Commentary Magazine


Topic: Gaza disengagement

What Ariel Sharon Knew

The grudging respect that Ariel Sharon garnered from the Western press after the Gaza disengagement was misleading. They still reviled the Israeli military might he represented and the ideas he never let go of. Consequently, Sharon inspired the kind of praise that was both insincere and couched in so many weaselly qualifications as to make it twice as insulting as the condemnations he was used to. At least the condemnations were honest. His newfound, reluctant admirers couldn’t even look him in the eye. And boy, did Arik detest cowards.

If the Newseum in Washington ever puts together an exhibit of such media behavior, they will surely center it on this masterpiece of the genre, from the Economist. It was published after the Gaza withdrawal was underway, but before Sharon was chased from the Likud Party for it. Lamenting that “the chances of a Labour victory are, alas, fairly negligible,” the magazine focused on Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to vie for the Likud leadership against Sharon, and weighed in on which one was preferable. One imagines the psychological torment the editors withstood in order to choose between Bibi and Arik.

When it came time to hand down its verdict, the Economist offered a pox on both their houses, but slightly less of one on the House of Arik:

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The grudging respect that Ariel Sharon garnered from the Western press after the Gaza disengagement was misleading. They still reviled the Israeli military might he represented and the ideas he never let go of. Consequently, Sharon inspired the kind of praise that was both insincere and couched in so many weaselly qualifications as to make it twice as insulting as the condemnations he was used to. At least the condemnations were honest. His newfound, reluctant admirers couldn’t even look him in the eye. And boy, did Arik detest cowards.

If the Newseum in Washington ever puts together an exhibit of such media behavior, they will surely center it on this masterpiece of the genre, from the Economist. It was published after the Gaza withdrawal was underway, but before Sharon was chased from the Likud Party for it. Lamenting that “the chances of a Labour victory are, alas, fairly negligible,” the magazine focused on Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to vie for the Likud leadership against Sharon, and weighed in on which one was preferable. One imagines the psychological torment the editors withstood in order to choose between Bibi and Arik.

When it came time to hand down its verdict, the Economist offered a pox on both their houses, but slightly less of one on the House of Arik:

This is not because of some fundamental difference of vision or character between the two men. It is because of where each has chosen to take his stand in this contest.

To unseat the prime minister, Bibi has thrown in his lot with the least flexible elements of Likud—the bitter-enders who cling to the nonsensical idea that Israel can remain a Jewish democracy while ruling over millions of Palestinians. If he wins power with their support, he will find it extremely difficult to change position afterwards. Mr Sharon, in contrast, has just shown most dramatically in Gaza that he has the temerity to challenge and defeat this bunch, even if it means betraying those who previously lionised him. If the first Israeli leader to take such a risk is rewarded with the boot, peace with the Palestinians will remain as elusive as ever.

Those last two sentences are ever so revealing. Asks the Economist: Who is courageous? Answer: He who rises up against the Likud. And look how carefully constructed that last sentence is–so hedged and watered down as to be meaningless. And what happened? Arik was not “rewarded with the boot” by the voters (though he had to disengage from Likud). He won the following election by the sheer force of his own name and personality.

He left the most talented Likudniks behind when he formed Kadima. It showed–he was succeeded by Ehud Olmert, who was succeeded in Kadima by Tzipi Livni. Choose Arik over Bibi, the Economist advised, in the name of peace. In other words, the world assured the Israelis, this time is different. This time the disengagement, the withdrawal, will lead to … what exactly? Well the Economist isn’t so bold as to say, because one suspects that deep down the editors, and the highly refined opinion of the international community they represented, knew the truth. And boy, did Arik detest cowards.

The truth was that it would not lead to a change in Palestinian behavior. Israel unilaterally leaving all of Gaza and parts of the West Bank was supposed to be John Cusack holding the boombox blaring In Your Eyes outside the Palestinians’ window. But the Palestinians weren’t interested in Ariel Sharon’s gestures–which Sharon didn’t think of as gestures so much as essential actions that would secure the safety of the state he spent his life defending on the battlefield. And how much less interested must they be in lesser gestures, like settlement freezes or White House invites?

