The Disengagement: The Unanswered Question

, February 21, 2016

Abstract

The disengagement and its disappointments have been part of public discourse in Israel for the past decade. Among the topics are: “Hamastan”; the nine thousand uprooted settlers; the 11,600 rockets fired at Israel and the eight military operations which followed. Nevertheless, an essential question remains unanswered: did Prime Minister Ariel Sharon implement this plan because he genuinely believed in it or were his motives based upon self-interest? Was his real aim to extricate himself from the criminal investigations against him? There are several schools of thought which have attempted to explain what ultimately led the prime minister to make this crucial decision. On the one hand, some, such as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, believe that Sharon was motivated by “external considerations and personal distress,” and former Member of Knesset Zvi Hendel still contends that it was the investigations that led to the evacuation of the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, Dov Weisglass [occasionally spelled “Weissglass”], director of Sharon’s office, and Eyal Arad, Sharon’s strategic adviser, argue that such allegations are baseless and false. The purpose of this article is to present and review the opposing perspectives regarding the motivation for Sharon’s decision. Based on the available evidence, the author concludes that it is not possible to offer a definitive and unequivocal answer. However, it is important to present the differing views as they help us appreciate the diversity of vantage points involved both in making the decision and in the subsequent analysis of the disengagement.

I. The Historical Perspective

The collective experience of the disengagement from Gaza has been seared into the public memory as a national trauma. It remains an open wound. Many of the evacuees and the opponents of the disengagement, still refer to it as “the Expulsion.” Within a mere eight days, nine thousand people were uprooted from their homes and twenty-one settlements of the flourishing Gush Katif bloc were turned into desolate ruins. Communities, institutions of Torah-learning and general education and verdant farms that had existed for three decades became postcards of bittersweet memory. Evacuators and evacuees wept together. On the day after the evacuation, the Palestinians set fire to the synagogues which had been left intact. Soon the ruins of these settlements became terror bases from which rockets were fired at Israel.

The main goal of the disengagement plan, as stated by its architect Ariel Sharon, was to enhance security.1 Yet these expectations did not materialize. The failure of this plan became evident when Hamas took over Gaza.2 Its operational capabilities improved considerably and it built a small terror army. Seventy percent of the Israeli population became exposed to the rocket threat.3 Since the disengagement, 11,600 shells and rockets have been fired at Israel.4

As early as September 2005, one month after the disengagement, heavy Qassam-rocket fire on the town of Sderot compelled the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to undertake Operation First Rain. Others followed: Blue Skies, Lightning Strike, Summer Rains, and Hot Winter. More recently, three large-scale operations took place: Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense, and Protective Edge.5 It is only a matter of time before the next military campaign will be launched.

The disengagement was carried out the day after the somber Tisha B’Av fast day in the year 5765 according to the Hebrew calendar. Throughout the past decade, an ever-lengthening procession of politicians and military figures have asked forgiveness from the settlers and confessed to their sin.6 Some have regretted the unilateral nature of the disengagement; others have lamented the fact of the disengagement itself and/or the harsh blow to the evacuees. For its part, the state commission of inquiry that was established after the disengagement found that the government had failed terribly in tending to the needs of the evacuees.7 Public opinion also underwent a reversal; a large majority of Israelis now view the disengagement as a failure.8

Nevertheless, after all the soul-searching, one question remains unresolved: what were the real reasons behind the plan? Were Sharon’s motives disinterested and security-strategic as his associates insist to this day? Or, was the entire program driven by personal and political interests, not at all intended to alleviate the distress of the State of Israel, but rather to rescue Sharon from the on-going criminal investigations against him?

Or, does the truth lie somewhere in between? Perhaps Sharon’s legal travails may have served as the background to the decision and affected its timing, but were only part of the plethora of open and tacit considerations that influenced the prime minister.

Even the answer to the question: Who was the real Sharon? A solution to this problem could have provided a partial answer to the riddle behind his motives. This issue is steeped in controversy. Was Sharon, who, over the years, acted as “Minister of Settlements,” getting them established and pushing for their expansion, tacitly working with the heads of the Yesha Council (the umbrella organization of the settlements), calling for settlers to seize more and more hilltops, truly ideologically committed to this enterprise? Or, was Sharon, who dismantled the settlement of Yamit in Sinai, played a role in the Wye River Agreement, and had spoken of a Palestinian state several decades before the disengagement, really a pragmatist in disguise and actually quite different from his public image? Perhaps here, too, the answer lies in between, as Sharon himself claimed when he said that things looked different from the prime minister’s office than they looked from the hills of Samaria and the sand dunes of Katif.

The idea of making a political move and evacuating Gaza, where about a million and a half Palestinians live, did not originate with Sharon. For at least two decades prior to the disengagement, it hovered in political limbo and was filed in the desk drawers of the IDF Planning Directorate. It already included the component of dismantling the settlements of Gush Katif, which Israeli governments had built between Khan Yunis and Rafah on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other.9During the election campaign for the Thirteenth Knesset, Minister Roni Milo suggested to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that he announce that, if elected, he would withdraw from Gaza. Prime Minister Shamir rejected the idea.10 Two years later, as part of the Gaza-Jericho First Agreement, the second Yitzhak Rabin government withdrew from 80 percent of Gaza but did not touch the settlements in Gush Katif, northern Gaza, or the isolated settlements – Kfar Darom, Netzarim, and Morag. Israel also continued to hold on to the “Philadelphi Route,” a strip of land between Gaza and Egypt that the Oslo Agreements stipulated as essential for Israel’s security.

