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When Sharon was great

If Israel ever does take down the occupation and make peace with the Palestinians, Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza will stand as a crucial stepping stone on the way.

Former Prime Minsiter Ariel Sharon (Photo: Mikhail / Shutterstock.com

The single greatest demonstration of political leadership I’ve ever witnessed in my 62 years in America and Israel was Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza. No other Israeli politician could have done it – nobody else could have defeated the settler movement and its hardcore allies. Anyone from the left would have had the entire right wing, moderates and radicals, against him, which would have scared the Israeli mainstream stiff, and a move to evacuate 8,500 settlers and the Israeli army from the interior of Gaza, which Israel had occupied for nearly 40 years, never would have gotten off the ground. To pull off something as cataclysmic as disengagement – the bulldozing of 21 settlements in Gaza plus another four in the West Bank, accomplished in six days in August 2005 – a prime minister has to have a decisive majority of the Israeli public behind him; otherwise the resistance of the settler movement, which more than makes up in fanaticism for what it lacks in numbers, will stop him.

While there were other politicians on the right who wanted to get out of Gaza, any of them would have been overrun by the Likud and the other nationalist parties, because while the idea of cutting loose from Gaza may have appealed to them, the thought of actually trying to do it and facing the wrath of not only the settler movement but of their parties, their colleagues, their friends, their families and their own psychological barriers was way, way beyond their ability to even contemplate. It took somebody of immense popularity and prestige – somebody of such stature that he could turn the moderate right wing completely around so that it would follow him even out of Gaza – to not only plan but go through with disengagement. That somebody also had to be sufficiently cunning and ruthless to win that political battle over the settlers, a battle that lasted almost two years. And that right-wing leader also had to be convinced at the bottom of his soul that disengagement was necessary; otherwise he would not be able to marshal the extraordinary will needed to make it happen – to win. The only person in Israel at that time who met all those criteria was Sharon.

The turning point came in May 2004 with the results of the Likud referendum on the disengagement plan. A couple of months before, Sharon had called for the referendum among party members, saying he would abide by the results, thinking he could win easily. But the settlers and their supporters in the Likud took over the campaign in the streets completely, accusing Sharon and his backers of kicking Jews out of their homes under fire from terrorists. The Likudniks were intimidated and shamed, and Sharon lost the referendum of 100,000 party members by a landslide, 60 percent to 40 percent. So what did he do? He ignored it! He went back on his word, which he’d given in front of the whole country, without thinking twice. I’m laughing as I write this – what balls! At that point, though, Sharon was vulnerable inside the Likud; the referendum was a huge defeat, and now he was effectively spitting in the party’s face. His internal opposition wanted one thing: to remove him from the party leadership and the prime minister’s office and put an end to the disengagement plan. The one thing this opposition needed was somebody who could challenge Sharon, who could replace him. There was only one opponent of disengagement who might be able to do it, who might have the stature to lead a Likud revolt, topple Sharon and get elected prime minister: Bibi Netanyahu. And Bibi Netanyahu passed on the opportunity. He claimed the attempt would have been futile. And so Sharon went ahead with disengagement, and Netanyahu, who hated the idea of it, who warned all along that it would be a catastrophe for Israel, went along.

And that as much as anything else illustrates the difference between Sharon and Netanyahu, and shows why Netanyahu will not end the occupation even if he became convinced that it was necessary: he doesn’t have the guts. He’s not up for starting a cataclysm. Sharon was. And even though disengagement did not end the occupation of Gaza (as I thought at the time), it was a huge step forward. For all of Gaza’s horrible problems, it does not have Israeli soldiers and settlers on its land anymore. For Israel, it showed that the settler movement could be defeated, that settlements could be evacuated and occupied land relinquished, and the world wouldn’t end. If Israel ever does take down the occupation and make peace with the Palestinians, the disengagement from Gaza will stand as a crucial stepping stone on the way. And it was all thanks to one man, one politician, and for that – if for pretty much nothing else – I admired Sharon tremendously. It was a privilege to be here and watch him engineer an upheaval for the good. As an Israeli leader, there’s nobody around or on the horizon who touches him.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dies at 85

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    1. “For all of Gaza’s horrible problems, it does not have Israeli soldiers and settlers on its land anymore. For Israel, it showed that the settler movement could be defeated, that settlements could be evacuated and occupied land relinquished, and the world wouldn’t end. If Israel ever does take down the occupation and make peace with the Palestinians, the disengagement from Gaza will stand as a crucial stepping stone on the way.”

