Israel's 'Security' Debate May Ignore Real Threats
Agreement on a West Bank pullback may be close. But critics say 'quibbling' over its scope poses danger.
JERUSALEM — Judging by the debate taking place inside Israel's ruling coalition, the exact size of the next phased withdrawal from occupied West Bank territory - required by the Oslo peace process, and the next step before peace talks can resume - will determine much more than control of land.
Withdrawal is seen as either a necessary evil or a move that will make Israel forever vulnerable.
But Israeli analysts say the debate ignores more serious threats to the Jewish state that come from beyond its borders. They point to the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Mideast, more and better missiles to deliver them, and anti-Israel Islamist ideology as Israel's true concerns.
"These are the real dangers," says Joseph Alpher, a security expert and head of the Jerusalem office of the American Jewish Committee. "Instead of ... dealing with them, we are quibbling for months over a few percentage points of land in the West Bank.
"[The government] is aware of these threats, but I can't see any attempt to integrate them," he says. "I think this is shortsighted and dangerous."
The United States insists that only a pullback of 13.1 percent or more will be seen to be credible by Palestinians, while hard-liners in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, reluctant to go beyond 9 percent, declare that any more than 11 percent would be national suicide.
But outgoing Israeli army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak seemed to undermine this argument in an interview with army radio last week. "The difference between 11 and 13 percent, or 9 and 13 percent ... it's not that it is trivial ... but it is certainly not very, very dramatic," he said. "The main thing is not only the size of the land given back, but under what conditions and in what atmosphere."
The peace process bogged down 16 months ago. Last Friday, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called for a resumption of direct talks.
Mr. Netanyahu said yesterday that Israel was prepared to begin direct talks with the Palestinians. But chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Palestinians opposed any attempts to change the American plan on the withdrawal. There have been reports in recent days that Mahmoud Abbas, deputy of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, might soon meet with Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.
Netanyahu also said yesterday that Israel was close to agreement on elements of the US plan. "We have almost closed the gap," Netanyahu told a national fund-raising event. "The only thing holding up the process is the Palestinians' refusal to comply with commitments they have made repeatedly for five years."
Israel has pressed the Palestinians to crack down harder on terrorism and remove from their charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Critics say all the bluster about security is a tactic to delay any pullback, and seems to ignore the fact that a third and final West Bank withdrawal was also agreed upon - one that is to leave "most" of the territory under Palestinian control.
When the Oslo accord was signed in 1993, the Palestinians expected that their land would include some 90 percent of the West Bank, and with the Gaza Strip form the basis of a new state.
But since Netanyahu was elected two years ago, right-wing Israeli settlers have renewed efforts to build and expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and around Jerusalem, making the map of any pullout tricky.
The Israeli army last week presented its own "security map" of the West Bank that abandoned 59 of 159 Jewish settlements. Settlers prepared to camp out in front of the prime minister's office after hearing rumors that the Cabinet would vote on a 13 percent pullback.
"When someone says that a 1 percent difference will harm the security of Israel, that is ridiculous," says Reuven Pedatzur, head of the Galili Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "The idea on their side is to stop all debate. If 1 percent is a danger now, what will happen later?"
Netanyahu's recent call for a referendum, he says, is a similar gimmick. "Imagine if Arafat said, 'Wait, let me go to the people and ask about Oslo again.'"
The stakes are high for Israel's increasingly powerful right wing, which ideologically opposes any compromise with Palestinians on the territory they call by the biblical names Judea and Samaria. Some members of Netanyahu's government have threatened to withhold their support.
"Once this [Israeli] government pulls out of the West Bank, it means that no one is left in Israel who is in favor of occupation," says Martin Van Creveld, a military historian at Hebrew University.
Mr. Van Creveld says that the debate has been separated from the greater strategic picture. But failure to withdraw, he says, could turn Palestinian anger into the most dangerous problem.
"I would argue that this is the only threat that can destroy Israel," he says. "The outside threats unite us, but internal threats divide us. This has to be solved."