Israel withdraws from settlements

Sharon is to be applauded for pushing a plan that has exposed deep fissures in Israel.

It’s been called a debate over the soul of Israel, and last week, that debate moved one step closer to a resolution when the Israeli Parliament approved Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip.

That vote is easily the most promising development in four years of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. While a withdrawal from Gaza alone will not guarantee peace, it does represent a historic sea-change in Israel’s approach to the occupied territories. Sharon, like a majority of Israelis, seems to recognize that permanently occupying land Palestinians consider theirs undermines Israeli security in the long run.

Sharon is to be applauded for pushing a plan that has exposed deep fissures in Israeli society. The withdrawal plan has already split Sharon’s own Likud Party and might very well destroy his governing coalition and require early elections. The last Israeli prime minister to make such a bold move, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated. Sharon’s political will and courage are rarely exhibited by modern-day democratically elected leaders.

Those dangers aside, the debate over Gaza is long overdue. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has always been the least democratic quality of the only democracy in the Middle East. The Israeli government has quietly supported the settlements for the last 35 years, with disastrous consequences. The creeping expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank is one of the largest obstacles to peace in this conflict.

Cynics charge that Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza is less a courageous stand for peace than a calculated gamble to maintain Israel’s grip on the West Bank. Israeli settlements in Gaza number only 21, surrounded by Palestinian refugee camps teeming with poverty and extremism. Most settlements in the West Bank, including those around Jerusalem, fall inside the new Israeli fence and might never be abandoned.

Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza might not be a completely selfless bid for peace, but it does offer hope for future. Events since the plan’s announcement in the spring suggest going any further would have been impossible. With any luck, Israel might one day leave the West Bank too.