And yet, in 1999, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak asked his legal adviser, attorney Daniel Reisner, to examine the legal aspects of disengaging from Gaza and evacuating all of its settlements as part of a final agreement with the Palestinians. Reisner maintains that at that time he looked into the question of how the Jews evacuated from Gush Katif could be compensated for their homes and property. Barak had intended to withdraw from Gaza just as he had evacuated the IDF from Lebanon. In any case, he did not have the opportunity to implement his plans because his government fell after only a year and a half.11

About two years later, Brigadier General Eyval Giladi, head of the Strategic Planning Division of the IDF Planning Directorate, and Colonel Danny Tirza, secretly prepared a map that depicted a full withdrawal from Gaza and a complete evacuation of its settlements along with several settlements in Samaria. It was called the “Eydan Map” after the first names of its creators. The plan was presented to Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and to Prime Minister Sharon as a unilateral move and a stabilizing impetus that would create a new reality. Sharon and Ben-Eliezer did not express their astonishment at this prospect. While they did not promote the plan, they did not dismiss it either. The Eydan Map, however, sparked fierce opposition in the IDF. What Eyval Giladi regarded as a beneficial, stabilizing move, Brigadier General Yossi Kuperwasser, head of the Research Division of Military Intelligence at the time, viewed as a dangerous and irresponsible step that the terror organizations would welcome as a major accomplishment, which is what actually happened.12 (Yossi Kuperwasser also contributed to the present issue of the JPSR.)

During the run-up to the elections for the Sixteenth Knesset early in 2003, Labor Party chairman Amram Mitzna made the complete withdrawal from Gaza the centerpiece of his campaign although he argued that only the isolated settlements would be removed. Sharon answered Mitzna firmly, as follows: “The fate of Netzarim is the same as that of Negba [a kibbutz in the northern Negev] and Tel Aviv.”13 Indeed, after his election as prime minister for the second time, it was not Sharon who proposed the idea of disengagement from Gaza. It was the director of his office, Dov Weisglass, who was attracted by the idea and subsequently introduced it to the international community, Israeli political circles, Sharon’s “ranch-forum” (a group of close advisers who would meet regularly at his Sycamore Ranch) and Sharon’s two sons, Omri and Gilad. It was Weisglass who was able to convince Sharon to adopt it.14

Hence, it was not Sharon who conceived of the disengagement plan. It had existed as a political plan beforehand and, although it was relegated to the desk drawers, it was an IDF plan. Sharon, however, transformed it into an operative program. Again, the question is why did he do so? What were the motives of the man who had been regarded for years as the settlers’ closest ally and friend? What led Sharon, who had played a pivotal role in initiating and building the settlements of Gush Katif and Judea and Samaria, to change his colors?

II. The Ya’alon Thesis: Pro and Con

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon served as chief of staff until ten weeks before the disengagement and took an active part in its preparations. After retiring from the army, however, he published a harsh and unprecedented indictment of Ariel Sharon and his “real” motives in his book Derech Aruka Ketzara (The Longer Shorter Way). In his answers to my questions, Ya’alon reconfirms his claims and stands behind them “all the more,” as follows:

The immediate reason that Israel’s security deteriorated vis-à-vis the Palestinians was the erroneous, amazing, and inexplicable decision of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. I have no doubt that Sharon’s decision derived from external considerations. When he found himself in personal distress because of the criminal investigations against him, and in political trouble because of a decline in popularity, Sharon decided to turn the tables and take a dramatic step that blatantly contradicted his worldview and did not jibe with his grasp of reality.15

To salvage his own political future, Sharon put Israel on a strategic path that has no chance of succeeding and no future. He may possibly have convinced himself that he was doing something that would benefit Israel and gain it a few points in the international arena; however, based on my professional acquaintance with Sharon, I can state unequivocally that the idea represented by the disengagement was alien to him and entirely at odds with his worldview. The way in which the idea suddenly emerged was astonishing, as was the way in which it was implemented.16

Ya’alon writes that Sharon never held a formal conversation with him about the disengagement and, only in late in 2003, asked his opinion about dismantling three settlements. He claims that Weisglass, who tried to persuade him to support the disengagement, told him that “Sharon’s status is declining and so he has to do something.” [Weisglass denies this.] According to Ya’alon, “Sharon, along with his associates, considered the situation like a poker player. He analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of the other players, and thought about how to exploit them to his advantage in order to extricate himself from a difficult situation both in the legal and political spheres. The direct outcome of this analysis was the disengagement plan.”

“My view,” Ya’alon recalls,

was that from a strategic standpoint Sharon did not believe in the disengagement. It contravened his whole worldview; and yet, to save himself politically, particularly in light of the investigations of his and his sons’ alleged corruption, he realized that he had to pursue this misguided measure to its end. From his [Sharon’s] standpoint, the war over the disengagement became a personal war of life and death.17

Ya’alon was not an exception. President Reuven Rivlin, then a Likud member of Knesset, expressed himself similarly, albeit more cautiously. Rivlin told Yediot Aharonot that Sharon was always a pragmatist, but the “days of deciding on the plan were days of difficult personal trouble for him. He pondered his private concerns and reached his conclusions. One can look into what preceded his decision on the disengagement. I don’t think that historians will have a hard time deciphering the riddle.”18

It was former Member of Knesset Zvi Hendel, then a resident of Ganei Tal in Gush Katif, who coined the well-known expression, “Omek ha’akira c’omek hachakira,” which means that the ‘akira (uprooting) of the settlements had to be as extensive as was the chakira (investigation), thereby salvaging Sharon’s position and neutralizing this threat. Hendel also stands behind his words today. “It is not some guess or analysis,” he stresses. “I heard it directly from one of the ranch-forum members, the group closest to Sharon at that time.” All the members of the ranch-forum deny Hendel’s claim.

