In an interview, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has acknowledged that Israel's unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza did not work, and that the summer's violence out of these regions has convinced him not to repeat the policy. The prime minister confirmed his belief in a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which will require an Israeli retreat from many territories it now controls, something "we are ready to do. A year ago, I believed that we would be able to do this unilaterally," a reference to his plan to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank.
However, it should be said that our experience in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip is not encouraging. We pulled out of Lebanon unilaterally, and see what happened. We pulled out of the Gaza Strip completely, to the international border, and every day they are firing Qassam rockets at Israelis.
Under existing circumstances, he concluded, "it would be more practical to achieve a two-state solution through negotiations rather than [through unilateral] withdrawal."
Comment: As someone who has been making this point since 2000 about Lebanon and since 2003 about Gaza, I am gratified that Olmert has understood his mistake. But I mourn the price already paid and worry about the price yet to come; and I wonder why it took a two-front war to make this point obvious. (January 9, 2007)
Nov. 8, 2007 update: Israel's National Infrastructure minister, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, has also had a change of mind: "I admit and confess. I was with those who strongly supported Ariel Sharon, and today I say with my head held high: We erred, we made a very big mistake." A pullout such as the Gaza one can only succeed, he says, when the territory is "handed over to responsible hands and anchored in agreements and international guarantees. Here we have a precedent - a territory we left turns into a base for terror - period."
Mar. 2, 2008 update: I devote a whole weblog entry today to Yossi Klein Halevi calling Israel's withdrawal from Gaza a "disaster."
May 7, 2008 update: President Shimon Peres also offers a qualified acknowledgment that the Gaza withdrawal was a mistake: "I did not imagine that we would leave Gaza and they would fire Qassams from there; I did not imagine that Hamas would show so strongly in the elections."
Jan. 20, 2009 update: In an important piece by Nadav Shragai, "Just say you're sorry," appearing in (of all places) Ha'aretz, the columnist demands that a long list of individuals, institutions, and groups "go out of their way and visit the mobile-home sites where those uprooted from Gush Katif live. This way they can tell them one small thing: I'm sorry."
Shraga includes in this list of should-be apologizers
- Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, Shaul Mofaz and Benjamin Netanyahu;
- The Israel Defense Forces, the police, the judges of the High Court of Justice, and the media;
- "Everyone who painted those who warned that the rockets from Gaza would reach Sderot, Ashdod and Be'er Sheva as delusional and opponents of peace";
- "Everyone who promised that they would 'give it to them' after the first Qassam, but in the end cried about the moral and international constraints that prevented them from doing so, and for years abandoned the south";
- "Those who took the name of democracy in vain and aided Sharon in deceiving Likud members and breaking his promises to honor Likud's decisions once it became clear to Sharon that the party's members did not agree with him."
- Those "who paid almost no attention to the hundreds of thousands who tried to stop the evil, who paid no attention to those who internalized the lessons of Oslo and warned that we should not give them land and guns again."
- Those "who paid no attention to those who warned of the Hamastan state, foresaw exactly the trajectories of the rockets, and understood that this was something we gave away for free, a further disintegration of our power of deterrence and an adrenaline shot for terror."
All of these should apologize because they, and all who assisted them, deployed force "to uproot 10,000 people from their homes in Gush Katif and Northern Samaria, maliciously and without any real purpose. Everyone who saw some good in the evil of the disengagement and evil in the good of Gush Katif has turned light into darkness and darkness into light. At the very least, they are obligated to make this small apology. ... There is no way to know if they will forgive you, but you at least need to ask."
Comment: While such an apology is certainly in order to the 8,000 or so Israelis forcibly thrown out of their Gazan homes in 2005, the more important point is to draw the appropriate strategic lessons from this fiasco.
Jan. 20, 2009 update bis: The Zionist Organization of America, relying on Arutz Sheva (which also provides a video showing these statements being made on the Knesset floor) published today a sampling of comments by Israeli officials in support of unilateral withdrawal on the grounds that this move would reduce terrorism and increase Israel's security:
- Then-Defense Minister, current Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz: "I anticipate that the level of terrorism will drop after the disengagement and after pragmatic Arab forces take control." (Israel National News, July 2, 2004); "I'm convinced that the process is necessary and correct. It will give more security to the citizens of Israel, and will reduce the burden carried by the security forces. It will extract the situation out of stagnation and will open the door to another reality, which will allow talks towards co-existence. (Speech to the Knesset, October 2004).
- Current Likud leader, Binyamin Netanyahu: "Let there be no mistake. On the Referendum, I will support the [unilateral withdrawal] plan." (Speech to the Knesset, October 2004).
- Likud MK Yuval Steinitz: "I think the plan, with these restrictions, is trustworthy. It's not an easy plan, but it has a good chance of improving our geo-strategic situation." (Speech to the Knesset, October 2004).
- Then Likud MK, now Kadima MK Meir Shitreet: "Some argue that there will be a threat, threat of escaping, threat to the Negev communities. I have never heard such a ridiculous claim. (Speech to the Knesset, October 2004).
- Labor MK Dani Yatom: "Before the withdrawal from Lebanon, the Intelligence Directorate also threatened us with Katyushas reaching Hadera and we see what actually happened. I estimate, and my estimate is just as valid as those that threaten us with horrors, that after we leave the Gaza Strip, terrorism will decrease, not increase." (Ma'ariv, February 5, 2004).
- Labor MK Orit Noked: "I want to believe that as a result of the eviction [of Jews] from Gaza, moderate Palestinian factions will grow stronger, terrorism will be reduced." (Speech to the Knesset, October 2004).
