The Pullout as a Default Option'

The experts assess that - even though it is based on the perception that there is no Palestinian partner - the disengagement might turn out to be far-reaching, not only with respect to the management of the conflict, but also its resolution.

As these lines are being written, on Sunday morning, it can be said that only a natural disaster could stop the government's decision to approve the disengagement plan and, at the same opportunity, the route of the separation fence. None of the government ministers, among them a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, questions the basic assumption on which the decisions are based to abandon the track of talks with our neighbor in favor of unilateral moves. A Palestinian leader dies and a Palestinian leader is born, an Israeli government comes and an Israeli government goes, and the basic assumption remains: There is no Palestinian partner for a move toward peace. Even Yahad is supporting the Sharon government's unilateral move and turning its back on the Beilin-Abu Mazen accord, the Taba understandings and the Geneva document. Thousands of Palestinians were made homeless and vengeful until a group of experts revealed to the chief of staff that the method of demolishing houses is more damaging than helpful.

The report of a think-tank forum that operated with the blessing of Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon and was closely accompanied by Colonel Amos Lehman, his adviser for strategic thinking, questions the perception that a strong arm and collective punishment suffice to deter a people that is fighting occupation. The team determined that "Israel has not succeeded in `etching into the mind' of the Palestinians the notion that violence does not serve their aims and even greatly harms their advancement." Moreover, the document, first published here, states that during the years of the intifada the feeling prevailed among the Palestinians that they had nothing to lose, and along with this their motivation to become part of the cycle of violence increased.

The committee, which met regularly since November 2003 at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies was comprised of retired senior intelligence people: Ephraim Halevy, Reuven Merhav and Yossi Ben-Ari of the Mossad; Efraim Lavie of Military Intelligence; Kobi Michael of the Liaison and Coordination Unit; and academics such as Yaakov Bar-Siman-Tov (who headed the team), Daniel Bar-Tal, Ruth Lapidoth, Dan Zakai, Ezra Sadan, Tamar Herman, Yifrah Zilberman and Yitzhak Reiter. They interviewed intelligence experts and Middle East specialists, among them Mati Steinberg, former senior adviser on Palestinian affairs to the head of the Shin Bet security service.

Their report charges that the Israel Defense Forces - under the leadership of current Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, when he was chief of staff, and afterward, under Moshe Ya'alon - fanned the violent conflict that broke out in September 2000: "The levers of pressure that were applied to the Palestinian population and to the security apparatus, most of whose members did not take part at the beginning of the conflict, gave rise to negative results. A sense of anger and vengeance led to the tightening of the cooperation among the terror groups and between them and elements of the Palestinian security services that joined the conflict as a result of the IDF's damages to them. As a result of this the phenomenon of suicide attacks swelled to unprecedented dimensions, spilling over into the nonreligious organizations."

The report shoots down the conception that had taken hold in the public concerning the reasons for the failure of the peace process and the outbreak of the intifada, the escalation and the continuation of the hostilities. This is the same conception that greases the wheels of unilateral initiatives. The experts warn that conducting a conflict without a diplomatic end in sight is "a negative recipe that plays into the hands of extremist elements on both sides and is liable to lead to the escalation of the conflict .... Even today the basic Palestinian support for the idea of two states is becoming shaky, and there exists a danger that the Palestinian public will lose interest in such an agreement and a public mood will develop that will lead to its prevention."

The think-tank team sees the disengagement plan as a new conflict-management concept that derives from the recognition that the military way of managing the conflict has reached the end of its road. It notes that "a unilateral strategy of conflict-management constitutes a default option and it is not desirable, unless it can encourage the other side to return to a joint format of managing the conflict." In a hopeful (despairing?) tone the experts assess that in that case - even though the new strategy is based on the perception that there is no Palestinian partner for a diplomatic move - the disengagement might turn out to be far-reaching, not only with respect to the management of the conflict, but also to the possibility of its resolution.