I published an article today titled "The Forcible Removal of Israelis from Gaza," a follow-up to a column last week, "Ariel Sharon's Folly." As today's title implies, it responds to a debate I prompted – whether there has ever been anything quite like the prospective forced evacuation of Israeli citizens from Gaza. But the article last week also stimulated correspondence on two other issues which I would like to address here.
One commonly-made point by readers is that the Israeli decision to withdraw from Gaza "was a Dictatum from Washington." But that is not so. The Bush administration initially received the Gaza initiative coolly, seeing it (correctly) as fundamentally differing from its own Roadmap. Eventually, Washington came around and accepted it but there is no way to see the Gaza withdrawal as "Made in Washington."
There is much debate in Israel over the reasons for Sharon's abrupt turnabout, with the two leading theories being his seeking to (1) avoid criminal charges or (2) burnish his legacy, both of which are helped by a turn to the left.
Secondly, some readers objected to my final line, that Sharon "failed his American ally by delivering a major victory to the forces of terrorism." They point out, accurately, that the Bush administration is now behind the Gaza withdrawal. This being the case, how could Sharon have failed his American ally? Because I intentionally wrote "American ally," not "Bush administration." The latter might welcome the Gaza move but in my view this move harms American interests. (April 11, 2004)
April 11, 2004 update: Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, reports today on his meeting yesterday with Prime Minister Sharon. Klein asked him the question I have often raised (but not to Sharon himself):
why is it that during your campaign for Prime Minister, you took a strong stand against withdrawal from the Jewish section of Gaza and the removal of its 9,000 Jewish residents by telling your opponent that Netzarim, Gaza is as important as Tel Aviv – yet one year later, you were completely in favor of withdrawal and the transfer of Jews even though many prominent Israelis, including your Chief of the Israel Defense Forces, General Moshe Ya'alon believes "this Gaza withdrawal will blow up in our faces." In the year between your campaign and your decision to leave Gaza, what happened to make you change your mind?
Klein then reports that Sharon provided a very lengthy response to this question, about 15 minutes in duration. Some of that reply included the following:
I understand that the Oslo agreements were the greatest disaster Israel ever had. But we cannot sit quietly and take no steps. The world won't accept it, including the U.S. and the U.S. is under pressure from Europe to pressure us. We must be involved in a political process in order to defend ourselves politically. We are doing the Gaza withdrawal to save as much as possible strategic areas for Israel.
As Klein notes, Sharon surprisingly made no mention of military or economic benefits by leaving Gaza. From the sound of the above excerpt, it seems that the prime minister sees the Gaza withdrawal as a pre-emptive move to deflect American pressure. The question then arises what exactly this pressure is and why we who follow such matters do not know about it. Surely, if the Bush administration is engaged in behind-the-scenes strong-arm tactics on Israel, and has been doing so for over two years, this is something that should be publicly known. Or does that pressure really exist?
June 9, 2005 update: Israeli vice prime minister Ehud Olmert further confirmed my point today. Referring to the Gaza withdrawal, he noted that
the beauty of this policy of the Israeli government is that this is a unilateral action. No one imposed it on us, no government, no foreign government, forced Israel to pullout from these territories. We have reached the conclusion that this is essential in order to change the realities and to move forward to break the status quo, and to start something that ultimately will lead to a new dialogue between us and the Palestinians.
Aug. 16, 2005 update: Omri Caren of IsraPundit takes issue with my arguments above at "Stop Blaming Sharon." More broadly, as Israeli-on-Israeli violence in Gaza draws close, those opposed to withdrawal take succor from the idea that this policy was hatched in Washington and imposed on Jerusalem. It's attractive and consoling to blame the Bush administration; this permits one to keep a high regard of Sharon specifically and of Israeli decisionmaking in general.
It is, however, wishful thinking. Some problems with this approach.
- Sharon himself has not – other than such behind-closed-doors chats as the one quoted above or in several quoted by David Bedein – claimed American pressure made him do it. And there is good reason for this: were he to say this in public, he would have to prove so. Saying it in private only allows him to get the excuse out without accountability.
- The most determined Israeli political opponents of Gaza (such as Uzi Landau and Binyamin Netanyahu) do not speak of Washington pressure. Netanyahu in particular, a high-ranking government until just days ago, would have known of this, had it existed.
- To the argument that the U.S. side wants the Gaza withdrawal as a sop to the Arabs, look at the Arab press and politicians, with their stinging references to Gaza now becoming the "world's largest prison." In brief, Sharon's initiative is not exactly popular on the other side.