Why would someone from the ranch-forum have told you such a thing?

Hendel: “One of them was close to me. He told me as someone who knew in advance what was going to happen, but also about the plan itself, the plan to evacuate all of us, along with the real reason for it.”

If so, why don’t you reveal his identity?

Hendel: “If I reveal his identity – he will deny it. What good would that do me?”

What did you do with this information after you received it?

Hendel: “I tried desperately to arrange a meeting with Sharon. We were very close. Really good friends, but he did not respond. I left message after message, until his secretary called me and told me the truth: ‘Arik is simply not willing to meet with you.’ That was when I knew the information I had received was correct.”

Is there someone else who heard from one of the ranch-forum members what you heard? That the motive was external, personal, and illegitimate?

Hendel: “There is. He’s a rabbi from the south, but he also will not talk.”19

Meanwhile, in several instances such claims were put in writing. In his book K’Neged Kol Hasikuim (Against All Odds), journalist Hagai Huberman published the transcript of an alleged conversation among the ranch-forum members in which Weisglass said, “If the charge sheet includes bribery, we’re in deep trouble. A drastic step has to be taken to stop the legal proceedings.”20

Weisglass and Sharon’s strategic adviser, Eyal Arad, allege that this is a product of a wild imagination and that Huberman never heard it from any ranch-forum member.21

According to Boomerang by Raviv Drucker and Ofer Shelah (the latter, currently a Knesset member from the Yesh Atid party) “behind the scenes there were many people, even among Sharon’s most intimate associates, who were convinced that the disengagement plan would never have been born if Sharon had not needed to deflect the spotlight from the investigations against him and his sons.”22

Today, Drucker says he does not have proof that the plan resulted from the criminal investigations against Sharon. “What I was able to say then and can also say today regarding proof is that the way in which the move was implemented was influenced by the investigations against Sharon.”23 Shelah further explains: “There is no one who heard Sharon say, ‘if I carry out the disengagement, the media will protect me and the legal establishment will be on my side,’ but undoubtedly his legal troubles were part of the state of mind that led to the disengagement.”24 Similarly, Hamilchama Hashvi’it (The Seventh War) by journalists Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff discusses the possible link between the disengagement and the investigations, but claim that the latter were only an “additional incentive” for the radical change in the prime minister’s stance.25

Dr. Anat Roth, former adviser to several heads of the Labor Party, has published the most extensive study of the struggle waged against the disengagement plan by the Gush Katif residents and their supporters. (Dr. Roth also has contributed to this issue.) Roth holds a Ph.D. in political science and was a candidate in the latest Knesset elections for the Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party. The relevant chapter of her book Lo b’Kol Mechir (Not at Any Price) surveys the “circumstances of the birth of the disengagement.”26 Roth also cannot give a definitive answer as to whether there was a link between the investigations and the disengagement. Nevertheless, she describes the feeling that prevailed among many on the right at the time and continues today, namely that Sharon was motivated somehow by a linkage of this sort.27

Her book recounts the sequence of events that contributed to this feeling. She refers to it as “the chronological connection between the promotion of the disengagement process and the stages of Sharon’s extrication from the investigations conducted against him, a connection that, according to opponents of the disengagement, was not coincidental.” Roth also refers to the “mobilization of the left-wing parties, the media and the legal system in favor of Sharon.”28

It is worth recalling that before the disengagement plan was announced, three investigations were under way against Sharon and his sons, Gilad and Omri. In the “Straw-Companies affair,” Omri was suspected of setting up straw companies to finance his father’s election campaign and evading the restrictions of the Party Funding Law. The “Cyril Kern affair,” which erupted in the midst of the election campaign of 2003, when Sharon ran against Amram Mitzna, actually was an offshoot of the former affair. The “Greek-island affair” involved businessman David Appel, who was suspected of bribing senior government officials in order to facilitate his purchase of the Greek island of Patroklos and build a vacation village there. An offshoot of this affair included the suspicion that Appel also had bribed senior figures to rezone agricultural land in the Ginaton area for construction and that one of the recipients of a bribe was Ariel Sharon.29

Journalist Dan Margalit recalls that Sharon was dealing with the disengagement even in February 2003, ten months before it was announced in public, shortly after attorney Liora Glatt Berkowitz leaked the secret investigation of Sharon in the Cyril Kern affair to Haaretz reporter, Baruch Kara. At that time Margalit, who discussed the topic in his book Hitpachchut (Sobering Up), took part in a meeting at the home of Ehud Olmert in honor of Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York. The meeting was held during the coalition negotiations on forming the second Sharon government. Margalit states that one of the guests, Shinui Party chairman Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, arrived late and appeared agitated: “Lapid said he had come to Sharon with the firm demand that three of the Gush Katif settlements be dismantled, and Sharon had responded: ‘What three settlements? All of Gush Katif. All of the settlements!’”30

According to Roth, the chronological connection between the “Sharon affairs” and the disengagement plan begins only at the end of October 2003, ten months after the encounter described by Margalit.31 On October 30, Sharon was summoned by the police for interrogation of his alleged involvement in the Greek-island affair. At an exporters’ conference three weeks later, he said that he did not rule out unilateral measures. On November 27, 2003, Sharon again referred to unilateral steps. At the beginning of December, media reports stated that the state prosecutor was preparing to issue an indictment against Appel, and that it also would mention Ariel and Gilad Sharon: the father as a recipient of a bribe and the son as middleman for the deal. On December 18, Sharon delivered his famous “Disengagement Speech” at the Herzliya Conference.

