Makovsky: Very Hot Political Summer Ahead in Israel

David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that, with the scheduled withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza, there is a “sense of a looming showdown” between the Israeli government and its opponents.

July 21, 2005

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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David Makovsky, senior fellow and the director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that with the withdrawal of Israeli settlers due to begin in mid-August, “you’ve got to believe that the people who want to stop this are not going to give up so easily, and that this is going to be a very, very hot summer in Israel.”

Makovsky, former managing editor of the Jerusalem Post, says his worst fear is that Jewish extremists will attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or blow up the sacred Islamic shrine on the Temple Mount to stop the withdrawal, throwing the region into turmoil. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he says, should focus her diplomacy on getting the Israelis and Palestinians to enforce their ceasefire, increasing their coordination during the withdrawal, and helping both sides economically.

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on July 20, 2005.

The withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza is supposed to begin around August 15, so we have less than a month left. What is the mood in Israel right now?

There’s a sense of a looming showdown. Polls show the percentage of those who support disengagement has tended to be around 55 percent, although it fluctuates between 53 [percent] and 60 percent. Even those who have been supportive, of course, have a sense of sympathy on a humanitarian level for the people who are being taken away from their homes. At the same time, the opponents believe it is either religiously impermissible to yield Biblical patrimony, or terribly misguided politically, or both. The supporters of disengagement from Gaza believe that this is critical for Israel’s demographic future if the Jews are not to be a minority in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza by the year 2010. Many of those who are supportive see that it could be an opening for peace, but it’s also indispensable for maintaining Israel’s Jewish demographic edge in the years ahead.

I didn’t realize Gazaheld that much appeal to religious Jews. Is it considered part of Biblical Israel as the West Bank [Judea and Samaria] is?

That’s a very good question and I’ve looked into this. It’s mentioned twice in the Bible, in the Books of Joshua and Judges, that this was part of the inheritance for Israel. But, in historic terms, in fact, this was a port-city area. Even when there were Jewish commonwealths, they were held by empires. And it was really only for 40 years that it was held under Jewish sovereignty, from around 97 to 57 BC. Throughout the 2,000 years since, there have been individual Jews who lived there. The issue, though, is not just about historical or religious claims. For many of the settlers or their sympathizers, they see this as a dry run for a West Bank withdrawal. And they think, “It’s coming to a theater near you,” if they don’t act to stop this and make it as traumatic as possible. If they succeed, they think, “Great,” and if they don’t, at least they’ve made it so traumatic so that it does not reemerge in terms of the West Bank. So they are committed. Some believe it’s politically misguided, because they believe that [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas is politically dead, and that too much of the Palestinian society rejects Israel’s existence, so why agree to a beachhead at Israel’s doorstep, so to speak? Thus, the motivations are varied, but most of the opponents tend to be of the more religious persuasion.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is going back to the Middle East this weekend. Has she got anything on her agenda that you know about?

I think it’s critical that the United States intensifies its commitment. With less than a month to go before disengagement, there are three main areas that need to be addressed.

One is the unraveling of the ceasefire, which if it truly comes apart, will make everything harder. It will weaken [Israeli] Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s domestic position, as well as Abbas’s. So, it’s critical that that ceasefire hold. That means also involving the Egyptians. The Egyptians have tried to get the Palestinian rejectionists to come back to Cairo and recommit to the ceasefire. There have been some reports saying they have, but it’s hard to know what’s real and what isn’t.

I would hope the authority of [Lieutenant] General [William E.] Ward, the Bush administration’s security envoy to the region, would be broadened so he could facilitate regular intelligence cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians. Right now he has been more focused, as he said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing a couple weeks ago [on June 30], on infrastructure capabilities and creating a culture of chain-of-command, as he called it. Those are his words. So, it seems to me, that without the daily security cooperation, this isn’t going to hold.

And there’s another basket, which I hope she focuses on, which is to give a sense of coordination to Gaza. There has been some coordination—there’s been fits and starts—but the Bush administration, while showing resolve by sending James Wolfenson, the outgoing head of the World Bank, to work on economic issues, [also needs to facilitate more coordination]. The more this disengagement takes on a unilateral Israeli character, the easier it will be for Hamas to claim they forced Israel out, so to speak. Israel has wanted to coordinate; I think some of the problems have been on the Palestinian side. But whatever the problems, you need a third party to make sure the whole enterprise is coordinated so it is a spring-board for renewed peace-making and is not perceived as a victory for terrorism. This should be seen as a dramatic move by the United States to reestablish a sense of partnership that has been really missing since the start of the intifada at the beginning of this decade.