      Reactionary Israelis continue to use the Gaza disengagement as proof that no peace with Palestinians can be made. Gaza continues to be a prison camp, except that the guards have moved to the border, leaving the territory in the hands of the Hamas party and inflicting a possibly mortal wound on secular Palestinian politics. It’s true that 7000 Israeli settlers were evicted (while half a million remain on the West Bank). Every discussion of the disengagement notes that it was unilateral: “Sharon proved you can’t negotiate with these people.” I’m not saying he intended it that way, but the precedent he set was that of Israel acting on its own and continuing to treat Arabs as irresponsible savages with whom no agreement is possible. Sharon’s ruthlessness and disregard for Israeli public opinion are not in doubt, but it is very doubtful whether he used them in the service of peace.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      Yitzchach Rabin!!!!

      Gaza is not the West Bank. Sharon did NOT attempt any sincere disengagement from the West Bank, though he did make the two state solution (more than approach), one of the principles of his new Kadima party.

      My sense is that Netanyahu today, would have joined that Kadima party.

      He has far less chance of leading a two-state approach in his coalition than Sharon had relative to Gaza disengagement (that is more equivalent to the Sinai disengagement of Begin).

      His loyal following, migrating to Kadima, or Hatnuah, or whatever, would be maybe 4 seats.

      He’s already gotten clear word that his coalition would disperse (including Israel Beitanhu faction) if he negotiated in good faith with Abbas for a mutually viable two-state.

      On my facebook page I wrote my eulogy.

      Simply “Rest in peace (I’m not your judge). A tragedy that you didn’t earnestly pursue peace in life.”

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ira Rifkin

      We don’t have to agree on everything for me to acknowledge this well-written and reasoned piece. Kudos.

      Reply to Comment
      • Thanks, Ira.

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    4. Tom P.

      Larry, I’m sure you must know the notorious interview with Sharon’s aide Dov Weisglass, where he admitted the purpose of the purpose of the disengagement was to strengthen the settlements in the West Bank and to supply “the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/top-pm-aide-gaza-plan-aims-to-freeze-the-peace-process-1.136686

      I’m curious as to why you didn’t mention that.

      Reply to Comment
      • Tom, first of all Sharon said after disengagement that he also wanted to withdraw from much of the W. Bank, tho not unilaterally. But that’s not what’s important, nor Weisglass’ statement to the contrary – I never thought Sharon would end the occupation completely – I realize now that he didn’t even end the occupation of Gaza – but what’s important was the achievement of disengagement, of removing – for the first time – settlers and soldiers from Palestinian land and handing it back to the Palestinians – unfortunately, we kept control of Gaza from without, but getting out of the interior was a heroic achievement, and it was a one-man show.

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      • And another thing – right after Sharon’s stroke, his right-hand man, Olmert, ran and won the election on a platform of unilaterally withdrawing in the WBank back to the security barrier.

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        • un2here

          To the Wall at one side, but keeping the Jordan Valley on the other side, and having a divisive road right across to Ariel – leaving Abbas as the Emperor of Bantustania. Seriously??

          Reply to Comment
      • Marcos

        Seems farcical to me. You can’t believe everything you read. Even if it is true; it’s either an irrelevant piece of information or something that makes the story even more inspiring

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    5. diana

      Sharon was a human being and as all human beings he had faults. But he fought for Israel, withdraw from Gaza, and in Lebanon he was ambushed by Hobeika.(Read From Israel to Damascus by R. Haken an ARAB writer).
      The man is dead and, was a patriot, and like all GREAT LEADERS, he made some serious mistakes. MAY HE REST IN PEACE.

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    6. Aaron Gross

      I don’t think it’s true that Netanyahu doesn’t have the guts to end the occupation. What’s the supporting evidence for that? It took guts for him to oppose the Gaza disengagement the way he did when it was clear that he was going to lose.

      Most people didn’t listen to Netanyahu’s warnings about the disengagement, which quickly turned out to be true. That was what bothered me so much at the time: that no one would even look at the proposal realistically. It’s like people covered their eyes and ears and said, “I want it to end, therefore it must end.” Netanyahu was one of the very few realists at the time.

      Yes, Sharon acted courageously with the disengagement. But so did Netanyahu.

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    7. un2here

      Sharon calculated that the risk of 1.5 million Gazans becoming Israeli citizens if he kept the settlements wasn’t worth the limited resources of the western aquifer. Turning the area into a prison was his best option.

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    8. Richard Witty

      This “turned into a prison” theme is repeated and repeated.

      I think that Hamas turned Gaza into a prison, in all respects, internally and the isolated borders (driven by utter horrid relations with the PA, and all international parties).

      It should be noted that even after the Muslim Brotherhood took control of Egypt, they only opened the border to Gaza for three weeks, and then stopped. Not because of Israel.

