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August 23, 2006
Israelis Cancel West Bank Withdrawal

The Israeli push to withdraw from the West Bank has become a casualty of the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon. With Israelis increasingly angry about the performance of the government in the conflict and disgusted with the results of conciliatory gestures, Ehud Olmert has little choice but to shelve plans to pull out of the occupied territory:

The plan, which propelled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to victory in March elections and was warmly endorsed by President Bush as a way of solving Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, is no longer a top priority, Olmert told his ministers last weekend, according to one of his advisers.

Instead, the government must spend its money and efforts in northern Israel to repair the damage from the war and strengthen the area in case fighting breaks out again, Olmert said. ...

Even without the financial considerations, the plan for unilateral withdrawal from some settlements is dead, other political figures and analysts said. The seizure of Israeli soldiers and the renewed fighting in the Gaza Strip -- from which Israel withdrew last year -- and in southern Lebanon -- from which Israel withdrew in 2000 -- have left the Israeli public with little appetite for additional pullouts.

The pullout of Gaza is now considered a mistake, given the attacks on Israel which intensified over the last few months. Despite the unpopularity of the Lebanese occupation, Israelis now feel that their withdrawal there bought them little peace, just a shift of battlefields. Both withdrawals had their political and military advantages, especially the latter, but the Israelis are in no mood for further concessions. The nature of the summer conflicts have apparently united Israelis across the political spectrum on the nature of their enemies in the region and the existential nature of their conflict.

With the dimunition of Mahmoud Abbas, it now becomes increasingly apparent that no partner for peace will be found in the Palestinians nor among the terrorist-sponsoring states of the region. This will also impact Western aid and involvement in the push for a long-term settlement to the conflict. If Abbas cannot deliver on a simple cease-fire, using the formal powers of his proto-state, then the US has no incentives to offer Israel in any push to gain concessions on the settlements. Indeed, the best strategic plan in the case of chaos would be to hold as much ground as possible to gain better positions to fight the terrorists when they attack.

Besides, the root of the problem does not lie in the occupation of the West Bank any more than in Gaza. The Hezbollah war showed clearly that the root of the problem lies in Damascus and Teheran. Max Boot suggests that the Israelis respond to the threat directly rather than fight the proxy war both capitals have enjoyed:

Syria's importance as an advance base for Iran — the two countries concluded a formal alliance on June 16 — cannot be exaggerated. It is the go-between for most of the munitions flowing to Hezbollah. It is the sanctuary of Hamas honcho Khaled Meshaal. It is also, according to Israeli intelligence sources, the home of a new Iranian-Syrian intelligence center that tracks Israeli military movements and relays that information to terrorist proxies.

State Department optimists dream that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad can be weaned from Iran through concessions from the United States and Israel, such as the return of the Golan Heights. But since the early 1990s, the United States has tried repeatedly to strike a deal with Syria and never gotten anywhere. More economic pressure, especially from Europe, would be helpful, but it could probably be offset by increased subsidies from Iran.

History suggests that only force, or the threat of force, can win substantial concessions from Syria. In 1998, Turkey threatened military action unless Syria stopped supporting Kurdish terrorists. Damascus promptly complied. Israel may have no choice but to follow the Turkish example.

Indeed, Shlomo Avineri, a former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, argues that his country fought the wrong war: Instead of targeting Lebanon, it should have gone after Syria. The Syrian armed forces are less motivated than Hezbollah, and they offer many more targets for Israeli airpower.

I argued this at the start of the conflict. Boot later says that the Syrians are willing to fight Israel to the "last Lebanese", and he's correct. So far the war has cost them nothing, although Boot does leave off one strategic setback for Teheran and Damascus: the Israelis negated the extortive power of Hezbollah's rockets by shrugging them off, making their diminished rocket capacity much less powerful psychologically as well as numerically. That also plays into greater Syrian vulnerability -- a missile attack resulting from an Israeli attack on Syria would hardly provide much of a distraction any more.

Syria needs to understand the risk involved in a proxy war. Some would see this as an unprovoked attack on the part of the Israelis, but Syria's hosting of Hamas leadership while the group attacked Israel from Gaza is enough to justify a military response; after all, it's the same casus belli that we had with Afghanistan after 9/11. One bloody nose would probably convince Syria to back down, although it would have to be a good one, taking out their air force and blunting their armored units in the initial hours of the conflict. A protracted war might encourage others to join Syria.

On the other hand, Israel may not need to attack first. Bashar Assad announced that he would form a Hezbollah-like group to take back the Golan Heights after seeing Israel's reluctance to go after the Lebanese government during this war. That kind of action would allow Israel to respond with a full-scale war, as apparently Assad failed to understand the nature of government-supported militias within the rules of war. Olmert (or more likely Netanyahu) will not have to wait long for the first border raid to give a green light for a massive attack on Syrian armed forces and the too-long-delayed consequences to the Assad regime for conducting proxy wars.

Then, perhaps, we can finally get Palestinian leadership that will negotiate with Israel on the basis of a two-state solution. Until that leadership materializes, the conflict will never find resolution, and continued engagement remains pointless if not counterproductive.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 23, 2006 4:31 AM

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Tracked on August 23, 2006 10:06 PM


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