No “Mistake” in Sharon’s Gaza Disengagement Plan

Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip has not, in my opinion, worked out well for the world. It set into motion a series of events that’s led the peace process to a dead end, creating a humanitarian crisis for millions of Palestinians, strengthened the hand of Hamas, ultimately wound up getting Sharon’s moderate Likudnik faction booted from power by Benjamin Netanyahu’s more extreme rightist coalition, and all sorts of other stuff.

So you can see why Jeffrey Goldberg, too, thinks this was not handled well:

For my money, the worst mistake Israel made was the mistake that led, ultimately, to the siege of Gaza: The 2005 unilateral withdrawal. Leaving Gaza wasn’t the problem, of course — you’d think the Jews would have learned sooner (see: Samson) that Gaza is no good for Jews, and Ariel Sharon was right to get out. But the method he used was tragic. By refusing to negotiate his exit from Gaza, he strengthened the hand of Hamas. If he had negotiated the withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority, he would have a) extracted concessions from the Palestinians, and b) strengthened the moderates. The moderates would have been credited by their people for coaxing Israel out of Gaza. Instead, Hamas won the round, and then won the election, and then won the coup, and then, in a way, won the most recent war against Israel, and certainly the public relations war, which is the sort of war that really matters in the Middle East, and which Israel almost never fails to lose.

I think that analysis has a lot of merit to it. But it’s important to understand that this wasn’t a “mistake.” Sharon’s Gaza plan wasn’t a peace initiative that failed, it was an effort to create a dynamic in which final status peace talks could be avoided:

“The significance of the plan is the freezing of the peace process,” Dov Weisglass told Haaretz newspaper, adding the US had given its backing.

Palestinian statehood, refugees and the status of Jerusalem had effectively been dropped off the agenda, he said.

The Sharon government worried that international pressure for serious negotiations with the Palestinian Authority was growing, and also that the Geneva Initiative was gaining political support domestically. Disengagement from Gaza was, yes, a repudiation of very extreme versions of Greater Israel thinking, but mostly a pragmatic effort to get out of this box:

Asked why the disengagement plan had been hatched, Weisglass replied: “Because in the fall of 2003 we understood that everything was stuck. And although by the way the Americans read the situation, the blame fell on the Palestinians, not on us, Arik [Sharon] grasped that this state of affairs
could not last, that they wouldn’t leave us alone, wouldn’t get off our case. Time was not on our side. There was international erosion, internal erosion. Domestically, in the meantime, everything was collapsing. The economy was stagnant, and the Geneva Initiative had gained broad support. And then we were hit with the letters of officers and letters of pilots and letters of commandos [refusing to serve in the territories]. These were not weird kids with green ponytails and a ring in their nose with a strong odor of grass. These were people like Spector’s group [Yiftah Spector, a renowned Air Force pilot who signed the pilot’s letter]. Really our finest young people.”

I don’t think this was a wise course of action. But it was meant to throw the situation into chaos, turn Israeli public opinion against negotiations, and reduce the international pressure on Israel to discuss final status issues. And it’s worked.