Admitting Israel's Unilateral Withdrawals a Mistake
by Daniel Pipes
In an interview, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has acknowledged that Israel's unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza did not work, and that the summer's violence out of these regions has convinced him not to repeat the policy. The prime minister confirmed his belief in a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which will require an Israeli retreat from many territories it now controls, something "we are ready to do. A year ago, I believed that we would be able to do this unilaterally," a reference to his plan to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank.
Under existing circumstances, he concluded, "it would be more practical to achieve a two-state solution through negotiations rather than [through unilateral] withdrawal."
Comment: As someone who has been making this point since 2000 about Lebanon and 2003 about Gaza, I am gratified that Olmert has understood his mistake. But I mourn the price already paid and worry about the price yet to come; and I wonder why it took a two-front war to make this point obvious. (January 9, 2007)
Nov. 8, 2007 update: Israel's National Infrastructure minister, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, has also had a change of mind: "I admit and confess. I was with those who strongly supported Ariel Sharon, and today I say with my head held high: We erred, we made a very big mistake." A pullout such as the Gaza one can only succeed, he says, when the territory is "handed over to responsible hands and anchored in agreements and international guarantees. Here we have a precedent - a territory we left turns into a base for terror - period."
Mar. 2, 2008 update: I devote a whole weblog entry today to Yossi Klein Halevi calling Israel's withdrawal from Gaza a "disaster."
May 7, 2008 update: President Shimon Peres also offers a qualified acknowledgment that the Gaza withdrawal was a mistake: "I did not imagine that we would leave Gaza and they would fire Qassams from there; I did not imagine that Hamas would show so strongly in the elections."
Jan. 20, 2009 update: In an important piece by Nadav Shragai, "Just say you're sorry," appearing in (of all places) Ha'aretz, the columnist demands that a long list of individuals, institutions, and groups "go out of their way and visit the mobile-home sites where those uprooted from Gush Katif live. This way they can tell them one small thing: I'm sorry."
Shraga includes in this list of should-be apologizers
All of these should apologize because they, and all who assisted them, deployed force "to uproot 10,000 people from their homes in Gush Katif and Northern Samaria, maliciously and without any real purpose. Everyone who saw some good in the evil of the disengagement and evil in the good of Gush Katif has turned light into darkness and darkness into light. At the very least, they are obligated to make this small apology. … There is no way to know if they will forgive you, but you at least need to ask."
Comment: While such an apology is certainly in order to the 8,000 or so Israelis forcibly thrown out of their Gazan homes in 2005, the more important point is to draw the appropriate strategic lessons from this fiasco.
Jan. 20, 2009 update bis: The Zionist Organization of America, relying on Arutz Sheva (which also provides a video showing these statements being made on the Knesset floor) published today a sampling of comments by Israeli officials in support of unilateral withdrawal on the grounds that this move would reduce terrorism and increase Israel's security:
Comment: For a reminder, many of us passionately opposed the unitlateral withdrawal. I, for example, wrote fifteen articles against it and called the decision "one of the worst errors ever made by a democracy."
Jan. 21, 2009 update: Michael Freund concurs in his Jerusalem Post column, "Time for a Gaza Apology." He notes that despite wall-to-wall coverage of the war in Gaza, Israel's leadership and media have "studiously and carefully avoided" mentioning what precipatated it, namely the 2005 withdrawal.
Freund recalls testimony by Col. Uzi Buchbinder, head of civil defense in the IDF's Home Front Command, to the Knesset Interior Committee on January 11, 2005; he explained that the disengagement plan would expose 46 towns and cities in the Negev to Kassam rocket fire. Then, at that same hearing, Col. (res.) Mordechai Yogev cautioned that "the withdrawal of the IDF from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria will bring numerous large population centers and communities within the range of Kassam rockets and mortar shells."
Freund recalls how "no one wanted to listen" to this negative message.
Now we know that, "Through their folly, the supporters of withdrawal brought disaster upon this country. They destroyed the lives of thousands of Gaza's Jews, and put nearly a million Israelis within the cross-hairs of Hamas." Turning then to the present, Freund notes that "Unless Israel and its leaders have the courage to come to terms with their error, the danger of making additional such blunders will continue to accompany us well into the future."
Feb. 18, 2009 update: As noted in a May 7, 2008 update, above, Shimon Peres has already offered a limited acknowledgment of error about the Gaza withdrawal; today comes a more full-throated version.
Apr. 24, 2009 update: One person who stands up for the Gaza withdrawal, surprisingly, is the expected next Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. Barak Ravid of Ha'aretz paraphrases a talk he gave at Georgetown University in March 2009 titled The Gaza Crisis from an Historical and Personal Perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
More strikingly yet, Oren supports a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and an evacuation of most of the Israeli town there. "The only alternative for Israel to save itself as a Jewish state is by unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank and evacuating most of the settlements. … I may be the last of the standing unilateralists. The only thing that can save Israel as a Jewish state is by unilaterally withdrawing our settlements from the West Bank" and then awaiting a new, better Palestinian leadership.
