Those who have consistently supported Israel, but not "Greater Israel," could be excused for experiencing a sense of vindication as one right-of-center Israeli leader after another has urged unilateral Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank or Gaza Strip, at least from those settlements that are most difficult to justify or defend. The Likud's Yuval Steinitz, head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, has called for a pullback from the Gaza Strip, leaving the Palestinians to form their state there. Ehud Olmert, mayor of Jerusalem and a likely future candidate for prime minister, wants to abandon both Gaza and the more remote West Bank settlements. Others urge partial withdrawal as long as Israel annexes the remaining land—a formula that reportedly carries the blessing of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Why the change in thinking among Israeli hard-liners? Surely one reason is the cost of the eroding but still troublesome Intifada. Another is the demographic threat of a Palestinian population that may one day reject a two-state solution and urge instead majority rule in a single political entity. Finally, the Israelis don't trust Palestinian negotiators. With or without Arafat, they want no Oslo redux. Defensible borders, they say, are more important than negotiated borders; and, particularly with the erasure of the Iraqi threat from the east, Israel's borders have never been more defensible.
But a closer analysis suggests that the advantages of a partial withdrawal are modest and the downsides, great. A pullback would be treated by Palestinian extremists as a great victory—a vindication for their strategy of terror. They would seize the abandoned land and continue their jihad against the Jewish state. And their effort would be reinforced because no one, not even the United States, would recognize new, unilaterally declared borders. World opinion would hold the action illegal and provocative. And this time world opinion would be right.
Moreover, the terms Israel could achieve at the negotiating table are nothing to sneer at. From Camp David through Taba to Geneva, every serious plan has contained provisions establishing an international peacekeeping force. Every one has provided for a demilitarized Palestinian state. Every one has forbidden the Palestinians to enter alliances hostile to Israel. Every one has allowed a continuing Israeli security presence on Palestinian soil and the right of Israeli military planes to conduct exercises in Palestinian air space. And every one has demanded the renunciation of all claims not part of the negotiated deal—by far the best way to extinguish the Palestinian "right of return" to villages inside Israeli territory.
In diplomacy as in war, timing is everything. The moment is approaching when negotiations with the Palestinians will be less a reward for terrorism than a way for Israel to consolidate political gains. Outside the Jerusalem suburbs, which Israel would annex, the settlements are monuments to the fanaticism of the few compounded by the political cowardice of the many. They should revert to the Palestinians as part of a negotiated peace. But withdrawing from them unilaterally makes no more sense than building them in the first place.