Obituaries and reminiscences of Sharon’s life are not lacking for lessons. But surely one lesson of Sharon’s life is this: the gesture politics that are a mark of the Western left’s decadent narcissism and intellectual boredom are useless in the very conflict they are applied most often. Worse than useless, perhaps–dangerous. John Kerry’s shawarma diplomacy is aimed at getting a piece of paper signed so he can pretend peace is at hand. Sharon never had the luxury of pretending.

And Sharon never needed a piece of paper. He left Gaza without a formal agreement because he understood the difference between peace agreements and peace. The two often have nothing to do with each other. When he felt he needed to do something for Israel’s security–withdrawal, security fence–he did it, because without security there is no peace. (People often think it’s the other way around, but history says otherwise.)

Sharon made mistakes. His judgment was not infallible. What was seemingly infallible was his iron will, for good and for ill. Because Sharon believed in reality. The politicians and journalists hectoring and heckling him from thousands of miles away were living in a fantasy world. They hated him, because he wouldn’t join them there. And he wouldn’t join them there because he believed it was cowardly for a man responsible for the survival of his people to play make-believe when lives were on the line.

And boy, did Arik detest cowards.

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The Gaza Disengagement in Hindsight

Bret Stephens had a thought-provoking column Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal in which he recanted his previous support for the Gaza pullout. It made me wonder whether I too was wrong to support Sharon’s disengagement in 2005.

Like Bret, I went back to look at what I wrote at the time. In August 2005 I published an article in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Hamastan? Gaza Pullout Worth the Risk.” As the title implies, I freely acknowledged that Gaza would likely become a breeding ground of terrorism, possibly even of international terrorism. But I nevertheless argued that “on balance” the pullout was worth the risk because it would allow Israel “to regain the initiative — moral and political,” and that “if the Palestinians fire rockets from Gaza, Israel will be free to mount a military response — more free, in fact, when the threat comes from a sovereign Palestinian state than when it emanates from Israeli-occupied territory.”

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Bret Stephens had a thought-provoking column Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal in which he recanted his previous support for the Gaza pullout. It made me wonder whether I too was wrong to support Sharon’s disengagement in 2005.

Like Bret, I went back to look at what I wrote at the time. In August 2005 I published an article in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Hamastan? Gaza Pullout Worth the Risk.” As the title implies, I freely acknowledged that Gaza would likely become a breeding ground of terrorism, possibly even of international terrorism. But I nevertheless argued that “on balance” the pullout was worth the risk because it would allow Israel “to regain the initiative — moral and political,” and that “if the Palestinians fire rockets from Gaza, Israel will be free to mount a military response — more free, in fact, when the threat comes from a sovereign Palestinian state than when it emanates from Israeli-occupied territory.”

Obviously I overestimated the extent to which Israel would get credit for its risky pullout. I overestimated, too, the willingness of the international community to support the Jewish state’s attempts to defend itself from terror. Much of the world continues to view Gaza as quasi-occupied territory because of Israel’s attempts to stop the importation of heavy weapons, and it continues to criticize Israel for supposedly “disproportionate” responses to terror. Such, at least, were the cries heard during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009; and they will likely grow louder the longer the current operation continues.

I still think Israel was right to withdraw settlers whose presence in Gaza contributed nothing to Israeli security and who cost a great deal to defend. But in hindsight it’s obvious Israel has paid a heavy price for withdrawing its security forces; if the IDF were present on the ground in Gaza, Hamas would not be able to fire as many rockets as it currently does.

Does this mean that Israel should reoccupy Gaza? Yes–if it wants to end the Hamas rocket threat for good. But I very much doubt Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will do so because such a move would not be supported by most Israelis. Israeli public opinion backed the partial reoccupation of the West Bank in 2002–Operation Defensive Shield–because hundreds of Israelis were being killed in suicide bomber attacks. Today’s rocket attacks, while just as terrifying, are thankfully taking a much lower casualty toll, thus sapping Israelis’ willingness to undertake an operation that would undoubtedly lead to the loss of some soldiers and that would expose their nation to even more international opprobrium. Harsh as it may sound, the situation in Gaza likely will have to get worse than it is today for any Israeli political leader to order security forces back for more than a temporary incursion.

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