Like many other bombshells that checkered his career, both figuratively and literally, this one also flew straight, hit hard, and left an impact for the ages.
“I gave an instruction to plan the evacuation of 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip,” Ariel Sharon told Haaretz columnist Yoel Marcus. “I intend to carry out an evacuation – sorry, relocation – of settlements that cause us problems,” said the father of the settlement project, explaining he meant locations “that we will anyhow not retain in a permanent-status arrangement.”
And in case all this wasn’t clear enough, Sharon concluded: “My working assumption is that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza.”
It was February 2004, and many thought the scoop was a ruse. This newspaper sent this writer and his colleague Ruthie Blum to explore it with then-deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert, who fully confirmed and wholeheartedly backed the plan. “It’s time for Ben-Gurion-scale decisions,” he told us.
It took 18 months for the retreat to be executed, a period of great turbulence during which the plan’s opponents tried to stir the public to oppose it. Their effort failed. The evacuation was carried out smoothly and swiftly.
Now, as the disengagement turns 18, politicians are trying to deploy this trauma as part of their war on the judiciary, making analogies that are judicially manipulative, historically selective, socially dishonest, politically blind, and – like their war on the judiciary – doomed to fail.
All agree that the disengagement was a tragedy. Evicting people from their homes is never a happy scene, especially when the evacuees were good citizens and hardworking people who served in the army, paid taxes, built houses, and earned livelihoods with the sweat of their brows.
This doesn’t mean that evacuations are necessarily illegal or immoral. Governments are allowed to evict people, and democracies do that routinely. In the US, the Interstate Highway project that was launched during the Eisenhower presidency displaced 475,000 families and a total of one million people, according to the US Department of Transportation.
The courts had no ability to be leftist pawns in Gaza disengagement
It follows, that the Israeli High Court of Justice had no legal grounds to veto the disengagement. That is why when politicians today cite the court’s approval of the plan as “proof “ that its judges are “leftist” and “deaf to Jewish suffering,” they are lying. The court was not an actor in that part of the drama, as it indeed should not have been. The government was the actor.
Having said this about the disengagement itself, the court did interfere in the clash between the demonstrators and the state. Faced with a petition against limitations on protests in Jerusalem, the court ruled (on March 3, 2005) that the right to protest had to be balanced with the public’s right of movement.
Citing this precedent now, in the context of the demonstrations from the other side of the political spectrum, is valid, and in fact right. Today’s pro-judiciary demonstrations, like yesterday’s anti-retreat protesters, should not disrupt public order, not only because that’s illegal but because it puts off people it is out to enlist.
That is the principle side of the equation. However, that’s not what really fires the anti-judicial cabal when it recalls the disengagement. What really fuels them, as they watch hundreds of thousands thronging to protest against them, is envy, peppered with denial and frustration.
The envy is social.
The disengagement’s opponents launched a big campaign – most memorably spreading orange ribbons, bandanas, and wristbands – in their quest to rally millions against the retreat. That effort failed. The social mainstream was with Sharon, and the anti-disengagement rallies were dominated by observant nationalists.
The 60,000 Likud members who rejected the plan in their party’s referendum were a drop in the ocean. Those of them who cared enough to attend the protests did not offset the rallies’ sectarian look and feel.
Most Israelis shared the evacuees’ pain, but not their cause. The anti-disengagement campaign could only dream of pulling hundreds of thousands out to downtown Tel Aviv every weekend, as the pro-judiciary movement now does.
This, then, is the envy. The denial is political.
The knowledge that the disengagement was conceived and executed not by the Left, but by Likud, is for right-wingers a cognitive dissonance.
First among the denialists is Benjamin Netanyahu, who on October 26, 2004, voted in the Knesset to approve the plan. That was the vote that mattered. His resignation came much later, a week before the retreat, when it was a fait accompli, thanks, among others, to him.
This is, of course, difficult to admit, so much so that Netanyahu recently claimed he opposed the plan all along “as leader of the opposition,” a statement with two parts and two falsehoods.
Finally, the frustration behind the disengagement’s lamentations is strategic.
Disengagement’s opponents like to cite the missile attacks that followed it, implying they began in 2005 and would have been prevented had we remained in Gaza. Well, the fact is that in 2004 Gaza fired at us 1,231 mortar bombs and 309 Kassam rockets.
The method of fighting this scourge then was what it is now: aerial attacks. The presence of 7,000 Israelis alongside Gaza’s two million Palestinians was in that regard immaterial. That’s the tactical picture. Strategically, the retreat exposed the truth about Likud’s take on the Palestinian problem: It has no solution.
No one, including this columnist (“Sunset strip,” September 12, 2005), expected the retreat to bring peace. Certainly not Sharon. What he hoped was to restore the consensus that his settlement drive had cracked.
The Zionist consensus, Sharon realized belatedly, was Israel’s most precious, and fragile, strategic asset. Restoring the consensus thus became his supreme aim and grand achievement, the very achievement that his successor as Likud’s leader now labors daily, consciously, and tirelessly – to undo.
The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.