Just a few months ago, Israel appeared as though it had successfully completed two unilateral withdrawals: from the security zone in Lebanon and from the Gaza Strip.
Although the calm on the borders between Gaza and Lebanon was not complete, occasionally violated by the firing of rockets and mortar shells, the feeling among the public was that Israel had found the magical formula for a settlement with its neighbors, namely unilateral withdrawal from all territories occupied after the Six Day War. To withdraw, to build a fence and a wall – and to hope that nothing terrible would happen.
In fact, the withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon were not exactly unilateral. Many elements were involved in several arenas. What mostly characterized them was that they were void of concessions. Israel renounced any "give and take" type of agreement with the Lebanese and Palestinian people.
Israel withdrew from Lebanon without any compensation whatsoever, and without any commitment from the Syrian and Lebanese governments. Israel left Gaza in the same manner: without receiving anything in return, and without any commitment whatsoever from the Palestinian side.
'Land for Peace'
True, in both cases the world applauded Israel's unilateral redeployment initiative, and in the case of Lebanon it was even backed by an important Security Council resolution. This resolution, however, remained an empty shell: the governments of Lebanon and Syria didn't consider themselves bound by the resolution, just as the Palestinians didn't consider themselves party to our disengagement from Gaza.
The unilateral withdrawals were conducted through coarse violation of basic Israeli principles prevalent until 2000: "Land for Peace." First Ehud Barak and then Arik Sharon presented the Israeli public with unilateral withdrawals as acts of superior strategic wisdom.
At its basis was the assumption that Israel would benefit from ending the occupation in south Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and that it would benefit even though the other side wasn't prepared to pay anything in return. Occupation of territories was presented as a heavy burden, and relieving ourselves of this burden was considered a worthwhile act in itself. Israel told the Arabs: we do not need your favors, just get out of our sight.
This was considered logical thinking – but not realistic. In Middle East reality, however, the unilateral withdrawal was interpreted as folding up, as fleeing as succumbing to terror. The Israeli move was perceived worldwide as a weakness, the inability of Israelis to endure a prolonged war of terror.
The radical Moslem "resistance forces" – the Hizbullah in the north and the Hamas in the south – received an unexpected gift from Israel. Instead of creating an infrastructure for peace, the advance wavering of a settlement created the infrastructure for the next war.
Barak and Sharon decided to take the route of unilateral withdrawal also because of the personal revulsion involved in negotiating with enemies and terrorists, and they didn't believe that it could lead to results that would be accepted by the public. However, they could have looked around them at two other prominent cases of withdrawals – from Egypt and Jordan – under the principle of "Land for Peace," these two settlements are in fact holding up magnificently day after day.
It may perhaps sound strange to Israeli ears, but when the Arabs sign agreements, they usually abide by them. Even the Hizbullah and Hamas made an effort to abide by the agreements made with them. If Israel decided to waiver such agreements in advance, why should they exercise restraint. From their own good will? They don't have any.
The current Gaza war and the second Lebanon war broke out because of the misconception of withdrawals without concessions. They should, therefore, clearly mark the end of the era of unilateral withdrawals in Israeli policy, the end of various "disengagement" or realignment plans, and the return to binding bi-lateral agreements with the Arabs.
Agreements the dovish camp describes as "Land for Peace," and as Benjamin Nethanyahu put it during his term in office as prime minister, "if they give – they'll get; if they don't give – they won't get."