Fri, Jun. 18, 2004

Pulling out of Arab areas good for Israel, Palestinians

JERUSALEM -- ``I implore the government: Don't raise your hand against the settlements. Don't undermine their existence.''

This, you might imagine, must be the words of someone in Israel, strongly opposed to the recent, historic decision of Ariel Sharon's government to evacuate Israeli settlements from Gaza.

Not quite. These words were actually written in The Jerusalem Post in 1994, by no other than Sharon himself. Being at that time one of the most vocal leaders of the opposition, he launched an all-out attack on the Israel-PLO agreement signed in Cairo between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. Although no mention was made in that accord of evacuating settlements, Sharon nevertheless bashed the Rabin government for its ``defeatism.''

Yet 10 years later, as prime minister, Sharon -- of all people -- a longtime advocate of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, now shows his determination to do what Rabin never had the courage to do.

Some of us, of course, have been demanding for years that Israel pull out from those heavily populated Arab areas. The reasons were obvious. With the demographic clock ticking for Israel, remaining in those areas might have caused Israel, in a matter of few years, to lose the Jewish majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. In that case, Israel might have turned into an apartheid-like state or a state without a Jewish identity -- and all that, even before discussing the damage that the occupation inflicts on both Palestinians and Israelis.

The only way to thwart such developments was to withdraw from these territories. Only recently did Sharon realize that. Things obviously look different when you move from the opposition benches to the prime minister's office -- but to his credit, once he came to the right conclusion, he acted with the same resolution that won him his name as a warrior.

This is not the time for I-told-you-so bragging. Anyone who cares about the future of Israel as both a democracy and a Jewish state should support Sharon's initiative now. Indeed, according to recent public-opinion polls, most Israelis do.

However, while applauding Sharon's move on Gaza, one should also be concerned about his plans for the West Bank. Because if there is truth in what some commentators in Israel are saying -- namely that Sharon plans to pull out from Gaza only to deepen Israel's grip on the West Bank -- then we have all the reasons to be worried. After all, the same logic that necessitated the pullout from Gaza is valid in the West Bank, too. Why, then, should we wait another 10 years, only to come to the same conclusion? And how many people will lose their lives in between?

Not only Israelis but Palestinians as well should be asking themselves these questions. For, as Abba Eban once said, the Palestinians have been notorious for never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Indeed, over the last seven decades, they have shown once and again that they lived up to Eban's dictum.

Had the Palestinians accepted the Partition Plan put on the table in 1937, and again at the United Nations in 1947, they would have been today in a much better situation. However, by rejecting compromise and opting for war instead, they brought upon themselves only disaster. And so on and so forth, up to Arafat's rejection in 2000 of the most far-reaching Israeli peace plan ever: He couldn't even take Yes for an answer.

No wonder that even King Abdullah of Jordan, who is known for his understatement, couldn't hold himself anymore. In a recent interview with The New York Times, he said: ``I think Arafat needs to have a long look in the mirror to be able to see whether his position is helping the Palestinian cause or not.''

Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders should, therefore, take the Gaza move not as a sign of victory or defeat but as a reminder and a lesson that if at the right time you settle for less, in the long run you gain more for your people.

Uri Dromi is director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.