Statesmanship – and its opposition

Published in the Jewish Chronicle August 12 2005

Of all the strange bonds forged by the current, turbulent state of our world, perhaps the least predictable was the one that now connects Binyamin Netanyahu and George Galloway. Who would have thought they would ever have ended up on the same side? And yet, in recent days, both these men have rained vitriol on the head of Ariel Sharon, both vehemently rejecting the Israeli Prime Minister?s insistence that the imminent withdrawal from Gaza is a great, even historic step forward.

Start with Bibi. Six years ago, I put aside my prejudices and, on these pages, wrote that in the then-forthcoming Israeli election, maybe Netanyahu would be the best bet for peace. My reasoning was the Nixon-to-China rule, the now-hackneyed observation that it takes a right-wing hawk, with sackfuls of hard-man credibility, to make the concessions needed to end a conflict. While Bibi?s 1999 opponent, Ehud Barak, had military glory to spare, Net-anyahu had the political capital to do what was needed.

Even at the time, I admitted it was a long shot, based on hope rather than experience. And this week we had concrete proof that, when it comes to Bibi and statesmanship, it?s smart to be a pessimist.

Little more than a week before the scheduled pullout from Gaza, Bibi resigned from the Israeli Cabinet. It was hardly a surprise: Netanyahu had sought to smother the Gaza disengagement plan a dozen times since it was first hatched last year. His motivation was clear enough. He wants to unseat Sharon as Likud leader in time for next year?s election. To do that, he needs to position himself as the champion of the Israeli right ? and crowning himself as the unofficial leader of the anti-pullout movement can only help.

That?s politics. But it?s the opposite of statesmanship. If Netanyahu really had a principled objection to withdrawal, there were ample opportunities for him to resign in the past 18 months. To quit now, at a time of great nat-ional tension, is an act of political vandalism.

For Israel is about to endure what is already proving to be a severe trauma. Israeli soldiers will be asked to re-move Israeli settlers, by force if necessary, and to dismantle their homes. Even those, like me, who believe the settlers never had any business being there in the first place, can nevertheless recognise the human pain involved. Homes will be destroyed, whole streets turned to rubble. (Let us not run away from the fact that this is an experience many Palestinian Gazans know only too well.)

The mood is edgy. The war of the colours, with opponents of the withdrawal seeking to paint Israel orange, has dominated the Israeli streets. Many wonder how the country will cope if settlers fire on troops, if Israeli makes war on Israeli. Sharon?s unenviable task is to keep the country together even as he takes this unprecedented step. Bibi?s contribution is to put a stone in his shoe.

Make no mistake, this is an enormous move. My own preference has always been for a comprehensive agreement, negotiated by the two sides sitting down as equals. But I am realist enough to see that in recent years this became all but an impossibility. Mainstream Israeli opinion, after the failure at Camp David in 2000, became convinced there was no partner on the Palestinian side. And peace talks seemed to prove that, even when both sides bent over backwards to make the toughest compromises, they still couldn?t reach each other.

The result is Sharon?s unilateral plan: if the two sides can?t make a deal, Israel will do it on its own. Or at least part of it. To my mind, it is not nearly enough; the handing back of Gaza is imperfect on its own and must be only a beginning. But if you are against this 38-year long occupation then ending it anywhere surely has to be seen as a noble act.

It will lighten the burden on both Palestinians and Israelis, on both occupied and occupier ? both of whom have borne it for too long. For doing that, whatever his other motives might be, Ariel Sharon deserves enormous credit. It was he, not Bibi, who turned out to be the Nixon who went to China.

Netanyahu cannot appreciate the importance and value of the disengagement; he refuses to see that it will make life better for the people of Israel-Palestine. And in that, if nothing else, he has a soulmate in George Galloway.

In an interview broadcast on a series of Middle Eastern TV stations last week, the Respect MP urged the Arab world to stop the rape by ?foreigners? of ?two beautiful Arab daughters? ? Jerusalem and Baghdad. One wonders what Galloway would say to those Israeli Jewish residents of West Jerusalem who have lived in the city for generations. Are they foreigners? Where exactly should they go back to?

But the larger question is this: Have Galloway and others like him not kept up with the news? Not one of these fierce critics of Israel seems even to be aware that the hated ?General Sharon? is now the man who dares to end at least part of the occupation ? and who has become a hate figure among the Israeli right for his pains.

Ken Livingstone still refers to Sharon as if it were 1982 and the tanks were massing on central Beirut. Has the Gaza withdrawal passed him by? Or perhaps he and Galloway are just like Netanyahu ? so constrained by ideological dogma, they cannot even notice when the world around them is changing.