Blaming Americans for Israeli mistakes is an old story; in particular, the same thing happened during the Oslo diplomacy. I showed why this was wrong on January 3, 2001, in "The Oslo Process – An Israeli Choice." That article also contained historical background relevant to today's debate:
The idea that Washington pressures Israel to make concessions has some grounding in reality - it just happens to be out of date.
The American "land for peace" policy that emerged in the aftermath of Israel's victory in 1967 was for 20 years (1973-93) a source of tension with Israel. During that period, Arab states and the Palestinians, understanding this was a prerequisite to the voluntary return of lands they had lost in 1967, increasingly talked about "peace" with Israel.
At the same time, Israelis suspected the sincerity of their statements, which were usually issued through gritted teeth, in English, freighted with conditions and angry demands. Washington pressed a reluctant Israel to accept those statements as valid, and to respond by turning over land in exchange.
In other words, during those two decades, there really was sustained pressure on Israel from the U.S. government.
Then came a historic shift. In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin came to office intent on trading the territories for peace agreements. His intensive efforts notwithstanding, he managed no land-for-peace exchange. Rabin concluded that persisting in this approach would leave Israel without agreements and with the territories he was trying to unload.
So, as Douglas Feith points out, Rabin tried something very different: "Seeing that he could not insist on a secure peace while bringing the occupation to a prompt end, Rabin decided, fatefully, that the latter took priority." In other words, he began a policy of unilateral withdrawal, which yet remains in effect.
With this shift, the government of Israel effectively abandoned its old worries and adopted the carefree American approach. Out went two decades of doubts; in came a willingness to ignore Arab statements and actions.
Comment: It may be a hard pill for some to swallow, but Israel makes its own destiny.
Aug. 17, 2005 update: Some timely confirmation of my argument comes in a major article by Aluf Benn in Ha'aretz, on the "Metamorphosis of Ariel Sharon." The account begins in Rome on November 17, 2003, when Ariel Sharon met Elliott Abrams, the National Security Council official in charge of the Middle East portfolio, sent by his boss, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. I'll let Benn take it from here:
As the meeting moved on to the Palestinian issue, Sharon dropped a bombshell. He was considering, he informed Abrams, a unilateral move to break the deadlock after three years of fighting: evacuating Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
Considering Sharon's political past, such a move was almost unimaginable. Even the most dovish Israeli governments had refrained from removing settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon, more than any other leader, had been the architect and political patron of the settlement enterprise.
There are differing reports on what happened next. According to one version, Abrams was "shocked" and returned the next day to learn more. According to another account, Weissglas had already alerted the Americans to the possibility of unilateral Israeli action, but it was only in Rome that Sharon gave such a move his own stamp of approval.
Comment: Whether Abrams was shocked or whether he had an inkling of what was coming, the implication is identical: this was a decision taken by Sharon, without so much as consulting with his American ally. So much for U.S. pressure on him to leave Gaza.
Dec. 25, 2005 update: Akiva Eldar looks back on the personal and surreptitious way Ariel Sharon developed the Gaza withdrawal plan:
Ministers who consider themselves his associates knew less than nothing about his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip without offering anything in exchange. If Ariel Sharon had asked the national security adviser, Giora Eiland, for a working paper analyzing the unilateral process, the prime minister would likely have done things differently, if at all. But Eiland - like most ministers, all the heads of the security establishment and the Foreign Ministry's senior officials - only heard about that plan for the first time in the Herzliya speech [in December 2003].
Nov. 25, 2007 update: Moshe Ya'alon explains why Sharon might have decided to withdraw from Gaza, I note today at "'To Be Coddled, Go Left'."
July 24, 2008 update: Aaron Lerner makes the broader point that "American pressure is not the problem," correctly arguing that "Israeli diplomatic initiatives have been almost without exception carried out with American approval only ex-post." Examples:
Oslo, talks with Syria, even the idea of a sovereign Palestinian State were Israeli initiatives carried out without prior American approval. Shimon Peres flew to California to try to convince US secretary of state, Warren Christopher to take "credit" for Oslo so that he could then argue that Israel had no choice but to approve it in the face of "American pressure" - but Christopher refused to play along. President Bush only talked of a sovereign Palestinian State well after Ariel Sharon went very public with this stand.
When Israel's leadership was determined that action had to be taken it acted even if America was cool to the idea: The bombing of the Iraqi nuclear facility was criticized by Washington, and even the decision to take out the Syrian nuclear facility faced considerable opposition from significant elements in D.C. Nevertheless, these operations - as well as many others America was cool to - were carried out because Israel felt it had to. When Israel's leadership was determined to act in "fact creating" - be it in Jerusalem or Judea and Samaria - American displeasure didn't stop it.