The road not taken

Was disengagement the continuation of Oslo, or its antithesis? That depends on whom you ask.

rabin shake 88 (photo credit: )
rabin shake 88
(photo credit: )
Ahead of Yitzhak Rabin's last speech - a decade ago today - it appeared that he would be the man to lead Israel toward a withdrawal from the Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip as part of the Oslo Accords that he signed.

Instead, the Gaza pullout prescribed in Oslo was carried out as part of the disengagement plan of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was one of Oslo's most vocal critics.

Sharon will be one of the featured speakers at the events honoring Rabin a decade after his assassination. The two prime ministers have been compared, because both men were former generals who led Israel in capturing territory, establishing settlements, and eventually relinquishing land.

Yet Sharon has rejected any attempts to crown him as "Rabin's successor," for better or for worse, and he has shunned comparisons between Oslo and disengagement. His opinion of Oslo hasn't changed over the past decade and he undoubtedly hopes that he and his plan will enjoy a better fate than Rabin and Oslo.

Could Sharon be called Rabin's heir? The question is difficult to answer - because it may be too soon to judge the impact of disengagement, and because it involves defining the legacy of Rabin, which is still an open question 10 years after his death. The link between Oslo and disengagement, however, has been a subject for debate since Sharon proposed his plan nearly two years ago.

Among Israeli politicians, there are four distinct viewpoints on whether disengagement was the continuation of Oslo or its antithesis. On this issue, current political allies Sharon and Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres are on opposite sides, and the traditional Right and Left answer the question very differently than Sharon and Peres, respectively.

Sharon has said that disengagement is the opposite of Oslo, while Peres has constantly tried to connect the two plans. Politicians to the Right of Sharon and to the Left of Peres each say that disengagement continued the implementation of Oslo, but they obviously disagree on the merits of both plans.

A main point of contention among the four sides is the question of whether a unilateral plan is better for Israel than a brokered agreement with the Palestinians. Sharon says yes, while the other three sides all say no - for different reasons.

When Sharon conceived the disengagement, he emphasized the unilateral nature of the plan as one of its top selling points. He told skeptical Likudniks that Israel was better off withdrawing of its own volition to borders of its own choosing instead of making compromises with people who have never kept agreements anyway.

Sharon also stressed American commitments to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel and to allow Israel to maintain West Bank settlement blocs in an eventual final-status accord.

"What we have received from the United States was worth much more than empty promises from the Palestinians," Sharon says. "Oslo was a horrible plan with only disadvantages. It was based on the false notion that there was a partner on the Palestinian side. There is no philosophy more different."

Peres, who was intimately involved behind the scenes in both Oslo and disengagement, maintains that there is no substantial difference between the plans. He says the so-called unilateral disengagement plan ended up being carried out bilaterally, with the Palestinian Authority deploying troops to protect the IDF during the withdrawal.

"Disengagement was devised unilaterally, but its implementation was [done] together," Peres says. "It's the continuation of Oslo, with its principles of ending Greater Israel and dividing the land with the help of our Palestinian partners. Sharon carried out Labor's policies. But without Oslo, disengagement would never have happened."

Peres says that, had he been prime minister, he would have done things differently than Sharon. But he also recognizes the reality that only Sharon has the support of a majority of the Israeli people. Sharon and Peres have been happy to put their disagreement about Oslo aside while working together to implement the disengagement plan, which will definitely be part of Sharon's legacy and may or may not be part of Rabin's.

Meretz leader Yossi Beilin, who as Peres's deputy in the Foreign Ministry initiated Oslo, agrees with Sharon that disengagement is the antithesis of Oslo - but not for the better. He puts Oslo on a pedestal, while disparaging disengagement.

"Sharon is the personification of anti-Oslo and the disengagement plan is his way of disengaging from Oslo," Beilin says. "Unilateralism is the opposite of Oslo, which called for the Palestinians to respect Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital. Sharon could have strengthened PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and gotten something in return, but he has instead tried to do everything possible to kill Oslo."

Beilin says that Sharon is so spiteful against Oslo that the prime minister even rejected Beilin's overtures to take advantage of a clause in Oslo that could have been used to prevent Hamas from participating in the Palestinian election in January.

Beilin has also lashed out at Peres for permitting comparisons to be made between Sharon and Rabin. "To say that Sharon is implementing Rabin's plan is showing disrespect for the dead," he says. "Nothing could be further from Rabin than the policies of Sharon. If Rabin was alive there would have been a Palestinian state by May 1999. He wanted to reach a permanent agreement and I think that he would have."

Beilin says his Meretz faction supported disengagement in the Knesset "under protest." In discussions about disengagement in the Knesset plenum, Meretz MKs often found themselves with strange bedfellows, criticizing the plan together with MKs on the Right.

National Union leader Benny Elon criticized disengagement for the same reason as Beilin - because he believes that signed agreements are better than unilateral moves. But unlike Beilin, the reason Elon prefers agreements is because as long as the Palestinians are incapable of keeping them, Israel would not be obligated to make any concessions.

"Disengagement is both a continuation of Oslo and worse than Oslo, because it keeps the Palestinians as a partner, as if only Arafat was bad and the PA was good all along," Elon says. "With Oslo, at least there was a deadline when the PA's true face was revealed. But with disengagement, no one owes us anything."

Elon says another factor that makes disengagement part of Oslo is that it is intended as a down payment on the internationally-sponsored Road Map diplomatic plan, which leads toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. He says Oslo and the Road Map are similar, in that both are bilateral accords signed with the PA on the basis of Israel trading its land for Palestinian promises of peace.

"The only way that disengagement could possibly be good is if the US says that we won't have to give up any more land as long as the Arabs don't stop terror, and they never will," Elon says. "But the US isn't saying that, so we're the suckers. A weaker prime minister than Sharon will not be able to stand up to the inevitable international pressure for more territorial concessions, and then we will see how much of a mistake was made."

Sharon objects to such comparisons between the Road Map and Oslo just as much as he rejects the link between Oslo and disengagement.

"The Road Map is the opposite of Oslo because Oslo says 'bring peace and there will be no Palestinian interest for terror,' and the Road Map requires a cessation of terror for there to be any chance of achieving peace," Sharon says.

If Sharon does implement the Road Map, which would require him winning re-election, then the comparisons with Rabin will undoubtedly be even more rampant at ceremonies memorializing Rabin in years to come.