Were the Withdrawals From Lebanon and Gaza a Failure?

In the absence of a correctly executed withdrawal there will be no progress toward peace, no security.

It's been a decade since Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon. Was the move a success or a failure? A little of both? Is there a common lesson to be learned from it and the withdrawal from Gaza, which took place five years ago this summer?

The phrasing of the questions themselves is misleading. The withdrawal from southern Lebanon was just one of a series of withdrawals after 1978's Operation Litani, followed again by staged withdrawals after the Israel Defense Forces pushed to Beirut in September 1982. One of the withdrawals, from the Chouf Mountains, was carried out despite intense opposition from the United States, which was concerned about possible intercommunal slaughter in Lebanon.

The physical position Israel took up in 1985 - "the security zone," as it was mistakenly called - would have been dismantled well before 2000 had it not been for the South Lebanon Army, its military proxy. Senior officers and veterans of Lebanon currently recommend that the U.S. military in Afghanistan emulate the South Lebanon Army model; for example, in the dangerous deployment of accompanying supply convoys, because there is nothing like locals to sniff out danger (and also be hit by shrapnel and thereby reduce pressure from home to withdraw).

The expression "the withdrawal from Gaza" in 2005 is also not accurate. A withdrawal was also carried out on another front, in northern Samaria in the West Bank. There the results were absolutely positive. The removal of the four Jewish settlements contributed to security, and no rockets were fired at Afula from the ruins of the settlement Homesh.

Withdrawals do not occur in isolation, but rather against a backdrop, a context and especially an aftermath. They are what shapes the outcome, not the pictures of the soldier waving the flag from the armored personnel carrier, the commander shutting the gate or the settler weeping over the ruins of his house.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her greetings on Monday for Independence Day, mentioned how quick Harry Truman was to recognize the State of Israel. Under pressure from Truman, David Ben-Gurion was also quick to withdraw from El Arish in the Sinai Campaign. Ben-Gurion understood the contradiction between capturing territory to expand borders or to create a buffer zone on the one hand, and the need to shorten the front line, avoid confrontation with world powers and attract support for holding onto Israel's portion of a partitioned Land of Israel.

That's the difference between immediate protection and longer-term security, between gaining immediate control and longer-term integration, between tactics and strategy. Hence Ben-Gurion also hastened in 1956 to dispel any illusions of a third Israeli imperial kingdom and withdrew from Sinai and the Gaza Strip under U.S. and Soviet pressure.

After the Six-Day War there were no withdrawals, which was one of the reasons for the Yom Kippur War. In the periods between other wars, however, there were many withdrawals, following incursions into Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Arab military pressure and American diplomatic pressure in the Yom Kippur War forced Israel out of parts of the Golan Heights and Sinai (and from the foothold in "Africa" taken during the war).

If not for the Israeli withdrawal from the rest of Sinai and the peace with Egypt, Israel would have collapsed under the intolerable weight of maintaining troops there. It would have needed many more divisions, reserve duty until old age and infirmity, fighter squadrons and defense budgets to pay for them - and all this under conditions that had not yet been experienced in the entanglement in Lebanon and the intifada in the territories.

The withdrawal from Lebanon, after which Israel mistakenly did not respond harshly to the abduction of three Israeli soldiers in 2000 in the Har Dov border region, did not address the problem of Hezbollah. It simply deferred the next round of violence because we did not have the necessary context of an agreement with Syria. The withdrawal from Gaza was carried out with unfortunate timing in a mistaken manner by a fading leader. The Gush Katif settlement bloc and the other Gaza settlements should not have been built, but should have been evacuated. The border area with Egypt at Rafah, and even better, north of the town, should have remained under Israeli army control, however. And Israel never should have given in to U.S. pressure to allow Hamas' participation in the 2006 Palestinian elections.

The antiquated objective of taking the enemy's capital no longer makes sense. Perhaps it would be beneficial in Gaza in toppling the Hamas regime, but not in Beirut or Damascus. And even if an enemy took Jerusalem, including the Knesset, ministry buildings and even the Holyland project, it would not subdue Tel Aviv in the process. Distant enemies with missiles, including the Soviets at one time, then the Iraqis and now the Iranians, have no common border with Israel that we could have illusions of crossing to conquer territory and subdue them.

The proper lesson to be drawn from Lebanon and Gaza is that in the absence of a correctly executed withdrawal - with a start, middle and end - there will be no progress toward peace, and thus no security.