The failure of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to retaliate in the Gaza Strip for rocket fire after disengagement – as he promised – was one of the major mistakes made after the 2005 pullout, Dan Kurtzer, who was the US envoy to Israel at the time, suggested Thursday.

Kurtzer, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, said that immediately after Israel left the Gaza Strip he told Washington “to expect a very serious Israeli response to the first act of violence coming out of Gaza.”

Kurtzer, attending the Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, said he “was persuaded” by what Sharon said: “That once the pretext for fighting Israel has been removed, there would be no argument for [continued violence], and in effect, the Palestinians would have to learn a lesson for continuing violence.”

Kurtzer said his message to the Bush Administration was to be ready for a sharp Israeli military response to rocket fire, “and be ready to support it.”

“The success of disengagement rested on the aftermath of its implementation, so I was very surprised there was no reaction to the first rocket, second rocket and 15th rocket,” Kurtzer said.

Kurtzer, today a professor in Middle East policy at Princeton, said that Sharon argued that the rockets were landing in fields, “not really that bad,” or were being fired by dissident elements, and not the Gaza leadership.

“But all of a sudden people got acclimated to the idea that there can be rocket fire,” he said. “From there it was just a matter of degree: from one rocket a week, to one a day; from one a day, to one and hour – so it escalated. By the time Israel did respond, the provocations were very very significant, and the fabric of trust in post-disengagement had already been eroded.”

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Asked whether he thought the Bush administration would have accepted his recommendations to support military action, he said, “My guess is the administration would have said that they don’t see any justification for the attacks, that Israel has the right to defend itself, and that the Palestinians have responsibility to stop the rocket fire.”

Another lesson to be learned from the 2005 disengagement, Kurtzer said, was that any future unilateral move needed to be “constructed differently.”

“There was never really any buy-in from the Palestinian side,” he said. “So even though there were some discussions about handing over certain assets and coordinating certain moves, it literally turned into locking the fence and throwing the key back over.”

Kurtzer said that if there ever was another unilateral move, “there has to be some way to coordinate it better than it was.”

However, he said, another lesson from disengagement is that “it may not work.”

“In fact,” he said, “if you look at the four times Israel gave up territory – two through agreements, Egypt and Jordan, and two unilaterally, Lebanon and Gaza – the two through agreements worked out, and the two done unilaterally have not worked out at all.”

Turning to the present situation, Kurtzer said that at this time it was incumbent upon Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to present his own plan on how he wanted to move forward.

“American administrations going back 40 years much prefer to work on the basis of an Israeli initiative,” Kurtzer said, adding that he thought US President Barack Obama was frustrated that Netanyahu “had not come up with something.”

“He [Obama] tried this idea of starting negotiations on the basis of borders and security, and Netanyahu clearly doesn’t like it,” Kurtzer said of the president’s proposal to start negotiation on the basis of the 1967 lines, with mutual agreed swaps.

“I think Obama’s answer now is, ‘OK I’m not going to be angry, but tell me what you want to do. I know what you don’t want to do, now tell we what you want to do. And its not going to be sufficient to articulate more conditions.”

Kurtzer said that the problem with Netanyahu’s two major policy addresses – the Bar Ilan speech in 2009, and the address in the Knesset last month – was that he listed a number of conditions, “but there is no strategy or process.”


“Don’t tell me what the Palestinian have to do, because that is a precondition,” he said. “Tell me what you want to do – otherwise there is a vacuum. That is what I mean by an initiative.”

Just as Israel needed to initiate something, so did the Palestinians, Kurtzer said. He downplayed the significance of the PA’s UN bid, saying that calling it a “train wreck,” as it has been characterized, was “silly.”

“If they want to go to the UN, let them do it. It is going to fail in practical terms – they are not going to produce anything,” he said. “This is a nothingness, because it doesn’t accomplish anything.”

Kurtzer said he failed to understand why the UN gambit was triggering such concern in Israel, saying that it would be a diplomatic triumph, but nothing else.

“Now they will have embassies, rather than missions; ambassadors, rather than emissaries. They will have status, marching bands, but it doesn’t mean anything.”

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