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Between Hamas and a Hard Place: Israel’s Deadly Dilemma

TEL AVIV — As we here mourn the mounting death toll — and sprint for cover when the sirens sound — we’re all engaging in that old Israeli pastime: second-guessing the politicians and generals.

Everyone’s an armchair of Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz these days. What to do in Gaza or the West Bank? How long can this go on? Could it have been avoided? How many soldiers does this country have to lose in order for this war to end? What should be done after the fighting stops? Everyone has a different answer, and every answer has a little truth in it.

Meanwhile, we’re looking down the barrel of an open-ended ground operation in Gaza that could last weeks more and claim hundreds more lives. An American cease-fire proposal was before the Israeli cabinet Friday afternoon. With the civilian death toll rising, some Israeli cabinet members are arguing that the only way to stop Hamas is to reoccupy Gaza — a step that would be very costly to Israel’s international standing and, more importantly, to its military. Those arguing for occupation now are essentially saying that then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza in 2005 ended in failure, because all Israel got was more Hamas rockets falling from the sky.

But Israel’s decision to withdraw from Gaza was not intended primarily to stop the rockets. Sharon didn’t believe for a moment that Israel’s withdrawal would tame Hamas and convince Israel’s mortal enemies to make nice. He was driven by entirely different considerations.

Since its foundation, Israel has based its defense calculations on two concepts: basic security and current security. Basic security is concerned with the preservation of the very fundamentals of the Zionist enterprise — the preservation of Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people. Current security is about the day-to-day maintenance of the personal safety and well-being of Israelis.

For over 40 years, Israel has had the good fortune of not having to engage in all-out war with any of its neighbouring states. It even has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. For decades, however, Israelis have been exposed to a wide range of terrorist assaults: aircraft hijackings, kidnappings, murderous suicide bombings, massive rocket attacks. Israelis are, understandably, obsessed with current security — so much so that, in recent public discourse, issues of basic security are being almost completely overshadowed.

At times, Israel’s current security needs conflict with the country’s requirements for its long-term basic security. Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was justifiably seen as an asset in maintaining Israel’s current security. However, this very same occupation eroded Israel’s basic security by undermining its Jewish and democratic character as well as its international legitimacy, and thus had an undeniably negative effect on Israel’s long-term survival.

This is exactly what Sharon wanted to avoid when he became prime minister. His decision to disengage from Gaza was driven not by rockets but by long-term basic security considerations. Sharon’s goal was to preserve Israel’s Jewish character by ridding itself of any remnants of Jewish settlement and the concomitant direct control over more than a million and a half (now closer to two million) Palestinians in Gaza.

There can be no doubt that Israel is considerably better off in terms of its basic security with almost two million fewer Palestinians under its control. Indeed, hardly anyone in Israel — even the most militant critics of disengagement — seriously believes that Gaza should be reoccupied. Gaza is not the real issue and never was. Israel’s real dilemma is about the future nature of the entire Zionist enterprise.

Israel must make an unhappy choice between being the democratic nation-state home of the Jewish people alongside a presumably unfriendly, or even belligerent, Palestinian state — or creating an oppressive one-state reality in which Israel gradually loses its democratic and Jewish character as well as its international legitimacy. The options facing Israel have been thrown into sharp relief by the events of recent weeks.

Israel’s two options for conflict management couldn’t be more different. One is the West Bank model of occupation and settlement, which entails constant repression, violence and counter-violence — at times assuming the character of civil war — crossing over the 1967 Green Line and presenting an ominous foretaste of a future one-state reality. The other is the Gaza model, where Israel seeks to employ deterrence as an alternative to occupation.

Obviously, the Gaza model is not flawless; nothing impermanent can be. Deterrence doesn’t last.

However, the Gaza model only poses problems of current security to Israel, for which there are various highly effective defensive and offensive solutions. The West Bank model, on the other hand, constitutes a basic security problem. It offers no reasonable or realistic solutions and poses a mortal threat to Israel’s long-term survival — something not all the rockets fired from Gaza could do.

As the war thunders on with no end in sight, Prime Minister Netanyahu must choose between these two models. Sharon did so 10 years ago. He made the right choice.

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