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      • un2here

        It is Israel who demands from Egypt that the borders be kept shot. This is in the peace treaty.

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      • Richard Lightbown

        Gee you’re so dumb. Israel attacks anything in the Mediterranean before it even enters Gazan territorial waters and has closed down all air access to Gaza. Israel has closed down all the crossings from Israel into Gaza bar one which it closes down on Jewish holidays and any other excuse that occurs on whim. Israel disrupts even those supplies to Gaza that it allows to pass including construction materials and medical supplies. Israel has reneged on the agreements it signed in the Codoleeza Rice sponsored crossings agreement. Israel acts as spoiler at the Rafah crossing, preventing EU inspectors from getting to the crossing and gets the US to lean on the Egyptian leadership to ensure that goods do not pass through the crossing. But despite all this it is someone else fault that Gaza is a concentration camp on the verge of a major humanitarian disaster. So who carried out Operation Cast Lead then Richard? It couldn’t have been poor innocent Israel. Was it goblins?

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    9. Dave

      As I read of the death of Arik Sharon yesterday morning, I was reminded of a story, possibly anecdotal, regarding Admiral Ernest J. King, Admiral of the US Fleet, during WW 2. It would seem that prior to Dec. 1941, Admiral King was singularly disliked throughout the US Navy. Having an acerbic tongue and a caustic wit he rubbed many the wrong way and despite his admittedly impressive performance and competence as a naval officer, he had been slated for forced retirement. The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, the admiral received a phone call from FDR himself, reinstateing him to full active duty and promoting him to Commannder of the entire US fleet. Upon hearing the news Admiral King was heard to remark; “When the going gets tough, they call for the sons-of-bitches

      Whatever else may be said about Arik Sharon, he was one of the great tactical generals of our time. In October 73′ moving south of the axis of the Egyptian advance, he threw a pontoon bridge over the canal and positioned his army on the enemies six, cutting his communications and supply lines, and subsequently surrounding the Egyptian 3rd Army in a maneuver worthy of Rommel, Patton, or Montgomery. History will chew over Ariel Sharon for sometime to come, but one thing is for certain, he was their when Israel needed him. May he rest in peace

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ken Kelso

      Larry Derfner cant even mention the thousands of missiles Hamas terrorists are firing at Israeli civilians from Gaza.
      Larry can’t even mention how Hamas uses Gazans as human fodder.

      The following is the description in the official Palestinian Authority daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida:

      “The Abd Rabbo family kept quiet while Hamas fighters turned their farm in the Gaza strip into a fortress. Right now they are waiting for the aid promised by the [Hamas] movement after Israel bombed the farm and turned it into ruins…

      The hill on which the Abd Rabbo family lives overlooks the Israeli town of Sderot which turned it into an ideal military position for the Palestinian fighters, from which they have launched hundreds of rockets into southern Israel during the last few years. Several of the Abd Rabbo family members described how the fighters dug tunnels under their houses, stored arms in the fields and launched rockets from the yard of their farm during the nights.

      The Abd Rabbo family members emphasize that they are not [Hamas] activists and that they are still loyal to the Fatah movement, but that they were unable to prevent the armed squads from entering their neighborhood at night. One family member, Hadi (age 22) said: ‘You can’t say anything to the resistance [Hamas], or they will accuse you of collaborating [with Israel] and shoot you in the legs.'”

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    11. Ayla

      Thanks for this perspective, Larry.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Ariel Sharon was a Hero of Israel and a great statesman as well as a exceptional political tactician. His only mistake was to disengage from Aza. Like other stateman, he became stale in old age and became irrational and semi-senile eg: Rabin

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      • Rick Chertoff

        The price of arrogance is delusion. Israel will pay a price for the mass murders glibly overlooked by today’s Israelis. The rest of the world is catching on quickly to the false history that overlooks one of the most vicious killers of history. The fact that Israel thinks itself better than others and above the laws and opinion of mankind is a disgrace to the Jewish people forever.

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    13. Donald

      Gotta agree with Pamela Olson, Larry. Sharon was at best a pragmatic thug at the end of his life–unlike some of the people even further to his right, he understood the limitations of Israeli power. So he pulled settlers out of Gaza and they hate him, but what the pullout did was change an occupation of Gaza into a siege of Gaza.

      Both in Israel and the US the right wing keeps drifting further right. So you sometimes see liberal columnists pointing to some earlier rightwinger as a “moderate” compared to what comes later. So liberal Americans praise Reagan compared to Bush II and Bush II compared to Ted Cruz, but each of them set the stage for what followed. Something like that has been happening in Israel.

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