In the Shadow of the Qassams

Benjamin Netanyahu can be expected to take advantage of the tempestuous mood for his own needs. This does not mean he is right.

If the Israel Defense Forces is telling the truth this time, and it really did have nothing to do with the explosion in Jabalya that took the lives of 17 Palestinians and injured about 140, the escalation of violence over the past 36 hours does not necessarily refute the assumption behind the disengagement plan. However, it can worsen Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's situation this evening and tomorrow in the Likud Central Committee.

What, after all, was behind the prime minister's initiative to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, if not despair over reaching an agreement with the Palestinians? As opposed to the clear leftists like Uri Avneri, or, on the other hand Yossi Beilin, Sharon shows no empathy for the Palestinians or identification with their demands for independence. He is not willing to gamble on their promises. Sharon remains pessimistically security-minded, viewing "the Arabs" en masse, and especially the Palestinians, through the sights of a weapon.

Even if he does not actually do it, he can argue tonight before the members of the Likud Central Committee at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds that the developments of the past 24 hours reinforce his predictions and justify his moves. He can remind them that his rationale for evacuating the Gaza Strip was security. He can say that events bear out his analysis that without the Jewish settlements in Gaza it is easier for the IDF to operate in Palestinian areas, to respond to shelling of communities in the western Negev and to create a balance of deterrance with the PA and the terror organizations.

By removing the Israeli presence from the Gaza Strip, Sharon worked toward determining the border in the south. This step is an important one on the way to stabilizing Israel's relations with the Palestinians. In this sense, it is similar in significance to Ehud Barak's decision to withdraw from Lebanon and obtain international recognition for the border between the two countries. Although there have been a few incidents on the Israel-Lebanese border over the past five years, some of which resulted in loss of life, the withdrawal justified itself and created a clear and recognized space between the two countries. Their security arrangements are the result of the military strength each country can draw on (including Hezbollah rockets), and deterrence, including the ability to respond.

It remains to be seen what will happen on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip: Is this weekend's eruption a spasm left over from the previous violent relations, or is it the harbinger of a new winter, colder than in the past? In any case, it does not destroy the basic assumption of the evacuation: reality required giving up Gaza.

Fundamentally, the decision to leave the Gaza Strip was correct, in keeping with the exigencies and serving Israel's long-term interests. It is in Israel's interest to get rid of the burden of the occupation and return to the Green Line in order to fulfill the Zionist idea. The evacuation of the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank was one more step in this direction (after the withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and from Lebanon) and it embodies a powerful precedent. The struggle over the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank illustrated the true size of the orange camp opposing it, to which the majority of the public did not belong. This majority should not be confused by the military escalation over the weekend: The basic assumption of the withdrawal still holds true even after the barrage of Qassam rockets.

This will probably not be the conclusion of the Likud Central Committee: It is meeting tonight in the shadow of the Qassams and the response of the IDF (the type and extent of which were not known at press time). When the cannons are firing, tempers become fiery. Benjamin Netanyahu can be expected to take advantage of the tempestuous mood for his own needs. This does not mean he is right; neither he nor Uzi Landau have a convincing formula to bridge the gap between Jabotinsky and the reality of Israeli-Palestinian relations in the 21st century.