim to have removed Gaza from the Israeli-Palestinian agenda. Another is the need, also mentioned by Bush on May 26, for "meaningful linkages between the West Bank and Gaza". If, for example, Gaza is eventually to be linked to the Tarkumia area of the southern West Bank by a 43 km. long land bridge or sunken road, a project discussed since 1993, then obviously additional Gaza-related issues await us in this context.

Yet another Gaza-related issue still to be discussed is the possibility that, once Israel has withdrawn from philadelphi and turned the border area over to Egyptian and Palestinian forces, it will seek to present Gaza as having detached itself from the Israeli-Palestinian customs union under which Palestinians employ the Israeli shekel and customs and VAT are standardized between the two entities, with Israel collecting these levies for the Palestinians.

While PM Sharon is fully aware of the constraint imposed by Israel's remaining, at least temporarily, in philadelphi, he almost certainly opposes a Gaza-West Bank land bridge, both for security reasons and because one of the objectives of disengagement in his view is to detach Gaza and isolate it from the larger Palestinian problem. For the same reasons he endorses the severing of Gaza-Israel economic ties. Hence there is in Bush's remark a potential for US-Israel tensions.

Moreover, as discussed last week, Bush's mention of the 1949 lines is prompting Palestinians to bring up the possibility that Israel's border with northern Gaza, at the Erez crossing, is not the final border because it cuts across a region that was demilitarized in the original ceasefire arrangements of 1948. Certainly the PLO/PA will seek to introduce this claim into negotiations at some point in the future. Incidentally, the Israeli settlers in this region also seek to reopen the northern Gaza border issue: they argue that their three settlements are technically not in Gaza but in a no-man's land that existed until 1967.

Bush's remark about Gaza might seem more relevant or controversial were the parties on the verge of entering a peace process, or were Bush's involvement more active and committed. As matters stand, while he clearly inserted Gaza into his prepared remarks for a reason, and while Palestinians felt reassured by his words about Gaza and by his reference to the 1949 lines and the need for mutually agreed border alterations, his statement must be seen primarily within the framework of a perceived American need to enhance the status of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in the short run, yet without catalyzing renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and without committing Bush to involvement in such a process.

Q. In an interview in Ha'aretz, departing IDF Chief of Staff Yaalon comes across as extremely pessimistic about long-term coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. How do you interpret his remarks?

A. First, a brief selection of the remarks made by Lieutenant General Moshe ("Bogey") Yaalon to interviewer Ari Shavit (Ha'aretz weekend magazine, June 3):

- I do not see a conclusion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in my generation.
- It has to be said clearly that we are a society of struggle. . . . [The conflict] will not be resolved. . . . [Israeli mothers have to tell their sons and daughters] that they were born into a society of struggle.
- The existential threat lies precisely in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not Iran and not Syria. . . . These are not existential threats.
- The most difficult moments of the [2000-2005] war came during the meetings of the security cabinet. . . . You find yourself without agreement about who the enemy is and what the war is about.
- [If a Palestinian state is established now] it will be a state that will try to undermine Israel. As long as there is no internalization of our right to exist as a Jewish state, and as long as there is insistence on concrete elements of the right of return, any such agreement will be like the construction of a house in which you plant a bomb.
- Every agreement that will be made is the point of departure for the next development of irredentism. For the next conflict. The next war. Despite their military weakness, the Palestinians feel that they are making progress. . . . If we do not give the Palestinians more and more and more, there will be a violent outburst. It will begin in Judea and Samaria.

Yaalon, the mild-manner kibbutznik, comes across as a super-hawk on the Palestinian issue. He appears to have no political horizon whatsoever for Israel and the Palestinians. His remarks are reminiscent of another former IDF chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, who once argued that Israel's war with the Palestinians will last another hundred years. Unlike many hawks, he doesn't even appear to grasp the possibility of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, separated by a security fence, under a cold peace or long term interim agreement. For a former chief of military intelligence he seems to have a surprisingly one-dimensional sense of the Palestinian psyche: he still thinks he can "burn into their conscience" the need to stop attacking us, while at the same time proclaiming the war with them essentially unwinnable. The man who predicted the disengagement would provide a "tailwind to terror" is now himself offering a tailwind to the anti-disengagement movement, which is building its latest campaign around his somber predictions.

Yaalon's statement about his reaction to security cabinet meetings is particularly telling. The paranoia it appears to reflect was evident in remarks Yaalon made after being informed that his stewardship of the IDF was being terminated after three years, to the effect that he always wore high army boots at General Staff Headquarters because of the "snakes" in the grass there, meaning fellow generals who sought his downfall. A month ago the principal culprit in his early dismissal was Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (whose complaints that he couldn't get along with Yaalon are beginning to sound convincing). By the time Yaalon gave an additional interview to Yediot Aharonot last weekend, he was blaming the media as well.

In assessing Yaalon's remarks it is difficult not to recall the instances over the past five years when a ceasefire seemed imminent and feasible--only to be dispelled by an Israeli targeted killing that put the conflict back on track. If the desire on the part of Palestinians to achieve some sort of modus vivendi with Israel is so suspect, so non-credible in the eyes of the army's commander, small wonder that he had no faith in potential ceasefires. Here Yaalon's approach appears in many ways to parallel that of PM Sharon, who has frequently professed a lack of faith in any Arab peace sentiments.

Yet it was Sharon who approved the curtailment of Yaalon's tour of duty. Yaalon's rigidity and lack of nuance may have contributed to his steadfastness in pursuing, successfully, the objective of defeating the Palestinians in a limited but bloody war. But they rendered him a poor political maneuver in uniform.

On the other hand, to obtain some degree of balance (and to contrast Yaalon with Sharon), it must be noted that Yaalon recently reiterated in an interview with an Arab TV station (itself an innovation for the IDF) that he has no problem defending Israel without the Golan Heights. He was outspokenly critical of Sharon in the past regarding Israel's shoddy treatment of Mahmoud Abbas during his term as Palestinian prime minister in mid-2003. Nor did he indicate in his Haaretz interview whether he favors any sort of political arrangements at all, however temporary, with the Palestinians.

Yaalon's remarks were made on the eve of his release from the IDF and focused strictly on the Palestinian issue. He has promised to address "political" issues after his formal departure from uniform. I can't wait.