Ariel Sharon, the disengagement plan and the Palestinians

Published: 11 January 2005
Briefing Number 127

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This Briefing outlines Ariel Sharon’s thinking on disengagement and a future two-state solution with the Palestinians. We summarise criticisms of the disengagement plan within Israel, and by Palestinian leaders.

Among the misconceptions dispelled by this Briefing are the following:-

- that Israel somehow wants to control the lives of the Palestinians

- that Israel sees disengagement from Gaza as a final step rather than as part of a process

- that disengagement marks a low-risk, token measure by Israel, and

- that Israel prefers the excuse of not having responsible Palestinian leaders to talk to.

The evolution in Ariel Sharon’s views

Ariel Sharon’s attitude to Palestinian national rights is unrecognisable from five years ago. The change has been a source of bitterness among many of his former supporters inside Israel. But Palestinians and many of Israel’s long-standing critics remain hostile to Sharon’s thinking.

The evolution in Sharon’s views can be seen in his three keynote speeches to Israel’s most prestigious national security conference, which takes place in December each year in the Israeli town of Herzliya. The conference is attended by many members of Israel’s political, military, business and media elites.

At the Herzliya conference in December 2002 Sharon confirmed that he favoured a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (see Briefing 32, May 2003 – Ariel Sharon: Unwilling to Compromise?)

At the conference in December 2003 he proposed unilateral disengagement by Israel from the Gaza Strip, including the evacuation of all Gaza settlements, combined with withdrawal of four West Bank settlements.

In December 2004, he restated his commitment both to disengagement and to a two-state solution. He also challenged a post-Arafat Palestinian leadership to end terror. Here are key points from that speech:-

Sharon: It is impossible for Israel to rule over another people

Ariel Sharon: “We desire a life living side-by-side, in understanding and peace. We have no desire to rule over the Palestinians, we have no desire to run their affairs… Recently, we made the historic decision that this is our desire. I have paid a heavy personal and political price for my leadership in this decision…”

Our comment: Many commentators routinely charge Israel with seeking to control the lives of Palestinians. Here the Israeli Prime Minister has stated, for the third year in succession, that Israel’s goal is the opposite. He does not want Israel to run Palestinian affairs.

Mr Sharon’s outlook has transformed Israeli domestic politics. The “heavy price” he has paid includes a loss of support in his Likud party and elsewhere on the Israeli right. He has now formed a coalition government including the Labour party to progress with disengagement and beyond.

Sharon: continuing the status quo would be a “horrible disaster”

Ariel Sharon: “A two-state vision involves great concessions on both sides. The alternative of one nation, where one rules over another, would be a horrible disaster for both peoples. Only by pursuing the two-state vision can we grant true hope to our people….

….It is clear to everyone that when Israel declares its willingness to make painful compromises, it indeed intends to make genuine and painful compromises. Very painful….”

Our comment: Such talk was unheard of from Likud prime ministers of the past. Ariel Sharon does not say what concessions he foresees long-term, but on the Israeli side senior officials have been talking discretely about each of the following: Israeli readiness to withdraw from most of the West Bank as part of a final status agreement; a land swap to “compensate” Palestinians for their ‘loss’ of West Bank territory; Israeli readiness to divide Jerusalem pragmatically and ‘functionally’, rather than politically; and a limited family reunification scheme for Palestinians who are considered refugees and who have Israeli Arab family connections.

The concessions which Sharon would doubtless be looking for from the Palestinians include renunciation of a general ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees into Israel; an end to terror against Israel, in both ideology and practice; Palestinian willingness to accept the presence of the major Israeli settlement blocs (which cover 10-11% of West Bank territory and are home to around 200,000 Israelis); a limited land swap; and Palestinian recognition of the Jewish peoples’ connection with Jerusalem.

It is often alleged that Mr Sharon is only pursuing disengagement to maintain the status quo in the West Bank, and that he has betrayed the Road Map. But Mr Sharon’s talk of “great concessions” by Israel in the future shows that this is simply wrong. He plainly does not see Gaza disengagement as Israel’s final step, but as a preliminary measure with tough negotiating on core issues expected in the future. This point has been restated many times by senior Israeli officials and ministers.

Sharon: disengagement from Gaza is the only long-term option for Israel

The Israeli government is committed to disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the evacuation of 8000 Israeli residents on the Strip, during 2005. Here is Ariel Sharon’s thinking:-

Ariel Sharon: “Disengagement from Gaza recognises the demographic reality on the ground specifically, bravely and honestly. It is clear to everyone that Israel will not be in the Gaza strip in the final agreement….. Disengagement unites the [Israeli] people because it distinguishes between goals which deserve to be fought for, since they are truly in our souls – such as Jerusalem, the large settlement blocs, the security zones and maintaining Israel’s character as a Jewish state – rather than goals where it is clear to all of us that they will not be realised, and that most of the public is not ready, justifiably, to sacrifice so much for…”

Our comment: Over 1,000,000 Palestinians live in Gaza. As Ariel Sharon has made clear, Israel’s disengagement plan is driven by that overriding demographic reality. It is simply impossible for Israel to maintain de facto control over such a large number of Palestinians who do not wish to live in this way, nor protect the numerically small number of Israeli residents of the Gaza Strip.