On January 21, 2004, an indictment was issued against Appel, and the next day, State Attorney Edna Arbel said that she thought it was “possible and also necessary to issue an indictment against the prime minister.” Ten days later, a new attorney-general, Menachem “Meni” Mazuz, took office. Sharon was summoned to an interrogation on February 5. Three days before, on February 2, the prime minister revealed the scope of the disengagement plan to senior Haaretz columnist, Yoel Marcus. On March 28, the state attorney submitted her recommendation to indict Sharon on the “Greek-island affair”. The next day, the Supreme Court ruled that Gilad Sharon had to give the police all recordings and documents in his possession. The following day, Prime Minister Sharon announced that he had decided to submit the disengagement plan to a vote by the registered members of the Likud Party. On May 2, Sharon lost this referendum, but on June 6, the government approved the disengagement. Ten days later, Attorney-General Mazuz announced that he had decided to close the file against Ariel and Gilad Sharon in the matter of the “Greek-island affair”.

Mazuz rejected the recommendation of State Attorney Arbel on the grounds of insufficient evidence for an indictment and explained: “The evidentiary material suffers from defects regarding every aspect of the offense, and does not form a coherent structure that can stand in its own right. The evidence in this file was not strong enough to assure a reasonable possibility of a conviction.”32

After several months, on August 19, 2004, the Supreme Court rejected the petitions against Mazuz’s ruling by a majority of six to one. The judge who gave the dissenting vote was Mishael Cheshin. On June 25, 2006, in an interview withYuval Yoaz of Haaretz, almost a year after the disengagement, Justice Cheshin said, “I was not thinking I would be in a minority. But at that time the whole country’s wish was that Sharon should not be indicted, because there was a disengagement plan. And if Sharon had been put on trial there would not have been disengagement. I’m not saying that’s what most of the judges were thinking, God forbid…”

On January 20, 2005, the “Disengagement Government” was installed and Labor Party ministers were sworn in. One month later, the Knesset approved the Evacuation-Compensation Law, and on February 17, 2005, Attorney-General Mazuz announced his decision to close the file against the prime minister on the “Straw-Companies affair” as well.

Does the chronological connection between the “Sharon affairs” and the disengagement plan prove that there was manipulation and a manipulator? Hendel and Ya’alon answer affirmatively. Anat Roth is more circumspect: “The chronological connection in particular contributed to the feeling among a very broad public that the connection was not coincidental.”33 That feeling was further reinforced by the manner in which the media shielded Sharon. Journalist Amnon Abramovich called upon his colleagues to safeguard Sharon like an etrog (a citron, which is treated as a precious item during the Sukkoth holiday) “to protect him not only against the political troops but also against the legal troops…”34 (The article by Amnon Lord in this issue deals with this topic.) An article by Yoel Marcus in Haaretz was headlined: “Corruption Can Wait.” He proclaimed: “Once in a while historic moves are made that are vital to us. The state must focus on these and only on these and not be diverted into other issues, however important… The disengagement is such a defining event… The war on corruption is important, but it can wait…”35

III. The Arad-Weisglass Thesis

Thus, the proponents of the theory of Omek ha’akira c’omek hachakira (the uprooting of the settlements had to be proportional to depth of the investigation) do not offer a “smoking gun” but only circumstantial evidence that arouses suspicion. Sharon himself asserted at the time: “Ideology is one thing and reality is another.” He elaborated: “My duty is to try and ensure Israel’s future existence with a maximum of security.” He attributed his decision to demographic and security considerations along with the need to improve Israel’s position internationally. Sharon stated that during his lifetime, he had made hundreds and thousands of decisions. “Not a few of them were fateful, some of them decisions about life and death, but the decision regarding the disengagement plan was the hardest for me.”36 He continued: “They accuse me of making decisions that contradict my own words. That is a false accusation; both during the elections and as prime minister, I stated openly that I support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. I am prepared for painful concessions in return for an end to the ongoing and ruinous conflict between those fighting over the land…”37

During his lifetime, Sharon was aware of the plethora of rumors that there was a linkage between the criminal investigations and the disengagement. He usually tended to ignore such allegations. There was one exception, however, when, early in 2004, he said that “there is no connection between the evacuation and the investigation. It is not because of it. It is despite it.”38 At the time, his associates thought (and still think) that the accusation is imaginary, baseless, and mendacious, and they react accordingly.

Eyal Arad, for example, argues that the disengagement plan was presented to the ranch-forum as a decision of Sharon: “He did not ask for our opinion at all. It was clear to me that this decision would immediately get him into political trouble with his traditional support base. I warned him about that. I told him candidly that he might not survive in the Likud and could also lose his post as prime minister.”39

Did anyone draw a connection between the investigations and the plan?

Arad:

The investigations were never of concern for Sharon. He always said: Don’t bother with that. Leave it to the lawyers. The whole theory about the investigations leading to the disengagement is a complete invention and fabrication.

Hagai Huberman purportedly provides quotes from the ranch-forum that show a connection. Huberman, Hendel, Ya’alon, and Drucker and Shelah all claim to quote Weissglass?

Arad:

Huberman did not talk with any of the six members of the forum. Weisglass, whom they quote, was in no way a member of the ranch-forum. He appeared before the forum after Arik made the decision and instructed us to prepare arguments for it.”

Is it all an invention?

