Encountering Peace: Sharon’s biggest error

Now, with talks in Israel about the possible failure of negotiations once again, there are renewed utterances about the need to once again engage in unilateralism.

Ariel Sharon meets with his advisers at his Jerusalem residence, December 21, 2005. (photo credit: ISRAEL OUT REUTERS/Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Ariel Sharon meets with his advisers at his Jerusalem residence, December 21, 2005.
(photo credit: ISRAEL OUT REUTERS/Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Sharon’s biggest error So much has already been written about Ariel Sharon over the past week, what else can be said? I think it is important to write about what I consider to be his worst political decision – unilaterally withdrawal from Gaza. Let’s look at the following series of events: By March 2003, Operation Defensive Shield had achieved most of its goal of crushing the spirit of the second intifada.

The Palestinians fighting Israel were on the run. Yasser Arafat was locked up in his compound.
The streets of Palestine were lawless lands in the hands of warriors and gangsters.
Under US and international pressure, Arafat gave in and appointed Mahmoud Abbas prime minister, a new position in the Palestinian Authority. Abbas was opposed to the militarization of the intifada from the outset, and completely disagreed with the use of violence.
On April 30, 2003, president George W. Bush issued the Road Map for Peace, which in its first clause demanded from the Palestinians to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism, reorganize their security forces and place them under the authority of Abbas, and reestablish law and order. Abbas was committed to these goals. In exchange, according to the Road Map, Israel was to withdraw its forces from Area A and the Palestinian cities, reopen the Orient House and the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce, and freeze all settlement building.
On September 6, 2003, Abbas resigned as prime minister in protest over not receiving the authority from Arafat to crush the intifada, as well as in protest against Israel not implementing any of its Road Map commitments.
One month later a group of senior former officials and negotiators from both sides issued the Geneva Initiative. During October and November 2003 the initiative received support from much of the international community, including positive statements from the White House, the State Department, the US Congress and top EU institutions.
On December 18, 2003, at the Herzliya conference, prime minister Ariel Sharon announced his plans to disengage from Gaza (taking all international attention away from the Geneva Initiative, which Sharon despised). In that speech Sharon said, “I take this opportunity to appeal to the Palestinians: It is not in our interest to govern you.
We would like you to govern yourselves in your own country, a democratic Palestinian state with territorial contiguity in Judea and Samaria and economic viability, which would conduct normal relations of tranquility, security and peace with Israel. Abandon the path of terror and let us together stop the bloodshed. Let us move forward together toward peace. We wish to speedily advance implementation of the Road Map toward quiet and a genuine peace.
“We hope that the Palestinian Authority will carry out its part. However, if in a few months the Palestinians still continue to disregard their part in implementing the Road Map, then Israel will initiate the unilateral security step of disengagement from the Palestinians... The unilateral steps which Israel will take in the framework of the Disengagement Plan will be fully coordinated with the United States.”
Sharon was correct: at that time the Palestinians were not implementing their obligations under the Road Map, and with a deep sense of frustration Sharon announced his plans to leave Gaza. Israel began to make its plans for the disengagement. For Sharon, Arafat was certainly not a partner and he felt that he had to take the future of Israel into his own hands. The disengagement would take place in August 2005, enough time for proper planning.
But on November 11, 2004, Arafat died.
Abbas immediately stepped in and on November 25, 2004, was officially appointed the new president of the PA . On January 9, 2005, Abbas was elected in democratic elections with 62 percent of the vote, running a campaign based on describing the second intifada as wrong – tactically, strategically and morally. He openly stated that he was opposed to terrorism and to all violence, and promised to take control of the security forces, to fight terrorism, to implement the Road Map and to restore the peace process.
With renewed hopes for peace, Bush convened a peace summit in Sharm el-Sheikh with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Abbas and Sharon.
At that summit, prior to the speeches, Sharon demanded to see Abbas’s speech in order to prevent the summit from turning into a farce. But after reading Abbas’s speech, Sharon was amazingly pleased, and did not request that even a single word be changed.
This is the heart of what Abbas said on that day in Sharm el-Sheikh on February 8, 2005: “We have agreed with prime minister Ariel Sharon to cease all acts of violence against the Israelis and against the Palestinians, wherever they are. Tranquility and quiet that will be witnessed and in our land, starting today, is the beginning for a new era... It is also an important step that provides a new opportunity for restoring the peace process and its momentum, and so that the Palestinian and the Israeli peoples restore hope and confidence in the possibility for achieving peace.”
Over the next six months, Israel had the opportunity to turn the Gaza disengagement into the first step of building the peaceful Palestinian state through cooperation between the sides. At a meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office, a former Palestinian prime minister cautioned Sharon that the disengagement could empower the PA , or weaken it. Sharon decided on the latter.
He called Abbas a “chick without feathers” and a non-partner. Imagine what could have happened if the Palestinian people, the Arab street and the rest of the world would have seen the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as a success of diplomacy, negotiations and moderation. Instead, it was clear to the Palestinians, the Arab street and the rest of the world that Israel left Gaza because it was forced out by Palestinian “resistance,” or what we call Palestinian terrorism and violence.
The Palestinians even used the very same words that many Israelis use regarding the Arabs: the only language they understand is the language of force.
The end result was the Hamas victory, which I believe would not have happened without Sharon’s stubbornness in not transforming the historic decision to leave Gaza into a diplomatic victory.
Considering the aftermath of the disengagement and the extra effort that Sharon made to ensure that Gaza would be totally closed after the Palestinian farmers took over the Gush Katif greenhouses, which led to their bankruptcy , and the bankrupt decision to destroy all of the Gush Katif homes and public buildings, which could have been used for the refugees and poor people of Gaza, the rise of Hamas there relieved pressure on Israel regarding the West Bank.
This, I believe, was Sharon’s plan from the outset.
Now, with talks in Israel about the possible failure of negotiations once again, there are renewed utterances about the need to once again engage in unilateralism. I cannot think of a worse idea, especially when Abbas is a real partner for an agreement. No, he is not a lover of Zion; he is the proud leader of his people. But he is ready to make peace with Israel that will end the conflict and end all Palestinian claims. It is not a peace agreement that of which Israel can dictate the terms. It is based on give-and-take and both sides will make significant compromises, but it is doable and it is a millions time better than unilateralism.
The writer is the co-chairman of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.
His new book, Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel, has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew, and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas has been published by The Toby Press.