May 1, 2009 update: To the surprise of many (including, most memorably, his own daughter, Ruthie Blum), Norman Podhoretz supported the Gaza withdrawal in 2005. Now, without announcing it in so many words, he appears to have changed his mind. Israelis, he writes in "How Obama's America Might Threaten Israel," even most of the doves among them,
A belated welcome, Norman, to the ranks of Gaza-withdrawal opponents.
July 28, 2009 update: A poll by Maagar Mochot finds that Israelis who once favored the withdrawal from Gaza have resoundingly changed their mind and see it as a mistake.
July 30, 2009 update: Yiftach Ron-Tal, the Israeli general who oversaw the Gaza withdrawal, states that "Today it is clear to everybody, that what at the time was an argument over a difficult event, was utter nonsense from a security perspective." He adds: "I opposed it from the deepest meaning of the word opposition - from a security aspect, from a religious aspect and from a national aspect."
Aug. 10, 2009 update: As a side-note to the larger mistakes, a report from the Israeli government office titled the "Administration for Assistance to Settlers from the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria" finds that, four years after the withdrawal, it has spent NIS 10 billion, or $2.54 billion, on those persons who were evicted from their homes, with no end in sight. From them, one hears only complaints, so it appears to be money badly spent.
Jan. 31, 2010 update: Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi appears to be the first foreign politician to condemn the Gaza withdrawal: "what happened in Gaza should prompt some thought. It is not possible to evacuate communities to [then] face burned synagogues, acts of destruction, and inter-Palestinian violence and missiles being shot into Israeli territory."
Aug. 18, 2010 update: The ever-insightful Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe looks at the Gaza withdrawal five years on and deems it "a staggering failure, a disaster in every respect." Here's a partial list of reasons why:
Aug. 7, 2012 update: Ehud Yaari explained to IDF Radio "Hakol Boer" (as transcribed and translated by Aaron Lerner of Independent Media Review and Analysis, IMRA) that Bedouin who
Nov. 20, 2012 update: With war flaring anew between Hamas and Israel, Bret Stephens, then editor of the Jerusalem Post and now on the Wall Street Journal editorial board, writes "I was wrong to support Israel's 'disengagement' from the [Gaza] Strip in 2005." His reason: "The diplomatic and public-relations benefit Israel derives from being able to defend itself from across a "border" and without having to get into an argument about settlements isn't worth the price Israelis have had to pay in lives and terror." He also advocates Israel taking back control of the Philadelphi Corridor.
Nov. 21, 2012 update: (1) Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations also has second thoughts about the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, though only the security forces, not the residents: "Obviously I overestimated the extent to which Israel would get credit for its risky pullout. I overestimated, too, the willingness of the international community to support the Jewish state's attempts to defend itself from terror. … in hindsight it's obvious Israel has paid a heavy price for withdrawing its security forces; if the IDF were present on the ground in Gaza, Hamas would not be able to fire as many rockets as it currently does." That said, Boot continues, "I still think Israel was right to withdraw settlers whose presence in Gaza contributed nothing to Israeli security and who cost a great deal to defend."
(2) Jonathan S. Tobin of Commentary writes that, looking back on the 2005 withdrawal, "it is clear that the decision was a colossal blunder" that "yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect." But Tobin offers no mea culpa on the grounds that he had plenty of doubts at the time yet supported the decision to withdraw because it "was the decision of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel. Indeed, I believe the defense of that principle — that Israel's people must be accorded the right to make their own decisions about their fate — is a far more important duty for us today than the need to second-guess the decision of a leader and a government that has long since faded from the country's political scene." Tobin goes on to condemn "American Jewish wiseacres, be they of the left- or the right-wing persuasion," who offer their own views on Israel's security.
Comment: I replied to Tobin's argument four years ago, in the Jerusalem Post, at "May an American Comment on Israel?" An excerpt:
Nov. 23, 2012 update: Caroline Glick fiercely opposed the 2005 Gaza withdrawal; she begins an article today, "The trap that Arik built," by reviewing Israel's poor choices in the just-finished Second Hamas-Israel War, then notes that "Israel is in a strategic trap. … of its own making." After reviewing Ariel Sharon's unethical and possibly illegal maneuvers to withdraw from Gaza, she bitterly but accurately notes that
Glick's right and the exclusion she refers to rankles still today, sundering long time friendships and alliances.
Mar. 14, 2014: Almost a decade after the Gaza withdrawal, it's receded as a topic for judgment – but still that issue pops up from time to time. Ben Caspit does so today in "PIJ rockets remind Israelis of failure of Gaza withdrawal." An excerpt:
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