A Historic Decision
ON JUNE 6, 37 YEARS AND A DAY AFTER ISRAEL conquered Gaza on the first day of the Six-Day War, the cabinet made a historic decision to begin Israel’s exodus from the Strip. The man who led the protracted, bitter and often brutal political campaign to pass the decision, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was a senior officer in the Southern Command at the time the Strip was taken and the man who, as head of the Southern Command in the early 70s, ruthlessly “pacified” the Strip. He was also the man who, as agriculture minister in Menachem Begin’s government, hastily constructed dummy settlements in Rafah to try and torpedo the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and became the engine behind Israel’s settlement efforts in both Gaza and the West Bank in every one of the subsequent governments – and they are many – in which he served. But he was also the man who, as defense minister in 1982, evacuated the settlements of the Rafah salient and Yamit, the “capital” of Israeli northern Sinai. No matter that the cabinet decision reached is couched in double-speak in order to make it palatable to right-wing Likud ministers, it draws a clear line on the most fundamental question that has faced the Israeli electorate since 1967: territory or demography? A smaller, democratic Jewish state, or an expanded state with the Jewish minority ruling through non-democratic measures? It was demography, not Israel’s future as a democracy, that motivated Sharon’s decision to pull back from Gaza. He understood that it was no longer tenable for Israel to allow 7,800 people to occupy 20 percent of the Gaza Strip, an island in a sea of 1.3 million Palestinians that required inordinate resources to protect it. That for Israel to be able to deal with social, economic, and infrastructural challenges, it has to consolidate; that spending billions in Gaza is no longer in the interest of the Jewish state. The decision is a watershed for Israel. For the first time since 1967 a government has taken a formal decision, no matter how encumbered by protective political language, to not only dismantle settlements but to actually give up territory as well – not for the purpose of negotiation or conciliation, as has been done in the past, but for Israel’s sake and Israel’s sake alone. One should not make light of the importance of the moment in Israeli politics and Israel’s history. This is the beginning of the end of the almost four decades of hegemony of the settler movement over Israeli politics and the first step in a serious realignment of Israeli politics. New lines and new divisions are being drawn up, and for once they stand to be clear-cut and distinguishable. People are stunned that it is Ariel Sharon, of all people, who has made the waters part, Mr. Settlement himself pulling his creations up. But on reflection it is not at all surprising. Sharon supported settlements in the West Bank because he saw them in strategic, not Biblical-messianic, terms. In 1967 and until the first Gulf war, Israel, in his view, faced a strategic threat from the east. Israel, therefore, needed strategic depth and settling the Jordan Valley and the West Bank was the way to achieve it. That threat has now gone. Israel is at peace with Jordan, Sadam’s Iraq has been destroyed and Syria is weak and isolated, its army equipped with ill-maintained and aging weapons from the former Soviet Union. Even before becoming prime minister, Sharon said that an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders is his goal, with final-status issues to be decided down the road. Pulling out of Gaza is his first step along that path – one that changes the dynamic of the last four years of war between Israel and the Palestinians. What will emerge is still an open question – it could be chaos in post-Israel Gaza, or the beginnings of a new and responsible Palestinian Authority that Israel will be able to deal with in the future. Some see irony in Sharon being the person to lead the charge against the settlers. But if there is irony, it is experience that made the difference. Sharon has been, for good and bad, at the heart of Israeli politics for decades. He has also been at the center of the war with the Palestinians that has been raging for four years. He remembers well the day in 1982 that he, as defense minister, expelled Arafat from Beirut after a short but ugly war. And he has, obviously, come to understand that in order to win it is not expulsion of Arafat that is now needed, but the consolidation of Israel. That Arafat is still around, pulling the strings from the half-destroyed Muqata’ah compound in Ramallah that serves as his headquarters is ironic. That Sharon is pulling out of Gaza is nothing short of historic.
Copyright c 2004. The Jerusalem Report
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