Last week, I thought something I never dreamed I could think: that perhaps I owe former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon an apology. Not that I’ve altered my conviction that he bears direct, personal responsibility for every rocket fired from Gaza over the last nine years, every cross-border tunnel, every soldier killed there, every bit of damage done to Israel’s global standing by the periodic wars with Gaza and even many Palestinian casualties of these wars; all are the bitter fruit of the unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza that he conceived, bulldozed through the Knesset and finally implemented in August 2005. Yet if an apology is owed – and I’m still not sure it is – it’s not despite his responsibility for these evils, but because of it. Here’s why:
During the second intifada, then-IDF chief of staff (and now defense minister) Moshe Ya’alon used to talk about the need to “sear the Palestinians’ consciousness” – to make the intifada so costly for them that they would never again resort to violence. The Gaza pullout now looks uncannily like a similar exercise in consciousness-searing. But it wasn’t the Palestinians’ consciousness Sharon seared; it was our own.
Sharon understood his countrymen. He understood that many Israelis desperately wanted to believe peace with the Palestinians was possible despite all evidence to the contrary. He understood that Israelis’ desire to be loved by the world made the country far more vulnerable to international pressure than economic or strategic considerations alone could ever do. He understood Israelis’ demographic fears – that absent a two-state solution, a single Palestinian-majority state could someday replace a Jewish state. And he saw how, even as the intifada still raged in autumn 2003, the mere fact that Israeli casualties had dropped markedly since its peak in early 2002 sufficed to enable these other considerations to regain their sway. Consequently, various schemes to cede land to the Palestinians were already making a public comeback.
Sharon also understood one other thing: Important as control of Gaza was to Israel’s security, it paled beside the importance of the West Bank. Gaza primarily threatened Israel’s sparsely populated south. The West Bank threatened not only Israel’s major population centers, but also its industrial and commercial base, its main international airport and its seat of government.
Sharon assuredly didn’t belittle Gaza’s importance. He was an army officer during the 1950s, when Palestinian terrorists used Gaza as a base for staging bloody attacks inside Israel, and after Israel captured it in 1967, he spearheaded construction of the Gaza settlements precisely to ensure it would remain Israeli and never revert to being a Palestinian terror base. That’s why the unilateral withdrawal plan he unveiled in December 2003 was so shocking: It contradicted the fundamental security doctrine to which he had hitherto devoted his life.
Nor was he naïve enough that he could possibly have believed the rosy promises he sold the Israeli public about the pullout: that it would promote peace with the Palestinians, enhance Israel’s security, give Israel international legitimacy to fight Palestinian terror and buy American support for retaining parts of the West Bank. Indeed, the exact opposite occurred: The unilateral pullout bolstered Hamas, which rode to victory in the Palestinian parliamentary election in 2006 partly by claiming credit for driving Israel out of Gaza; it drastically decreased Israel’s security, resulting in 16,500 rockets and mortars fired at Israel from Gaza since the withdrawal and more soldiers dying there since the pullout than before; it severely eroded international support for Israeli counterterrorism measures, because once Hamas could entrench its rockets, tunnels and booby-trapped buildings amid Gaza’s civilian population, military operations against it necessarily caused far more Palestinian casualties than they did pre-withdrawal; and US promises of support for Israeli retention of parts of the West Bank evaporated the minute a new American president took office.
All this seemed to leave only the most cynical of explanations for Sharon’s about-face: He sacrificed Gaza, its 8,000 settlers and Israel’s security solely to ensure his own reelection and/or the end of the criminal investigations against him. At best, perhaps he convinced himself that since he was (truly) head and shoulders above all his possible successors, his reelection would benefit Israel enough to compensate for this sacrifice.
I still can’t rule this explanation out. As the fantasies he peddled about the disengagement show, he was plenty cynical enough (and megalomaniac enough) to make it plausible.
But I now think there’s an alternative explanation: Seeing that even the second intifada hadn’t sufficed to cure Israelis of their susceptibility to territorial concessions, he concluded that unless he did something drastic, Israel would someday quit the West Bank. So he sacrificed the less-important Gaza to teach his countrymen a lesson they couldn’t possibly disregard. He bequeathed us a metastasizing horror in Gaza to ensure that Israelis never, ever made that same mistake in the West Bank.
For Sharon also understood one final thing about Israelis: Much as they crave the world’s love, once a critical mass of them is convinced that something is vital to their country’s survival, they are capable of defying the entire world to secure it.
The Gaza experiment’s deadly results may finally have convinced that critical mass of Israelis. Outside the radical left, not many would be willing to risk a repeat in the West Bank right now. And while nothing else that’s happened justifies the disengagement, averting a far more dangerous withdrawal from the West Bank actually might.
Except for one minor problem: The success of the operation doesn’t matter if the patient dies. And it’s not yet clear Israel can survive the success of Sharon’s operation. It’s not clear it can survive the security consequences – which, for the first time since 1948, have turned Israeli communities within the Green Line into ghost towns – and it’s not clear it can survive the cumulative toll on its international legitimacy that repeated applications of Hamas’ wildly successful “dead baby strategy” are exacting.
That’s why I haven’t yet decided whether Sharon actually deserves that apology. I’m waiting to see whether anyone finds a cure for his operation’s deadly side effects.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post