By Bret Stephens.. Sometimes it behooves even a pundit to acknowledge his mistakes. In 2004 as editor of the Jerusalem Post, and in 2006 in this column, I made the case that Israel was smart to withdraw its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip. I was wrong.
My error was to confuse a good argument with good policy; to suppose that mere self-justification is a form of strategic prudence. It isn’t. Israel is obviously within its rights to defend itself now against a swarm of rockets and mortars from Gaza. But if it had maintained a military presence in the Strip, it would not now be living under this massive barrage.
Or, to put it another way: The diplomatic and public-relations benefit Israel derives from being able to defend itself from across a “border” and without having to get into an argument about settlements isn’t worth the price Israelis have had to pay in lives and terror.
That is not the way it seemed to me in 2004, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to pull up stakes, reversing the very policy he had done so much to promote as a general and politician in the 1970s. Gaza, I argued, was vital neither to the Jewish state’s security nor to its identity. It was a drain on Israel’s moral, military, political and diplomatic resources. Getting out of the Strip meant shaving off nearly half of the Palestinian population (and the population with the highest birthrate), thereby largely solving Israel’s demographic challenge.
Withdrawal also meant putting the notion of land-for-peace to a real-world test. Would Gazans turn the Strip into a showcase Palestinian state, a Mediterranean Dubai, or into another Beirut circa 1982? If the former, then Israel could withdraw from the West Bank with some confidence. If the latter, it would put illusions to rest, both within Israel and throughout the Western world.
Finally, I argued that while direct negotiations with the Palestinians had proved fruitless for Israel, Jerusalem could use its withdrawal from Gaza to obtain political and security guarantees from the United States. That’s just what Mr. Sharon appeared to get through an exchange of formal letters with George W. Bush in April 2004.
Things didn’t work out as I had hoped. To say the least.
Within six months of Israel’s withdrawal, Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections. Within two years, Hamas seized control of the Strip from the ostensible moderates of Fatah after a brief civil war.
In 2004, the last full year in which Israel had a security presence in Gaza, Gazans fired 281 rockets into Israel. By 2006 that figure had risen to 1,777. The Strip became a terrorist bazaar, home not only to Hamas but also Islamic Jihad and Ansar al-Sunna, an al Qaeda affiliate.
In late 2008, Israel finally tried to put a stop to attacks from Gaza with Operation Cast Lead. The limited action—Israeli troops didn’t go into heavily populated areas and refrained from targeting Hamas’s senior leadership—was met with broad condemnation, including a U.N. report (since recanted by its lead author) accusing Israel of possible “crimes against humanity.”
Nor did the reality of post-occupation Gaza do much to dent the appetite of the Obama administration for yet another effort to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace. That included a settlement freeze in the West Bank (observed by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, to zero benefit) and calls by President Obama for Israel to withdraw to its 1967 lines “with mutually agreed swaps.”
In 2009, Hillary Clinton disavowed the Bush-Sharon exchange of letters, saying they “did not become part of the official position of the United States government.” Even today, the Obama administration considers Gaza to be “occupied” territory, a position disavowed even by Hamas.
Put simply, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect.
Now Israel may be on the cusp of purchasing yet another long-term strategic failure for the sake of a short-term tactical success. The Israeli government wants to bomb Hamas into a cease-fire—hopefully lasting, probably orchestrated in Cairo. That way Israel gets the quiet it seeks, especially on the eve of elections in January, and the Egyptians get the responsibility for holding the leash on Hamas.
That is largely how it played out during Cast Lead. But as one leading Israeli political figure told me in January 2009, just as the last cease-fire had been declared, “Notwithstanding the blows to the Hamas, it’s still in Gaza, it’s still ruling Gaza, and the Philadelphi corridor [which runs along Gaza’s border with Egypt] is still porous, and . . . Hamas can smuggle new rockets unless [the corridor] is closed, to fire at Israel in the future.”
That leading political figure was Benjamin Netanyahu, just before he returned to office as prime minister. He might now consider taking his own advice. Israel can afford to watch only so many reruns of this same, sordid show.
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A version of this article appeared November 20, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Truth About Gaza.