Arad:

It’s possible. Why not? They really did have to explain to themselves and to their public how the father of the settlements, the man with whom they worked shoulder-to-shoulder for years, had changed his mind. They did not believe that the real reasons, which Sharon encountered when he began to be prime minister, were what brought him to the turnabout. They had to explain that this was not good, so Hendel went with the linkage theory. As for Sharon and the people in the forum, not only did they make no connection between the investigations and the plan. On the contrary, he was well aware that he was taking a risk of being banished to the political wilderness.”40

On February 2, 2006, the tension between Hendel and Arad reached its height. Hendel quoted Arad as ostensibly telling one of the settlement leaders: “The public hates you people like they hate the Arabs. My role is to make sure the public will hate you people more than they will hate the terrorists.” Arad said he had never spoken such words and sued Hendel for libel. Hendel retracted his claim and apologized. He also told the court that he was convinced Arad had not said the things the settlement leader had ascribed to him, and promised to publicize the apology that was recorded in the court protocol. Arad, in return, agreed to withdraw his law suit.41Sharon’s associates also claim that Hendel’s catchphrase about the uprooting and the investigation must be given short shrift42. I asked them why they had not sued Hendel for libel in this case as well. They replied that “legally only Sharon could have sued, and a prime minister does not engage in lawsuits.”43

Weisglass, who explained, defended, promoted, and formulated the disengagement plan for Sharon, states as follows:

Every reasonable person understands that even a decision on disengagement does not change the course of investigations. No serious person really thinks that if the attorney-general’s office has evidence that crimes were committed, it will be ignored because the supposed perpetrator of the crimes launches a political plan. Olmert had a political plan a thousand times more daring than Sharon’s disengagement. Did that prevent indictments from being filed against him?44

Defense Minister Ya’alon, who is considered a serious person, still contends that the motive was external and personal.

Weisglass:

It is folly, and so are the quotes that are attributed to me, as if I drew a link between the two things, – an invention pure and simple. Ya’alon was the first person outside the circle of Sharon associates to hear about the plan in its early stages. Within the IDF framework, he cooperated with the preparations for the disengagement. He is still angry about the fact that they didn’t extend his tenure as chief of staff…

If so, how is it that Sharon changed his mind from one extreme to the other in such a short time?

Suddenly Sharon discovered that there were a million and a half Arabs in Gaza, that the Jewish population there was a lone island in a stormy sea. He didn’t know that already?

Weisglass:

In the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s Sharon believed that a major demographic change in the eastern Land of Israel could yield political fruits and that the facts on the ground created by the settlements were having and would have an impact. When he came to the prime minister’s office, however, he understood that this endeavor had reached its limit and failed. During a talk with the settlement leaders, he told them that everything that could be done had already been done, and no more could be done. He thought that if we kept insisting on everything, we would lose everything. Out of realism and acknowledgment of the reality, he changed his mind; he understood that the circumstances had changed. Once he realized that trying to have it all would mean losing it all, and that the majority, that is, the large settlement blocs, could only be protected through political realism, he internalized the fact that we would have to give up a large part of the territory. That insight gave rise to ‘Gaza first’; after all, almost no one thought Jews would remain in Gaza once a final agreement had been reached. This was an almost inevitable step.

Weisglass remarks that the letter from President Bush that guarantees the status of the settlement blocs in the final agreement was integral to the disengagement plan:

This was the recompense that the U.S. administration gave us, an unprecedented recompense that was also confirmed when legislation in Congress and the Senate declared American recognition of the settlement blocs, comprising about ten percent of Judea and Samaria, along with an American stipulation that the Palestinian refugees would not return to places within the Israeli borders.

And what is left of that American promise? See how Washington condemns us now over every apartment we build in the “blocs” and in Jerusalem.

Weisglass:

Have a look at how much we built in the blocs and Jerusalem in those days with American consent. That has indeed changed, but Israel is at fault for it. Bush’s letter implied that whatever was outside the blocs would go to the Palestinian state. As soon as Israel flouted that, then the second part – guaranteeing the status of the blocs, and particularly the freedom to build in them – was also lost. There are two sides to every coin.

The unilateral nature of the disengagement, too, was not exactly typical of the Arik Sharon spirit.

Weisglass:

The unilateral nature was dictated by the fact that at the end of 2003 the person ruling the Palestinian Authority was Arafat, and when, after a horrendous wave of terror attacks and two large attacks in Jerusalem, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] asked Arafat’s permission to take drastic measures against Hamas, Arafat refused. We had no intentions of negotiating with the scoundrel and terrorist Arafat. We knew, however, that something had to be done, that a change was needed, and hope, and that marking time means losing. The decision was unilateral because there was no other side. Arafat was the other side, and at the end of 2004, when he died, we started to coordinate with the Palestinians on implementing the move.

On the results test, did the disengagement yield a good result? Isn’t the disengagement the reason for the severe deterioration in Gaza?

Weisglass:

There is no connection. Hamas took over the Strip in June 2007, almost two years after the evacuation, in a violent military move. What is the connection between the disengagement and the Hamas takeover? How would the presence of isolated settlements in the densely populated Gaza Strip have prevented an armed takeover by Hamas? Already for many years IDF forces had not been deployed in the cities, villages, or refugee camps of the Strip; they encircled the Jewish settlements to protect them. The IDF had already withdrawn from the Strip in 1994. Exactly how could the small forces that remained to protect the settlements have prevented the Hamas takeover? And if Israel had wanted to defeat the Hamas revolution in Gaza, what was to stop it from going back in and doing so?

Didn’t the fact that Israel withdrew from the Philadelphi Route enable Hamas to get a large quantity of missiles with much greater ranges? When, before the disengagement, did they fire on Tel Aviv and Haifa from Gaza?

