Predicting Gaza: Rabin, Sharon, the Knesset and... well, me

The nation’s leaders have proved bereft of foresight – or hindsight for that matter. Can a dangerous ‘trust deficit’ be avoided?

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon poster 390 (R) (photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon poster 390 (R)
(photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
The nightmare stories of the Likud are well known. After all, they promised Katyusha rockets from Gaza as well. For a year, Gaza has been largely under the rule of the Palestinian Authority. There has not been a single Katyusha rocket. Nor will there be any Katyushas. – Yitzhak Rabin, radio interview, July 24, 1995
I am firmly convinced and truly believe that this disengagement... will be appreciated by those near and far, reduce animosity, break through boycotts and sieges and advance us along the path of peace with the Palestinians and our other neighbors. – Ariel Sharon, Knesset address, October 25, 2004
Let me be quite clear as to what this article is and is not about. It is not about whether the unilateral evacuation of Gaza was a success or failure or whether it was a good or bad for Israel. Only the moronic, the myopic or the mendacious could claim it was any but a disastrously debacle. It is not about whether, despite everything, Israel is better off after disengagement. Only the fanatical, the foolish or the fraudulent would suggest it is. Nor is about the precision of my own predictive powers (Well, perhaps just a little. After all what’s the point of being right if you can’t rub it in?)
Scary stuff It is about the documented lack of judgment of many among the senior Israeli leadership, men and women charged with charting the nation’s destiny, and who were elected to “get it right,” or at least not to get it embarrassingly wrong.
It is about a leadership that seems willing to jettison every shred of prudence and principle to preserve its positions of power and privilege, even if it means defending the most absurd policies; even if the ruinous consequences of their actions were not only eminently foreseeable, but widely foreseen.
The introductory citations by two recent prime ministers, both with rich military backgrounds, are startling in the magnitude of their mistaken assessments.
Rabin’s disdainful dismissal of clear and present dangers, and Sharon’s massively misguided prognosis of the political benefits that would ensue from abandoning Gaza, can hardly instill confidence in Israelis as to the competence of their leaders.
No less troubling is the display of inane imbecility seen in the debate that followed Sharon’s previously cited Knesset address, in which the disengagement plan was approved.
Oops, you’re on camera Some of the more ludicrous pronouncements appear in a Channel 2 review, broadcast four years later, during Operation Cast Lead. It recorded for posterity the “pearls of wisdom” of many of the nation’s senior politicians – all of whom had either held, or would later hold, ministerial posts in the government.
The English-language transcript – in order of appearance:

