After four months of intense discussion, the Council for Peace and Security, a group of 1,000 top-level reserve generals, colonels, and Shin Bet and Mossad officials, are to mount a public campaign for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza and much of the West Bank.
Taking care to avoid the term "separation" - council member Shlomo Avineri, a former foreign ministry director general, said it smacks of apartheid - the organization is calling for evacuating Gaza, dismantling 50 settlements, the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state, and immediate peace talks with Palestinians, whether there is a cease-fire or not.
The debate inside the organization involved some 300 of its members, and about 80 percent of the full membership has signed on to the campaign. It will include public appearances, bumper stickers, and a pamphlet titled "Saying shalom to the Palestinians." During the debates, many members raised objections to a unilateral withdrawal from the territories. The arguments ranged from how it would forestall talks with the Palestinians, because a withdrawal would be seen as similar to the "escape" from Lebanon, to the opinion that the council should not deal with withdrawal, which implies leaving settlements.
But as the debate continued, a consensus evolved to encompass 80 percent of the membership that believes the immediate establishment and recognition of a Palestinian state would force the Palestinian leadership to change its behavior. Council sources said Palestinians shown the plan are firmly opposed to it because they fear the new lines to be drawn - mostly along the Green Line - would become permanent, if only de facto, borders.
"I went into the discussions without a firm opinion," said reserve major general Danny Rothschild, president of the council. "But I was convinced by the contacts I have through back channels with Palestinians in recent months. I've learned from them that the street has taken over the entire moderate camp, and the moderate positions they take behind closed doors change the minute there's fear that they will be exposed to the threatening street. I also took into account the demographic issue, and without any chance right now for negotiations, it requires withdrawal in order to preserve the Jewish character of the state."
But more than anything else, Rothschild said the deciding factor for him was the sprouting movement of soldiers refusing to serve in the territories, even before the officers letter issued late last month that has already grown to more than 200 signatories. "Four months ago it was clear to me that the movement would grow if we continue calling up reserves to accompany settlers to music lessons and to protect real estate that has nothing to do with ideology."
According to Rothschild, the council members "said to ourselves that precisely because we aren't politicians, but people who look at the situation through a security perspective of how to use power, it was clear that those two jeeps and a tank that accompany a settler who refuses to use a bypass road, would do much more good if they were on the seam," meaning on both sides of the Green Line, the pre-1967 armistice lines. "Shifting a company of soldiers from protecting a settlement to protecting the seam is the proper use of force," says Rothschild.
Unlike some of the other unilateral withdrawal plans, like "Life Fence," for example, the council's plan involves evacuating some 40-50 settlements, where some 15 percent of the settlers live. The council has detailed maps, but it won't make them public yet to avoid being perceived as an alterative to the army.
The council plan will be dubbed "Saying shalom to the Palestinians," using the double meaning of both farewell and peace for the word shalom, and includes a full withdrawal from Gaza, except for a narrow zone along the international border with Egypt; new military deployment along a new line east and south of the Green Line in the northern West Bank, and east and north of it in the south Mt. Hebron area. The Green Line would become the new line in the Bethlehem and Ramallah areas. According to the plan, Israelis would remain - at this stage - in the Jordan Valley, the Gush Etzion bloc, the Ariel finger, and in Kiryat Arba and in the Jewish neighborhood in downtown Hebron.
The plan does not touch on the issue of Jerusalem, except for noting that by moving troops out of other places, more will be available for protecting Jerusalem. "This is not a 100 percent solution," Rothschild admits, "but the plan solves the anomaly of there being the most number of troops in the places with the least number of settlers to protect."
One of the most vehement of the council member opposed to the plan is reserve major general Shlomo Gazit, a member of the council's executive. Gazit argued for redeployment to new lines, but said as much as possible has to be left to negotiations. Indeed, Gazit seems to be expressing the ambivalence in other organizations that back unilateral separation but are afraid it will sabotage any negotiations with the Palestinians.
Thus, the Peace Coalition, comprised of Peace Now, Meretz and Labor Party doves, is speaking in two voices as it calls for unilateral separation and for negotiations. Indeed, the bumper sticker the Council for Peace and Security encompasses that ambivalence: "Withdrawal for security, talks for peace."
In the past, the council threw its considerable weight behind the Oslo agreements, most of whose architects are now opposed to a unilateral withdrawal. But Rothschild has a different view. "The negotiations for a permanent agreement have to be based on Oslo. But an army commander cannot be dogmatic. When conditions change on the ground, he must change his behavior. If Oslo is dead, it's because we killed it, and now we're shooting. But now there's no choice except to do what's best for us."
At the latest session of the council's executive, last week, which was attended by among others reserve major generals Nati Sharoni and Ami Ayalon, the former Shin Bet chief, the executive challenged Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policy of refusing to negotiate with the Palestinians under fire. The council called for immediate talks, under fire, with the Palestinians, and for the immediate evacuation of isolated settlements that require a large military presence to protect.
Sharon refused to meet with them
During the months of preparation, discussing the plan, council members met with a host of figures, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and former justice minister Yossi Beilin, who oppose unilateral withdrawal; Haim Ramon who favors unilateral withdrawal and a permanent agreement with international peacekeeping forces, which the council rejects; Minister Dan Meridor, who supports separation primarily for demographic reasons, and with Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who opposes evacuating settlements.
As part of their planned public campaign, the council was supposed to meet with the Labor Party Knesset faction this week, to present the plan. But the meeting was canceled at the last minute, with the conventional wisdom saying Ben-Eliezer did not want to provide a platform to the proponents of unilateral withdrawal, like Ramon.
The council is due to meet President Moshe Katsav and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to present the plan. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has refused to meet them.
The council has an appointment at Rafael in two weeks time to examine new technologies, including a new security fence, developed by the state-owned weapons R&D firm, that could be integrated into their security plan.
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