Weisglass:

None of that has to do with the disengagement. Even when the IDF was on the Philadelphi Route, rockets and other weapons were smuggled in through tunnels and by sea. The IDF did not want to remain on Philadelphi after the disengagement. All that would have happened if there had been no disengagement is that today thousands of settlers and thousands of soldiers would be stuck in the middle of Gaza, inside a death trap day and night.45

In Arik Sharon Rosh Hamemshala: Mabat Ishi (Arik Sharon, Prime Minister: A Personal View), Weisglass portrays the disengagement, which he first proposed to Sharon, as a move that promised a change in Israel’s dire situation during the terror onslaught in Israel in 2003. According to Weisglass, “the streets were emptied of people, investors were deterred, foreign capital had fled from Israel, tourism had almost came to a halt, the economy had been damaged, and unemployment had risen.”46 Furthermore, Weisglass claims that he convinced Sharon that leaving Gaza would defuse the territorial dispute between Israel and the Palestinians considerably, rehabilitate Israel’s status in the world and renew international support, bolster the United States in promoting the Roadmap as an obligatory political plan and demonstrate Israeli seriousness and sincerity in the effort to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.47 Weisglass also notes a request, actually a demand by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which he states that he conveyed to Sharon, as follows: “Please, do something dramatic that will rock the boat, something that will get the process out of the dead end…”48

Avigdor Yitzhaki, who served as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office during period of the disengagement, describes Sharon as a rationalist:

He had deep and warm sentiments about places and about the land and the soil, but the overarching principle was security rationality. Sharon thought that in any future political settlement, Jews would not remain in the Gaza Strip. If he had not thought so, he would not have gone ahead with the disengagement. Sharon also assumed that this move would make it a lot easier for us in negotiating over Judea and Samaria, prove that we were capable of dismantling settlements, and improve our image in the world, which is indeed what happened.

Yitzhaki dismisses the published allegations that the investigations and the disengagement were linked. According to Yitzhaki, Attorney-General Mazuz took a “clean” decision to close the Greek-island file without any connection to Sharon’s political activity. “Someone like Supreme Court Justice Meni Mazuz was not influenced by political factors when reaching a decision on a criminal proceeding, and that is all the more so when the chronology of the events indicates that there was no connection. The decision of the then attorney-general was made long before the disengagement was carried out.”49

IV. Conclusion

Journalist Hagai Segal, a leader of the settlers in Judea and Samaria and currently editor of Makor Rishon, does not discount the version of events offered by Sharon’s supporters, although he stresses that “there is no black and white” and that “it is certainly possible that motives were mixed.”50 Segal devoted a whole chapter of his book, Shetachim Temurat Chalom (Territories for a Dream) to Ariel Sharon.51 He recalls the episode of Shlomtzion, a political party that Sharon established before he joined the Likud. Initially, Sharon tried to attach Shlomtzion to the Alignment (the Labor Party) and proposed to leftists Yossi Sarid and Amos Kenan that they join his party. Segal presents quotations from years past where Sharon had spoken in favor of a Palestinian state. He notes that Sharon supported and implemented Menachem Begin’s decision to evacuate the settlements in Sinai and also reminds us that as foreign minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government, Sharon supported the Wye River Agreement, which transferred parts of Judea and Samaria to Palestinian control.52

Segal asks whether a “comradeship of the persecuted” led the settlers to ignore the previous descriptions of Sharon’s character. “We already knew at the outset that he was not a symbol of integrity, but we thought the public claims about his belligerence and recklessness were hugely exaggerated.”53

Veteran journalist Shlomo Nakdimon, formerly media adviser to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, also suspected long before the disengagement that Sharon’s thoughts did not match his conduct. In an article marking ten years since the disengagement,54 Nakdimon wrote: “Already, when Sharon was starting out, I sensed that his thoughts were not the same as his behavior, and today I regret that back then I did not express in writing what I thought.” Nakdimon points out that in his autobiography, the lateYitzhak Navon, Israel’s fifth president, recounts that, before the Knesset elections in 1977, he met Sharon by chance along with journalist Uri Dan, Sharon’s friend and confidant. When Sharon suggested that Navon join Shlomtzion, Navon replied: “You know that we have opposing views, especially on the issue of the territories.” Dan intervened: “You don’t know what Arik’s views are? He’s prepared to give back all of the territories for peace.” Navon thought the journalist was joking and turned to Sharon: “Is that true?” When Sharon answered in the affirmative, Navon asked him: “Why don’t you make that public?” “Because,” the future leader answered, “if I make it public, I’ll lose all of my supporters.”55

Ze’ev Hever (“Zambish”), secretary-general of the Amana settlement movement, was not interviewed for this article. However, in private conversations, Hever has stated that he does not think that the investigations against Sharon were what led him to the disengagement.56“Zambish” was the only settler to eulogize Sharon at his funeral. Another associate of Sharon said that perhaps it is important to recall that Sharon’s wife, Lily, was no longer alive when the disengagement was proposed. Had she been alive, she would have prevailed upon him not to go through with it because she had great influence upon him.

For his part, on more than one occasion, Sharon claimed that his settler friends did not trust him. Occasionally, he would say to them: “You think that I am the donkey and you are the Messiah. Just don’t forget that sometimes a donkey suddenly gives a kick with both legs.”57Sharon was using an expression common in Kfar Malal, the agricultural village where he grew up. The settlers themselves find it hard to forgive him and even more difficult to forget what he did. Will time heal the wounds? In this case, at least for the foreseeable future, it is not possible.

* * *

What, then, were Sharon’s real motives with regard to the disengagement plan? There is no clear answer. There are different versions and conjectures aplenty, along with suspicions and accusations. On the one hand, the fact that Sharon worked hand in hand with the settlers for decades and suddenly changed his mind places an emphatic question mark over his motives, particularly in the context of the criminal investigations against him. On the other hand, there are several indications that, all along, there was a misleading impression of Sharon and that, deep down, he was a pragmatist. The building of settlements and his pose as a right-wing leader helped him rise to the top of a political career and win the support of the Israeli public. The third possibility is that Sharon suddenly changed his mind. For years to come, historians will be pondering these questions.