Meir Sheetrit (at the time Likud transportation minister – today MK for Kadima), with a tone of contempt: “Some claim that there will be a danger, a danger in retreating [from Gaza], a danger to the Negev communities. I have never heard such a ridiculous claim.”
Ran Cohen (Meretz, previously served as minister of industry and trade), in a voice both pompous and patronizing: “The disengagement is good for security. Right-wing representatives warned about Kassam rockets flying from here and from there. I’m telling you, if you really care about both Sderot and Ashkelon – both of them.... We have to understand that if we don’t pull out of the Gaza Strip, in two to three years or even a year, the range will reach Ashkelon.”
(To Cohen’s “credit” as someone belonging to the Left, his position did not comprise betrayal of his political credo – something the Likud MKs could not claim. His words do, however, reveal much about the sagacity of the Israeli Left.)
Orit Noked (Then Labor – today agriculture minister for Ehud Barak’s Independence Party): “I want to believe that as a result of the evacuation of Gaza, the moderate Palestinian factions will be strengthened. Terrorism will be reduced.”
Shaul Mofaz (then Likud defense minister!; now contender for the leadership of Kadima): “I am convinced the [disengagement] process is necessary and correct. It will provide more security for the citizens of Israel, and will reduce the burden on the security forces. It will extricate the situation from its [current] stagnation and will open the door to a different reality, which will allow talks towards achieving coexistence.”
Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor, later interior minister): “Before I arrived at the Knesset, I took my son to Tel Hashomer [the IDF induction center]. He received his call-up papers. I wish to thank Ariel Sharon, because he has given me and my wife hope that my son, when recruited, will not have to serve the People of Israel in the Gaza Strip.”
(As Channel 2’s Amit Segal reported, Paz- Pines’s son did in fact participate in Operation Cast Lead – despite his father’s heartfelt thanks to Sharon.)
Et tu, Bibi? The program even caught Binyamin Netanyahu in a moment he would perhaps like to forget. For although Netanyahu is perceived as opposing the disengagement – and in fact often expressed his reservations, to his credit eventually resigning because of it – the Channel 2 camera tells a different story, or at least records a temporary lapse.
In an exchange from the Knesset floor, with the National Union’s MK Uri Ariel at the podium, Netanyahu, then finance minister, declared: “Let there be no mistake. In a referendum I will support the disengagement plan.”
The final speaker featured was Yuval Steinitz (Likud, then chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, today finance minister). He stated: “I think this plan, given these restrictions, is appropriate. It’s not an easy plan, but it has a good chance of improving our geostrategic position.”
Then came the vote and the disengagement plan was approved by a substantial margin, 67-45. All the Likud ministers – including Netanyahu – supported it, despite being elected on a platform that urged voters to oppose an almost identical proposal put forward by Labor chairman Amram Mitzna who was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls.
Predictable and predicted The really astounding and distressing thing about the disengagement debacle is that nothing was really unexpected. Almost all the events that followed Israel’s evacuation of Gaza in 2005 were not only clearly predictable, they were predicted.
Take for example... well, me.
As early as December 1992, without any access to updated intelligence assessments, armed only with a reasonably sound grasp of the basic principles of political science, together with a modicum of common sense, I wrote an opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post titled “Why we can’t dump Gaza.”
In it, I cautioned: “The inevitable implications of [unilateral] Israeli withdrawal can be ignored only at great peril to Israelis and Arabs alike... A unilateral withdrawal from Gaza will do nothing to ease the socioeconomic plight of the local inhabitants, nor will it reduce the politico-security problems of Israel; rather it will likely exacerbate them further.”
I warned that much like nature, politics abhors a vacuum: “In the ensuing vacuum [following the IDF pullout], the most radical and violent elements in Gaza would undoubtedly seize power.... All more moderate elements would be speedily eliminated either politically – or physically.”
And indeed they were.
Cast Lead and Goldstone foretold? Since a withdrawal would oblige Israel to seal the border with Gaza, I expressed concern as to the consequences – both military and diplomatic: “The frustration and despair [of the local population] will manifest themselves in hostile action against Israel as the perceived cause of their privation; our southern settlements and towns will be the targets of frequent attacks, which will compel Israel to retaliate. But how and against whom? Without a military presence in the region, the IDF will not be able to identify and apprehend those responsible for firing.”
Thus a Cast Lead-type operation became unavoidable. But again I cautioned: Air strikes or artillery shelling on civilian population centers would cause heavy casualties among the dense, destitute masses in whose midst the attackers conceal themselves.
I raised the question: How would world opinion react? Richard Goldstone gave us the answer.
Smuggling from sea and Sinai I drew attention to the specter of smuggling, noting that Israel “would have no control over smugglers wishing to enter from the west([via the sea) and from the south (Sinai).”
The massive movement of civilian merchandise and military hardware through the highly developed tunnel network between Sinai and southern Gaza validated the latter concern, and despite some successful naval interceptions of weapon-laden vessels (e.g. the Karine A), the marine theater is still one of grave concern for Israel.
Now, with Sinai a lawless no-man’s-land, illicit trafficking – via both maritime and land routes (or a combination of both) – will become an ever-increasing menace.
Finally, I expressed fears as to the impact actions the IDF would be compelled to undertake would have on relations with Egypt, warning that “such operations would significantly increase the chances of military clashes with Egypt, seriously endangering the fragile peace.”
Last August’s Gaza-sourced terror attack near Eilat, and the ensuing lethal encounter between IDF and Egyptians soldiers that precipitated a major diplomatic row, underscore that this fear was well-founded, and may be the harbinger of more and more serious clashes.
Massive mindless malevolence The disengagement was an act of mindless malevolence on a monumental scale – a multi-faceted blunder without a single redeeming feature.
However, a full discussion of its pernicious ramifications must await another opportunity.
The point to focus on here is the following: Since most of those mentioned in this essay are either still at – or vying for a position at – the nation’s helm, and since the pernicious consequences of their action (or inaction) were so clearly identifiable – even I could foresee them – we, the people, need to ask ourselves with the utmost gravity and urgency: What other dangers don’t they see – or do see but don’t care about?