Finger pointing

How politicians on the Right could have prevented disengagement from taking place.

kness pic 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kness pic 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
One year, one kidnapped soldier and hundreds of Kassam rockets after Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the politicians who fought on both sides in the political battle over disengagement are convinced: It could easily have been prevented. They say that looking back at the stormy political process that led up to the plan's implementation, former prime minister Ariel Sharon survived a series of challenges in which disengagement could have been stopped in its tracks. Sharon repeatedly fought the plan's opponents and repeatedly emerged victorious. Disengagement's fiercest critics in the Knesset said that Sharon deserves credit for outmaneuvering them by using many ad-hoc coalitions to pass disengagement-related legislation. But they said the plan was realized not only because of Sharon's success but also because of their own failures. Advocates and adversaries of disengagement said the politicians who failed to prevent the plan were just as responsible for its outcome as Sharon and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, for better or for worse. Politicians on both sides of the disengagement divide agreed on five critical points in the political process. In each instance, politicians on the Right could have stopped the plan but did not do so because of their own personal political considerations. May 3, 2004: Referendum repercussions Sharon convened the Likud faction a day after he lost a referendum on disengagement among Likud members by some 20 percent. At that point, Sharon was not sure whether he would be able to continue with the plan. But Sharon was surprised to see that many Likud MKs who later ended up joining Kadima had no problem with his disregarding the vote's results. Sharon got away with ignoring the Likud referendum's results by making minor changes to the plan and then claiming he was advancing a different plan altogether. The changes included agreeing to destroy settlers' homes, involving Egyptian security officers in patrolling the Egypt-Gaza border and separating the votes on disengagement into three groups of settlements. In this case, the politicians who could have made a difference were the Likud MKs who later joined Kadima, where they would no longer need to worry about accountability to the hawkish Likud central committee. Their main reason at the time for not stopping disengagement was that they wanted to help Sharon, who had promised to withdraw from Gaza in a meeting with US President George W. Bush. "Likud MKs didn't insist on taking the results of the Likud referendum seriously," a former Sharon aide said. "The quiet that they gave us allowed us to move on." June 2, 2004: Controversial 'compromise' Ahead of the first cabinet vote on disengagement, it was unclear how Sharon would pass the plan in a government that still included the National Union, National Religious Party and Likud hawk Uzi Landau. He mustered a majority in part by firing National Union ministers ahead of the vote, but he still needed additional support. The plan's passage was predicated on persuading three key Likud ministers to support it: finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, foreign minister Silvan Shalom and education minister Limor Livnat. Shalom was not seen as a problem because his attachment to his title prevented him from openly opposing the plan, and Livnat was expected to follow Netanyahu, so his decision was critical. Netanyahu's doctrine throughout his career was to insist on reciprocity in agreements with the Palestinians, so how could he support withdrawing unilaterally from Gaza? Sharon sent his ally Tzipi Livni to negotiate with Netanyahu, Shalom and Livnat at the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv. Livni reached a compromise whereby the vote would not be about disengagement itself, but merely about preparing for it. At Netanyahu's insistence, she added a clause guaranteeing three separate votes on settlement withdrawals that were intended to be spread weeks apart to test whether the evacuation had not harmed Israel's security. The key words for Netanyahu in the proposal the cabinet voted on were "there is nothing in this [decision] to [enable] evacuating settlements," but it also said that the IDF could continue with the withdrawals at any point under the order of the prime minister. So in the end, the three votes on evacuating settlements happened concurrently and the Gaza evacuation took less than a week. Netanyahu, Livnat and Shalom could have stopped disengagement at that point but they said their main consideration was "preserving Likud unity." "The compromise was a maneuver by Bibi, Livnat and Silvan to put up a show as if they were fighting the plan," a former Sharon adviser said. "Everyone knew it was a ruse. They made noise in the press, closed their eyes and voted in favor." October 26, 2004: Ill-fated Ultimatum Netanyahu again issued last-minute demands ahead of a vote on disengagement, this