* * *

Notes

This article was first published in the supplement, “Yisrael Ha-Shavua“ [Israel: This Week], of the daily newspaper, Yisrael HaYom [Israel Today] on 24 July 2015. The present text contains several minor changes and is published with the kind permission of Amos Regev, editor of Yisrael HaYom and the author.

1 Ariel Sharon in an interview to Haaretz, February 3, 2004: “People have to understand that ideology is one thing and reality is another; and it requires maintaining Israel with a maximum of security for the future.” In mid-December 2003, the Fourth Herzliya Conference on the National Balance of Strength and Security was held at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. The principal speaker was Prime Minister Sharon, who gave what was later called the “Disengagement Speech.” Sharon called the plan a “unilateral security measure of disengagement from the Palestinians,” and also said that the “disengagement plan is intended to provide a maximum of security and to create a minimum of friction between Israelis and Palestinians.” He added: “I want to emphasize: the disengagement plan is a political and not a security measure.” For analysis of the speech and its contents, see: Nadir Tzur, Ha’ish sh’Hetir et Haretzua:Ariel Sharon ve-Sippur ha-Hitnatkut (The Man Who Freed the Strip: Ariel Sharon and the Story of the Disengagement) (Mevasseret Zion: Tzivonim, 2006), 139-145; Gilad Sharon, Sharon: Chayav shel Manhig (Sharon: The Life of a Leader) (Tel Aviv: Meter, 2011), 491. The name of the director of the Prime Minister Sharon’s office, Dov Weisglass, occasionally appears as ”Weissglass.”

2 On June 13, 2007, Hamas carried out a military coup and forcibly took over Gaza.

3 During Operation Protective Edge (July-August 2014), Hamas fired rockets at the area near Gaza, including: Sderot, Netivot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi and Beersheba. Rockets also were fired at Greater Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Dimona and the Haifa area. Most of these rockets were intercepted by Iron Dome, and the rest fell in open areas. In an attempt to overcome Iron Dome, Hamas fired large volleys of rockets simultaneously. On July 22, the landing of a rocket in Yehud, close to Ben-Gurion Airport, prompted a decision by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to ban flights to and from Israel; the order that was lifted on July 24.

4 See the Israel Foreign Ministry report on Operation Protective Edge on the Foreign Ministry’s website: “Ha’imut im Retzuat Aza b’Shnat 2014, Hebetim Uvdati’im v’Mishpati’im” (The Conflict with the Gaza Strip in 2014: Factual and Legal Aspects), summary of the report, June 14, 2015, para. 31, http://mfa.gov.il/MFAHEB/PressRoom/TopEvents/Pages/Gaza_Conflict_Summary_2014.aspx.

5 For an overview of the operations, see (Hebrew): http://www.mako.co.il/pzm-israel-wars/operation-protective-edge/Article-9a4a5e78fb02741006.htm. On the security deterioration during the decade since the disengagement, see: Alex Fishman, “Menutakim m’Hametziut, Asor Lahitnatkut” (Detached from Reality: A Decade since the Disengagement), June 27, 2015, http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4673336,00.html.

6 See: “[Limor] Livnat: Slicha sh’Tamachti Bahitnatkut” (Livnat: Forgive me for Supporting the Disengagement), Ynet, October 22, 2009; “Gershon Hacohen: Et Hapkuda Hazot Asur Haya Latet” (Gershon Hacohen: Giving That Order Was Forbidden”), Arutz Sheva, June 14, 2015, http://www.inn.co.il/News/News.aspx/300277. See also: “Tochnit Hahitnatkut” (The Disengagement Plan), Wikipedia, under the subhead “Hityachasut Me’ucheret Latochnit” (Later Assessments of the Plan), a list of well-known figures who changed their minds, with citations.

7 “Vaadat Hachakira l’Matzav Mefunei Gush Katif: ‘Hamedina Kashla’” (Investigation Commission on the Situation of the Gush Katif Evacuees: “The State Has Failed”), Haaretz, June 16, 2010, http://www.haaretz.co.il/misc/1.1207183.

8 See: Yoav Keren, “Shlish m’Hatomchim: Hahitnatkut Hayta Ta’ut” (A Third of the Supporters: The Disengagement Was a Mistake), NRG website, “Shnatayim Le’echar Hahitnatkut” (Two Years after the Disengagement), July 26, 2007; Yonatan Urich, “Machatzit m’Ha’yisraelim: ‘Hahitnatkut Hayta Ta’ut’: Seker Chadash Koveya ki 53% m’Ezrachei Hamedina Hayehudi’im Choshvim ki Hatochnit Hayta Taut, v’k-38% Adayin Metzadadim Batochnit Nachon l’Hayom” (Half of the Israelis: “The Disengagement Was a Mistake”: A New Survey Finds that 53% of the Jewish Citizens of the Country Think the Plan Was a Mistake, and 38% Still Favor the Plan Today), Kipa website, July 17, 2013.

9 Ben Caspit, “Kach Nolda Tochnit Hahitnatkut” (Thus the Disengagement Plan Was Born), NRG, July 16, 2005; Zvi Tziki Avisher, Sharon: Chameish Shanim Kadima (Sharon: Five Years Ahead) (self-published, 2011), 29: “Ariel Sharon Eino Harishon sh’Tichnen Hitnatkut” (Ariel Sharon Is Not the First Who Planned a Disengagement); author’s conversation with Attorney Daniel Reisner, legal adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak for peace talks, July 2015.

10 Dan Margalit, Hitpakhchut (Sobering Up) (Or Yehuda: Zamora Beitan, 2009), 200.

11 Author’s conversation with Daniel Reisner.

12 Author’s conversation with Brigadier General (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, July 2015; Ben Caspit, “Kach Nolda Hahitnatkut,” See: note no. 9.

