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.
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.