time in the Knesset. Collaborating with Livnat, health minister Dan Naveh, agriculture minister Yisrael Katz and MK Yuval Steinitz, Netanyahu decided to vote against the plan that night if Sharon would not agree to hold a national referendum on disengagement. What Netanyahu did not know was that National Religious Party MK Zevulun Orlev had already reached a deal with Sharon that gave him two weeks to agree to a referendum, before Netanyahu was able to speak to Sharon and deliver his threat. When Naveh heard about Orlev's grace period, he said the Likud could not be further Right than the NRP. Netanyahu's group initially absented itself from the vote but came in for a second round and voted in favor. Following the vote, Netanyahu issued another ultimatum - this time without his political allies - threatening to quit if Sharon would not agree to a referendum. He later backed down from the threat, using the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a ladder to come down from the tree he had climbed. Just like with the Livni compromise, Netanyahu said his main consideration for voting in favor instead of trying to stop disengagement was "preserving Likud unity." He also stressed that the vote was not actually about disengagement but endorsing the same Livni compromise he voted for in the cabinet. "Netanyahu could have quit from the start like Uzi Landau," a Sharon adviser surmised. "His maneuvers ensured that disengagement would happen." January 12, 2005: Budget boomerang After disengagement had passed, efforts to block the plan's implementation shifted to votes on the 2005 state budget. If the budget would not pass three readings by March 31, the government would have fallen automatically. Unlike disengagement, the budget was also opposed by parties on the Left, making it harder to pass. The budget was set to be brought to a vote in November 2004 but it was delayed when it became clear that it lacked a majority. Between November and January, Sharon and Labor chairman Shimon Peres convinced Shinui head Yosef Lapid to quit the cabinet over a small allocation to haredi education. Labor joined the government in place of Shinui, which ended up supporting the budget anyway in its final reading in March. But in its first reading, the budget could not pass without the support of disengagement opponents in the Likud. The disengagement opponents, who called themselves the Likud "rebels," fought among themselves about whether to vote for the budget. MK David Levy said the budget vote should be used to stop disengagement, but he lost to less hard-core rebels Moshe Kahlon, Ehud Yatom and Lea Nass. In the interest of maintaining unity in the group, the MKs decided against opposing the budget. "Sharon never doubted that disengagement would happen and that it would pass but he was worried about passing the budget," a Sharon aide said. March 21, 2005: Final nail in the coffin The last opportunity to prevent disengagement was in March, ahead of the last reading of the budget and the Knesset recess. At the same time that the budget was advanced through Knesset committees, disengagement opponents pursued a bill to force a national referendum on disengagement. Disengagement opponents in the Likud were divided over whether to use the budget or the referendum bill to stop the plan. Landau, the group's leader, favored using the budget but he lost out to MK Michael Ratzon who insisted on using the referendum bill because it had the support of disengagement supporters in the Likud. The referendum bill was blocked by Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the Likud faction agreed to support the budget after faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar threatened to quit his post. Disengagement opponents in the Knesset Finance Committee agreed to absent themselves from key votes, allowing the budget to advance. Again, the goal of "ensuring Likud unity" was deemed a higher priority than preventing disengagement. LOOKING BACK on the five episodes, disengagement opponents in the Likud said they should have pushed harder. Former MK Yuli Edelstein said he was sure that had Netanyahu, Shalom, Livnat and disengagement opponents proceeded more aggressively, disengagement could have been prevented. "If I would have had a time machine and could have showed people the pictures of the destruction of Gush Katif, people would have acted differently," Edelstein said. "It should have been clear from the start that Sharon would destroy Gush Katif, so we should have done everything to topple him from the moment he rejected the Likud referendum. But I also have to give credit to Sharon, whose experience and determination beat us." Sharon's advisers said that he worked very hard to build the group of disengagement supporters in the Likud, most of whom later joined Kadima. They said that after defeating Arab forces in the North and South, the Likud rebels were no match for him. "Arik was an amazing politician," Sharon's spokesman Asi Shariv said. "The fact that the public supported disengagement helped. But the many coalitions that Sharon formed to advance the plan showed what kind of incredible politician he was."