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Engaging disengagement

Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol 36, No 142, Winter 2007

The Road Map to Nowhere: Israel/Palestine since 2003, by Tanya Reinhart.London: Verso, 2006. 217 pages. Notes to p.240. Index to p. 248. $18.00 paper.

In late 2002 Tanya Reinhart published her book Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948, a debunking of the myths that quickly took root about Israel’s “generous offer” to the Palestinians at Camp David in July 2000 and an examination of the initial phases of Israel’s military onslaught against the Palestinian uprising, the al-Aqsa intifada. Four years later, Reinhart completes the saga by exploring how Israel’s response unfolded, culminating in the disengagement from Gaza in August 2005.

Reinhart is a professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University and an against-the-grain columnist for Israel’s largest-circulation newspaper, Yedi’ot Aharonot. As in her columns, she relies heavily on existing coverage of the conflict, offering no original material or research except for a short final section that deals with her own experiences participating in joint Palestinian and Israeli protests against the West Bank “separation wall.” In particular, she prospects for nuggets of overlooked information in the Hebrew media about Israel’s true designs and intentions.

This inevitably lays her open to the criticism that she has selected the facts to fit her narrative, one that challenges the popular interpretation of events. But, with one exception that I shall address shortly, she makes a persuasive case for her view of the disengagement. She argues that it was not, as widely presented in the West, either an Israeli concession to the Palestinians or a first stage in ending the occupation. The policy emerged during a frantic scramble by Israel’s leadership to manoeuvre away from the dangers presented by an American-sponsored peace initiative, the road map, which proposed the rapid establishment of a “viable” Palestinian state (p. 36). The Gaza disengagement bought a little breathing space as Ariel Sharon pressed on with completing the wall in the West Bank.

Reinhart contends that the disengagement has moved the conflict into a new, more threatening phase: it has consolidated Gaza as a prison separate from the West Bank; it has given the confrontation between Palestinian militants and Israel the appearance of a straightforward war, freeing Israel’s hand to use much greater force; and it has opened the way to Israel annexing more Palestinian land behind the West Bank wall and the final ghettoization of Jerusalem. Israel is well on the way, Reinhart believes, to completing a system of open-air prisons for the Palestinians. Such a solution will ensure “eternal war” against not only the Palestinians but anyone who is seen by Israel to be offering them support (p. 8). On all these points, Reinhart carefully cites reliable media reports to make her case as unassailable as possible.

The book’s weakness springs not from her analysis of what is happening in the occupied territories but from her reading of Sharon’s motivations in promoting the disengagement. She insists that the withdrawal from Gaza was never supposed to take place and that Sharon was forced to carry it out under massive last-minute American pressure, including military sanctions and an unprecedented attack on Israel’s main cheerleader in Washington, AIPAC, a powerful lobby that was effectively silenced in the crucial runup to disengagement. George W. Bush, she believes, hoped an evacuation from Gaza would win back international goodwill as the United States sank deeper into the quagmire of Iraq.

Interesting though Reinhart’s argument is, it would be stronger had she not been claiming that the Gaza disengagement would never happen almost from the moment the plan was announced in February 2004. There has to be at least a suspicion that she has been searching for the evidence to prop up her contentious thesis.

Her discussion of Sharon’s extremely hesitant preparations for the disengagement (pp. 91–100), for example, glosses over the fact that he faced huge pressures inside his own Likud party to abandon the policy, including challenges to his leadership. Similarly, Reinhart demonstrates a misplaced confidence in suggesting that Sharon’s plans for an Israeli assault on Gaza in summer 2005 proved that he wanted to sabotage the disengagement (p. 125). It could equally be argued that he needed a show of force to crush any Hamas triumphalism. And her related doubts about why Sharon refused to coordinate the evacuation with the Palestinian security forces can easily be explained by his need to set a precedent for unilateralism in future withdrawals from the West Bank.

Suspicions that Reinhart is simply avoiding material that weakens her case on this point are underlined by her reluctance to consider the reasons why Sharon might have wanted the disengagement to proceed. She weakly offers one justification—that the occupation of Gaza was growing too costly, both financially and militarily—before knocking it down (p. 31).

But there was at least one other plausible reason why Sharon might have been persuaded he had no choice but to disengage from Gaza. That was the fear that Israel was about to lose its long-standing demographic war as the Palestinian and Jewish populations in Israel and the occupied territories neared numerical parity. After disengaging, Israel could claim to have lost responsibility for 1.4 million Gazans and thereby end the immediate threat of being compared to apartheid South Africa.

Demographic obsessions have haunted the leadership since before Israel’s birth in 1948 when, under cover of war, 80 percent of the Palestinian population was forced out of the new state. And in the past few years, concern has peaked again: the Israeli media has been full of dire predictions about Palestinians outnumbering Israelis; the annual Herzliya Conference of Israeli policymakers has been considering little else for several years; and demography was one of the original rationales offered for unilateral separation, disengagement’s ideological forerunner.

It is astonishing therefore that the word “demography” is only mentioned once, in a passing reference to professor Arnon Sofer’s plans for slicing up the West Bank into a series of ghettos (p. 162). Reinhart fails to draw attention to the explicit connection between Sofer’s demographic warnings and the widespread support for disengagement. Even more strangely, she also fails to consider the issue of demography when referring to what she perceives to be the main goal behind the building of the West Bank wall: ethnic cleansing (pp. 169, 173).

Reinhart’s refusal to address the question of demography in considering the Gaza disengagement is an omission that weakens what is otherwise a powerful book that exposes Israel’s enduring bad faith in its claims to be pursuing peace with the Palestinians.

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