Disengagement was originally conceived as a unilateral project by Israel. But following the death of Yasser Arafat and the democratically conducted Palestinian election of 9 January 2005, Israel may coordinate its Gaza evacuation with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli opponents of disengagement: their key arguments

Despite Sharon’s determination to press on with disengagement in 2005, the plan has many opponents in Israel. Here are their main arguments:

  • Giving in to terror? Many argue that disengagement represents a capitulation to terror, with disastrous long-term consequences. They say that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups operating in Gaza are claiming that the plan is the result of their violence.

  • Repeating the Lebanon mistake: Others argue that disengagement repeats the mistake of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. It is feared that disengagement will just embolden rejectionist groups, while hindering the operations of Israel’s security forces.

  • The myth of Palestinian moderation: Many political analysts point out that Israeli concessions do not necessarily strengthen Palestinian moderation – quite the opposite.

  • The religious significance of the land: Religious leaders and Jewish residents of Gaza and the West Bank argue that Israel is surrendering land which is biblically part of Israel, and that civil disobedience is warranted.

  • Forced uprooting of settlers is a betrayal: Others argue simply that the settlers have been betrayed. They moved to Gaza with the encouragement of previous Israeli governments and built up viable communities, agriculture and industry. Yet now, after having endured mortar attacks and infiltrations against their community centres, synagogues and families, they are being uprooted against their will.

In short, Israel’s critics outside Israel routinely portray Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan as a low-risk, token move by Israel which is designed allow Israel to “tighten its grip” on the West Bank.

But to most Israelis, disengagement looks like a high-risk and substantial move which marks a long-term parting of the ways between the ideological settler community, and the Israeli political elite.

Sharon: Israel seeks negotiations with an elected Palestinian leadership

It has often been said that Israel wanted the extremism and incitement to violence of Yasser Arafat, because it “excused” Israel from having to negotiate with the Palestinians, and to take Palestinian rights seriously. At Herzliya Ariel Sharon has shown this to be misconceived:

Sharon: “There is a real chance that new Palestinian leaders will arise who will be elected, who will truly abandon the path of terror and instead will advance a strategy of reconciliation and negotiation without violence, terror and hatred. We hope that the Palestinians will succeed in holding free, democratic and quiet elections….

…. Our goal is that the Palestinians will be able to live in dignity and freedom in an independent state, and, together with us, enjoy good neighbourly relations, while cooperating for the good of both peoples….”

This is not the language of a leader looking for excuses to avoid negotiating with the Palestinians. Quite, the opposite, it is the language of someone who has been waiting for a long time for a responsible negotiating partner to emerge.

Palestinian reactions to Sharon’s speech and to the disengagement plan

Palestinian leaders reacted angrily to Sharon’s December 2004 speech.

Spokesman Saeb Erekat stated in The Jerusalem Post (17 December 2004) that Sharon’s proposals do not go far enough.

He claimed that the Palestinians cannot agree to the existence of any Jewish settlements in post-1967 territory. Nor are they willing to have a final agreement on borders imposed on them by Israel.

Erekat suggested that what Israel had in mind was to retain around 40% of the West Bank in a final agreement (though this contrasts with the recent statement by the Israeli official in charge of disengagement, Brigadier Eival Giladi, that Israel foresees retaining around 10% of West Bank territory – see Jerusalem Post, 26 November 2004).

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was quoted as saying that the Palestinians would never renounce the “right of return”, and therefore Sharon’s proposals were absolutely rejected.

All Palestinian spokesmen called for the refugees’ right of return to be upheld; for Israel to withdraw unconditionally to the pre-1967 borders; and for all Jewish settlements to be removed.

Conclusion: moving beyond long-held visions

Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan, and his wider goals, have shaken Israeli society. The debate inside Israeli society is passionate, serious-minded and unending.

As far as the Palestinians are concerned, instead of asking what they can do to encourage further changes in Israeli thinking, they have so far responded to Sharon’s Herzliya speech by restating unchanged positions on key issues.

Just as Israeli society is going through the internal pain of sacrificing some long-held visions, it can be argued that now is the time for Palestinian society to stop restating well-worn formulae, and confront some painful choices of its own.

Further resources from Beyond Images

Briefing 34 – the Palestinian “right of return”

Briefing 32 – Ariel Sharon: Unwilling to Compromise? (May 2003)

Israel Accused especially statements 41 – 45 inclusive