What is currently being coordinated with the Palestinians? I read somewhere that they agreed to demolish the settlers’ houses so the Palestinians could build apartment buildings there.

When Rice was in Israel last time, she announced there was an agreement on destroying the houses. But that kind of broke down because the issue became, “Who’s going to clear the houses away?” Israel, I think, would have been willing to keep the houses there.

The Palestinians felt they didn’t need single-family villas. They need high-rise housing because they live in densely populated areas. So there was an understanding to destroy the houses. But Israel said, “If you do this, then you have to clean it all up.” So, someone said, “Let’s get the international community to pay [for the cleanup] and give jobs [removing the rubble] to the Palestinians.” That’s just one example, but there are other loose ends because the coordination got off to a very late start. Now there’s very little time left.

I think if I had to summarize, I would say, “You’ve got to deal with the security side of this whole thing, and you’ve got to use the presence of theUnited Statesto ensure a smooth handover, because this is the prism through which we’re going to look at future peace-making.” If this is successful it will, I think, embolden moderates. And if it’s a failure, it will embolden the rejectionists who will say it’s a victory for terror. So how the United States uses this occasion to try to make this a diplomatic accomplishment will be good for everybody.

And the third part of this, apart from security and partnership and coordination, is to create an atmosphere in which people believe that they’re better off after the Gaza withdrawal than before.Israelis putting in a request to help develop the Negev and the Galilee [regions]. There’s an American interest in helping to shift Israel’s development priorities away from the territories, and that’s a good thing. The Palestinians want economic assistance themselves, for their own reasons. Some nations want to help. You’ve got the G-8 that made this broad commitment [of $3 billion to the Palestinians] that should be reinforced during the secretary’s visit. At the same time, the United States should use its influence to tell the Arab Gulf states that the price of oil has doubled since the Beirut summit a few years ago [where they pledged financial assistance] and didn’t meet those financial commitments. I think there’s been a $58 billion windfall profit to the Arab states in the last year alone, and yet it seems that aid to the Palestinians from all the Arab states is only $107 million. So I think everyone’s got to do their share, but security, the political dimension, and the economic horizon are all key at this point.

How volatile is the political situation in Israel right now?

It’s a moving picture right now, and I think, as we get closer [to the withdrawal], it’s very possibly going to get worse. I saw somewhere that one of the columnists in Israel said the vociferousness of the opposition is worse than it was during the acceptance of reparations from Germany in the early 1950s or in opposition to the Lebanon war in 1982.

Sharon has bet not just his political future on this, but his physical security. Avi Dichter, head of Shin Bet [Israel’s general security service], said there are 200 Israeli Jews walking around who want to kill the prime minister. He also said there were two plots they’ve intercepted to blow up the [holy Islamic sites onJerusalem’s] Temple Mount this summer. My fear is that there’s some Yigal Amir [the Israeli assassin of former-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin] lurking in the shadows to try to derail this. Sharon has bet the ranch on this. You’ve got to believe that the people who want to stop this are not going to give up so easily, and that this is going to be a very, very hot summer in Israel.

Has this really split Israeli society? In other words, do the two sides communicate with each other?

They communicate. It isn’t a civil-war situation. The problem is, you put all these people in a combustible situation and there are some fanatics, and then there’s pushing and shoving and shouting, and all it takes is a few incidents. So you can’t rule out the possibility of bloodshed this summer. I just hope that it’s at a minimum and we don’t see the Yigal Amir situation of some fanatic believing that he is changing the wheels of history either by killing the prime minister of Israel or blowing up the Temple Mount. That’s my biggest fear.

Are most of the settlers accepting the fact that they’re going to have to leave?

It’s an interesting question. It seems that some of the agitation is really done by outside settlers or their sympathizers in Israel. It is not necessarily all from the Gazans themselves. The head of the Disengagement Authority, Yonatan Bassi, who happens to be religious himself, gave an interview to [Israeli newspaper] Haaretz recently saying he expects that most of the settlers will have signed compensation deals by August 15 and will move quietly.

So there’s some outside agitation here. People coming from the West Bank believe this is a terrible precedent. I think Americans need to understand how important it is that it’s Sharon doing it. Some will say that it’s the equivalent of a [President Richard] Nixon going to China, that only he could do this. And I think there’s something to that. I don’t know if Sharon can be the one to complete the process, but I believe he’s the only one who could start it. That’s what the settlers and their supporters fear, is that he will shatter the taboo, and that will allow either Sharon or future governments to follow suit the West Bank, beyond the token withdrawal [from four West Bank settlements] that’s being done in this round.

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