The 5 Year Disengageversary

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-21-10

While Israel left Gaza smoothly, honorably, the plan itself was idiotic – while other aspects were implements so clumsily the country remains haunted by the disengagement debacles

ON Wednesday, in marking by the Hebrew calendar, five years since the Gaza disengagement, it is easy to forget that stressful episode’s most amazing achievement.  After months of tension, despite hysterical warnings about settler violence, Israeli democracy triumphed.  The world witnessed the tough social bonds uniting and civilizing this seemingly fragile, volatile society as unarmed soldiers escorted unwilling but compliant settlers from their homes.  Everyone played their parts brilliantly on international TV.  Israel’s soldiers upheld the rule of law by displaying the mythic Sabra softness underneath their gruff exteriors, sometimes sobbing with the settlers as homes built with love and sweat were abandoned, then destroyed. And most settlers demonstrated their understanding of democratic citizens’ sacred obligation to protest vehemently but non-violently.  Unfortunately, while Israel left Gaza smoothly, honorably, the plan itself was idiotic – while other aspects were implemented so clumsily Israel remains haunted by the disengagement debacles.

From one angle, Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan from Gaza and four remote West Bank settlements was an elegant, economical solution to a messy problem.  The military and political resources Israel was expending to defend approximately 8000 settlers amid 1.3 million hostile Palestinians drained the state. Soldiers were dying.  Settlers were occasionally maimed and slaughtered.  Gazans seethed.  The world disapproved.

Disproving the current claim that President George W. Bush never pressured Israel, Bush was impatient, demanding progress after years of Palestinian terror and Israeli counterattacks. As a former general, Sharon decided to cut his losses by retreating to a more defensible position.  President Bush rewarded Sharon with an April 14, 2004 letter, supporting Israel’s controversial security fence, denouncing Palestinian terror, and saying that, ultimately, Palestinian refugees should resettle within the new Palestinian state. Moreover, Bush affirmed:  “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

ALAS, this lovely, logical agreement between two friends – the US and Israel – overlooked the inconvenient fact that peace is made between enemies. Moreover, politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Sharon decided to bulldoze ahead with his own plans because, as he said in his April 2004 letter to Bush, he concluded “there exists no Palestinian partner with whom to advance peacefully toward a settlement.” By bypassing the Palestinian Authority, Sharon shortsightedly allowed the more radical Hamas to take credit for the withdrawal – and soon seize control of Gaza.

Justifiably infuriated by Palestinian violence and rejectionism, but characteristically blinded by Israelis’ obsession with the American President’s sensibilities, Sharon forgot to read the region. He made a tremendous concession without extracting a price from Palestinians or trying to influence how the withdrawal would play on their side. He should have made Gaza a gift to Mahmoud Abbas not to the haters of Hamas. Sharon’s folly reflected the Israeli Right’s wrongheaded addiction to blustering and bullying. To succeed, the disengagement plan needed constructive engagement with Palestinian negotiators, and Palestinian society.

In fairness – and quite typically – the Gaza withdrawal also gave the Left an opportunity to demonstrate its characteristic blindspots, including naivete regarding Palestinians. Those who expected the Palestinians to seize the chance to build themselves up rather than once again trying to knock Israel down were disappointed. The American Jewish philanthropists who raised $14 million to buy the settlers’ hothouses and donate them to the Palestinians instantly entered the suckers’ hall of fame. Rather than replicating the settlers’ near miraculous collective achievement of making the Gazan desert bloom, the Gazans trashed hothouses, along with synagogues, houses, and hopes they might be ready to start building the infrastructure and constructive political culture necessary for a functional state. Hamastan soon resulted.

The disengagement also failed by botching the settlers’ resettlement. This “fashla,” like so many Israeli fiascoes these days, took a lot of effort involving multiple parts of society to bungle so completely. Yes, some settlers were in denial and filled out their paperwork belatedly. But they should not be stymied five years later as a result. The dysfunctional Israeli bureaucracy that blights Israel’s school system and other social structures daily was on full display. Planning was poor or non-existent. Money was wasted. Goodwill disappeared, often replaced by bureaucratic brusqueness.

If failing to engage Palestinians constructively around the disengagement reflected the Right’s recklessness, failing to settle the unsettled settlers reflected the Left’s negligence. Those seeking further withdrawals needed to make this small-scale disengagement succeed. Those who empathize with Israel’s enemies needed to sympathize with fellow Israelis too. The dovish Left should have welcomed these settlers enthusiastically, creating a model of smooth reintegration into Israel proper rather than the cautionary tale of personal trauma, bureaucratic woe and mass social insensitivity that followed. Instead, the Left’s disgust for settlers helped create a new obstacle to future peace agreements.

Five years later, a trail of traumatized former residents, the rain of Kassam rockets, the ongoing kidnapping saga of Gilad Shalit, the need to launch Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza blockade, and the resulting international condemnation all seem to be the poisonous fruit from the tree Ariel Sharon planted with George W. Bush’s blessing. This pessimistic narrative overlooks the fact that Ariel Sharon stopped Israel’s bleeding in the Gaza Strip. His main mandate was to end the wave of Palestinian terror menacing Israel when he took office. He helped Israel win what experts deemed an unwinnable war. He demonstrated, yet again, Israeli determination and flexibility, Israel’s willingness to compromise and pay high prices for the sake of peace.

The 2005 disengagement provides a window onto Israel, 2010. It is a country threatened by vicious enemies and a hypocritical world, with a shortsighted Right locked in destructive combat with an equally shortsighted Left, too frequently led by slobs. Yet, both day-to-day and when under unprecedented historic pressures, Israelis and the society they have created ultimately prove themselves better, more resilient, and more moral than even they themselves expect.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” he is also the author of “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” He can be reached at gtroy@videotron.ca

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