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Will Israel Ever Find Right Balance Between Its Security Needs and Palestinian Freedom?
Neither I nor anybody else knows how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dilema -- the dual, interlocking problems of Palestinian terror and Israeli occupation. It seems the three approaches Israel has tried -- military force, negotiations and unilateral withdrawal -- have all failed.
It seems the best we can do, until some miracle appears, is try to "manage the conflict." And managing the conflict, as far as I'm concerned, means trying to find some balance between Israel's need for security from Palestinian terror and, on the other hand, the three-million-plus Palestinian civilians' need for freedom from Israeli military rule.
The problem, however, is that each comes at the expense of the other. The more freedom we give Palestinian civilians, the easier it is for Palestinian terrorists to slip through. Yet the harder we make it for terrorists to slip through, the more we turn the entire West Bank -- and, to a lesser extent, Gaza -- into an Israeli prison.
I don't know what the right balance between our security and their freedom is; no doubt it shifts from day to day, if not hour to hour. But I do know, at least, what the right balance is not. It is not the right balance to give 100 percent weight to Israeli security and zero weight to Palestinian freedom.
Yet I believe most Israelis think it is. Most Israelis, as far as I can tell, are against any easing of hardships for the Palestinians if this involves any possible -- even just theoretical -- risk to their own security.
And this, in essence, has been the policy of the Israeli government. Our leaders didn't say, and didn't have to say, how much security we were getting in return for how much Palestinian hardship. They just had to say the word "security," and Israelis nodded their heads, because Israel's need for security is absolute, and against it, the Palestinians' need for freedom carries no weight at all.
Last month it became clear that such a consideration, or lack of consideration, is what may lie behind a given Israeli policy in the West Bank or Gaza that the government trumpets as being "vital to Israeli security." Until then, the government claimed it was holding back the transfer of the Palestinian Authority's tax and customs money -- a policy in effect since Hamas won the elections in March -- because some of that money could fall into Hamas' hands and be used against Israel.
Until then, the government claimed it couldn't take down any of the military roadblocks that paralyze Palestinian life because this would allow terrorists to roam freely and attack Israelis.
The government claimed it couldn't free up the flow of Palestinian goods going in and out of Gaza because, again, this would let terrorists slip through.
So what happens? Prime Minister Olmert, under pressure from the Americans to help Mahmoud Abbas in his fight against Hamas, suddenly changes his mind and decides that all these restrictions can be scrapped at no risk, or at worst "minimal" risk, to security.
Many right-wing Israelis believe Olmert is exposing all of Israel to another round of intifada and suicide bombings, purely out of shameful political self-interest. I think this is ridiculous. If these "concessions" to the Palestinians were actually risky, Olmert wouldn't make them, because he has no personal or political interest whatsoever in taking decisions that could get Israelis murdered.
No, what last week's easing of conditions for the Palestinians shows is that the previous, harsher conditions in the West Bank and Gaza were never vital to security in the first place. They caused tremendous suffering to Palestinian civilians while providing only a modicum of additional protection, if any, against Palestinian terrorists.
So if lifting these economic and travel restrictions on the West Bank and Gaza is going to make life better for Palestinian civilians without hurting Israel's ability to fight Palestinian terrorists, as Olmert says, why were these restrictions ever put into effect?
I'd like to think that the next time Israel's leaders justify any and every clause of the occupation with the magic word "security," Israelis won't be so fast to nod their heads.
Larry Derfner is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.