13 Author’s conversation with several right-wing figures who spoke with Amram Mitzna; see also: Aryeh Bender and Yitzhak Benhorin, “Sharon: Din Netzarim v’Kfar Darom k’Din Tel Aviv” (The Fate of Netzarim and Kfar Darom Is the Fate of Tel Aviv), NRG, April 24, 2012. http://www.nrg.co.il/online/archive/ART/280/433.html.

14 Author’s conversation with Dov Weisglass, July 2015; Avisher, Sharon, 28-30; Ari Shavit, “Harayon Hamaleh im Dov Weisglass” (The Full Interview with Dov Weisglass), Haaretz website, October 8, 2004.

15 Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon, Derech Aruka Ketzara (The Longer Shorter Way) (Tel Aviv: Yediot Aharonot-Sifrei Chemed, 2008), 157. Sharon’s spokesman confirmed to the author that Ya’alon still stands behind his claims.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Interview with Reuven Rivlin, Shabbat Supplement, Yediot Aharonot, April 21, 2006.

19 Author’s conversation with Zvi Hendel, July 2015.

20 Hagai Huberman, K’Neged Kol Hasikui’im (Against All Odds) ( Bnei Netzarim: Sifriat Netzarim, 2008), 499-501; author’s conversation with Hagai Huberman, July 2015.

21 Author’s conversations with Dov Weisglass and with Eyal Arad, July 2015.

22 Raviv Drucker and Ofer Shelah, Boomerang:Kishalon ha-Manhigut ba-Intifada ha-Shniya (Boomerang: The Failure of Leadership in the Second Intifada) (Jerusalem; Keter, 2005), 365.

23 Author’s conversation with Raviv Drucker, July 2015.

24 Author’s conversation with Member of Knesset Ofer Shelah, July 2015.

25 Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, Hamilchama Hashvi’it (The Seventh War) (Tel Aviv: Yediot Aharonot-Sifrei Hemed, 2005), 322.

26 Anat Roth, Lo b’Kol Mechir (Not at Any Price) (Tel Aviv: Yediot Aharonot-Sifrei Hemed, 2014), 194-203.

27 Author’s conversation with Dr. Anat Roth, July 2015.

28 Roth, Lo b’Kol Mechir.

29 Ibid., 196.

30 Author’s conversation with Dan Margalit, July 2015; Margalit, Hitpachkhut, 199-200.

31 Roth, Lo b’Kol Mechir, 203. Roth provides a time-line, see: “Hakesher Hakhronologi bein ‘Parshiot Sharon’ l’vein Tochnit Hahitnatkut : Sikum” (The Chronological Connection between the “Sharon Affairs” and the Disengagement Plan: An Overview).

32 Roth, Lo b’Kol Mechir. ..

33Author’s conversation with Dr. Roth.

34 Session at the Van Leer Institute, Jerusalem, May 22, 2005, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQubYq46aW8; Tzur, Ha’ish sh’Hetir, 319.

35 Yoel Marcus, “Shchitut Yechola Lechakot” (Corruption Can Wait), Haaretz, June 17, 2005. See my response: “Shchitut Lo Yechola Lechakot” (Corruption Cannot Wait), Haaretz, June 22, 2005.

36 For Sharon’s statements, see: the website of the Prime Minister’s Office, February 20, 2005 (Hebrew).

37 Sharon’s speech to the Knesset, October 26, 2004. Most of Sharon’s statements may be found in: Dov Weisglass, Arik Sharon, Rosh Ha-Memshala: Mabat Ishi (Arik Sharon, Prime Minister: A Personal View) (Tel Aviv: Yediot Sefarim, 2012), 252. (Hebrew)

38 Yediot Aharonot, February 5, 2004. (Hebrew)

39 Author’s conversation with Eyal Arad.

40 Ibid.

41 Civil file 18265/06, Eyal Arad vs. Zvi Hendel, Hashalom Court, Tel Aviv-Jaffa. (Hebrew)

42 Author’s conversation with two of Sharon’s associates, July 2015.

43 Ibid.

44 Author’s conversation with Dov Weisglass.

45 Ibid.

46 Weissglass, Arik Sharon,, 210.

47 Ibid.,. 209.

48 Ibid.

49 Author’s conversation with Avigdor Yitzhaki, July 2015.

50 Author’s conversation with Hagai Segal, July 2015.

51 Hagai Segal, Shetachim Temurat Chalom (Territories for a Dream) (Tel Aviv: Yediot Sefarim, 2013), 357-373 (Hebrew).

52 Ibid.

53 Author’s conversation with Hagai Segal.

54 Shlomo Nakdimon, Maariv, June 24, 2015 (Hebrew).

55 Ibid.

56 A source in the Yesha Council, to the author.

57 Segal, Shetachim, 367-368.

About Nadav Shragai

Nadav Shragai is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as a journalist and commentator at Ha’aretz between 1983 and 2009, is currently a journalist and commentator at Israel Hayom, and has documented the dispute over Jerusalem for thirty years.   His books include: Jerusalem: Delusions of Division (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2015); The Al-Aksa Is in Danger” Libel: The History of a Lie (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2012); the ebook Jerusalem: Correcting the International Discourse – How the West Gets Jerusalem Wrong (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2012); At the Crossroads: The Story of Rachel’s Tomb (Gates for Jerusalem Studies, 2005); The Temple Mount Conflict (Keter, 1995); and the essay: “Jerusalem Is Not the Problem, It Is the Solution,” in Mr. Prime Minister: Jerusalem, Moshe Amirav, ed. (Carmel and Florsheimer Institute, 2005).