Legitimate Value
By A.D. Freudenheim  

31 October 2004

As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon continues to fight for his political life, and for the implementation of his Gaza withdrawal plan (now approved by the Israeli Knesset), Palestinian President Yassir Arafat may (or may not) be fighting for his biological life at a hospital outside Paris. Fighting for one’s life can sometimes inflict more damage than intended, and that may be equally true here. While the political leadership on all sides deploy various antibodies, and hope their immune systems will survive the current attacks, the Israeli and Palestinian people will continue to suffer.

Palestinians are no doubt arguing over how the removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza affects Palestinian statehood, and how all this relates to whether or not the ailing Arafat will return. If history is any guide – and if Sharon’s withdrawal plans proceed – the Palestinians will not know what to with a Gaza freed from Israel’s grip. Internal battles between the terrorists and the Palestinian Authority certainly lie ahead, while any cooperation between these factions will be momentary, a pause in the action until the right opportunity for a violent betrayal presents itself. The non-violent methods that might successfully have secured Palestinian freedom are apparently not manly enough for a population willing to blow themselves up, nor do they lead to the notional paradise of virgins in which so many have been taught to believe.[1]

The Israelis, meanwhile, surely believe that whatever this withdrawal means, it should not be taken as the beginning of a Palestinian state, a view obviously held by Ariel Sharon, whose government continues to delay discussions on this subject. This is short-sighted. Creating – and sustaining – a Palestinian state may be Israel’s best solution to this long-standing problem, because helping the Palestinians create a nation-state entity recognized by the world would radically change the terms of any future fight, in Israel’s favor.

Aiding Palestinian independence would be consistent with the philosophical perspective embedded in Sharon’s strategy of removing Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza. At a practical level, Sharon’s plan is predicated on finally healing Israel from a self-inflicted wound that otherwise needs constant treatment: thousands of soldiers and thousands of shekels must be spent to protect a small population of settlers embedded in a community of more than a million Palestinians. The cost-benefit analysis must surely run to such negatives as can appeal only to Messianic true-believers (not surprisingly, exactly the population of Jews settled in Gaza). At bottom, however, it seems that Sharon believes Israel can reacquire some legitimacy for its struggles with the Palestinians by pulling out – and that desire to salvage some of Israel’s reputation should be as much a motivation as the practical necessity of freeing troops and funds for other purposes. When Palestinian residents of a sealed-off – but unoccupied – Gaza attack Israelis outside Gaza’s border, Sharon believes that Israel’s retaliations will appear kosher in the eyes of the world.

Which is why a full-scale state for the Palestinians is needed, and the value of national legitimacy must come from a substantive and functional society, not small, dysfunctional, partially-occupied pieces. Israel cannot force the Palestinians to acquire the nation they say they want, but it can work to project legitimacy onto the Palestinian leadership – in much the same way it tries to do now, when it holds the Palestinian Authority responsible for anti-Israeli violence. Israel can focus Palestinian efforts on the nation-building and statecraft that will be needed to address the needs of the Palestinian people. Sharon surely hopes to show how unmanageable the Palestinians will be after withdrawal as before. However, if Israel continues to be seen as the occupying force, even when it is no longer present on Gazan lands, then Israel will likewise continue to lose the ideological war to uphold the moral integrity of the Jewish state.

If it is not obvious already, the future of both peoples are tied together. Assisting with the creation of a Palestinian state is the best way for Israel to ensure the legitimacy of the Jewish state, whether in war or, hopefully, in peace. Moreover, attacked by a free and independent Palestine, Israel’s right to self-defense would be unmarred by complaints that the occupation of another nation’s land and people are an inherent and worthy provocation. The alternative, to quote The Economist describing American actions elsewhere in the world, is for Israel to continue oppressing the Palestinians in a manner that “is disturbing for those who sympathize with it, cause-affirming for those who hate it.”[2]

[1] See my article "Too Many Rights, Too Many Wrongs," 31 March 2002.
[2]The incompetent or the incoherent?”, The Economist, 30 October 2004
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