- Labor MK Ofer Pines: "I want to thank [then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the unilateral withdrawal policy] for he gives me and my wife hope that my son, when recruited, won't have to serve in Gaza Strip." (Speech to the Knesset, October 2004).
- Meretz MK Ran Cohen: "The Disengagement is good for security. Right wing representatives spoke of Qassam rockets flying here or there. I'm telling you, if you want to spare both Sderot and Ashkelon, we have to understand that if we won't get out of [the] Gaza Strip, in two-three years, or even a year, the range [of Palestinian rockets] will extend to Ashkelon." (Speech to the Knesset, October 2004).
Comment: For a reminder, many of us passionately opposed the unitlateral withdrawal. I, for example, wrote fifteen articles against it and called the decision "one of the worst errors ever made by a democracy."
Jan. 21, 2009 update: Michael Freund concurs in his Jerusalem Post column, "Time for a Gaza Apology." He notes that despite wall-to-wall coverage of the war in Gaza, Israel's leadership and media have "studiously and carefully avoided" mentioning what precipatated it, namely the 2005 withdrawal.
Of course, this hardly comes as a surprise. After all, it would require something of our politicians and their guard dogs in the press which they seem constitutionally incapable of doing: admitting they were wrong. Yet that is precisely what they were when they supported the Sharon government's misguided August 2005 retreat: dead wrong, and profoundly so.
It was their blunder, their bluster and their blindness, which got us into this mess, and which brought the country an unprecedented wave of airborne Palestinian projectiles and terror. All those who backed the pullout then, and adamantly defended it to the public, clearly now owe the rest of us a whopper of an apology. Which is exactly why they are so manifestly silent on the subject.
Freund recalls testimony by Col. Uzi Buchbinder, head of civil defense in the IDF's Home Front Command, to the Knesset Interior Committee on January 11, 2005; he explained that the disengagement plan would expose 46 towns and cities in the Negev to Kassam rocket fire. Then, at that same hearing, Col. (res.) Mordechai Yogev cautioned that "the withdrawal of the IDF from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria will bring numerous large population centers and communities within the range of Kassam rockets and mortar shells."
Freund recalls how "no one wanted to listen" to this negative message.
Instead, the leaders of the country mocked the plan's opponents and hurled invective and abuse their way. After more than 100,000 people rallied outside the Knesset on January 29, 2005 against the government's plan, vice prime minister Shimon Peres ridiculed the gathering, labeling it a "rally of shlemazels."
Now we know that, "Through their folly, the supporters of withdrawal brought disaster upon this country. They destroyed the lives of thousands of Gaza's Jews, and put nearly a million Israelis within the cross-hairs of Hamas." Turning then to the present, Freund notes that "Unless Israel and its leaders have the courage to come to terms with their error, the danger of making additional such blunders will continue to accompany us well into the future."
Feb. 18, 2009 update: As noted in a May 7, 2008 update, above, Shimon Peres has already offered a limited acknowledgment of error about the Gaza withdrawal; today comes a more full-throated version.
Whatever will happen in the future, we shall not repeat the mistakes we made in leaving Gaza. It should have been done otherwise. I was for leaving Gaza. I consider myself as one of the persons mistaken.
Apr. 24, 2009 update: One person who stands up for the Gaza withdrawal, surprisingly, is the expected next Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. Barak Ravid of Ha'aretz paraphrases a talk he gave at Georgetown University in March 2009 titled "The Gaza Crisis from an Historical and Personal Perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Oren said he supported the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. After they started firing Qassam rockets from Gaza, he said Natan Sharansky asked him if the disengagement wasn't a mistake. Oren said he replied that it had not been. The mistake was Israel's failure to react to the Qassam fire, which sent a message of weakness to the entire Middle East.
More strikingly yet, Oren supports a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and an evacuation of most of the Israeli town there. "The only alternative for Israel to save itself as a Jewish state is by unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank and evacuating most of the settlements. ... I may be the last of the standing unilateralists. The only thing that can save Israel as a Jewish state is by unilaterally withdrawing our settlements from the West Bank" and then awaiting a new, better Palestinian leadership.
May 1, 2009 update: To the surprise of many (including, most memorably, his own daughter, Ruthie Blum), Norman Podhoretz supported the Gaza withdrawal in 2005. Now, without announcing it in so many words, he appears to have changed his mind. Israelis, he writes in "How Obama's America Might Threaten Israel," even most of the doves among them,
have learned that withdrawing from previously occupied territories means the creation of bases from which terrorists will rain rockets on Israeli towns. Thus, when in 2000 they withdrew from the security zone they had established in southern Lebanon, Hizballah moved in, and then their withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 resulted in a takeover by Hamas—eventuating in both cases not in peace or even improved prospects for peace but in war and more war. Furthermore, the withdrawal from Gaza, entailing as it did the dragging of some 8,000 Jews out of their homes, was so painful a national trauma that doing the same to more than thirty times that many Jews living in the West Bank has become unthinkable.
A belated welcome, Norman, to the ranks of Gaza-withdrawal opponents.
July 28, 2009 update: A poll by Maagar Mochot finds that Israelis who once favored the withdrawal from Gaza have resoundingly changed their mind and see it as a mistake.
These days, 4 years to the evacuation of Gush Katif is being marked. In the past did you support or oppose the evacuation of Gush Katif?
Oppose 24% Supported 48% Other replies 28%
Among those who supported: Are you sorry today that you supported the evacuation Gush Katif?
Yes 68% No 22% Other replies 10%
July 30, 2009 update: Yiftach Ron-Tal, the Israeli general who oversaw the Gaza withdrawal, states that "Today it is clear to everybody, that what at the time was an argument over a difficult event, was utter nonsense from a security perspective." He adds: "I opposed it from the deepest meaning of the word opposition - from a security aspect, from a religious aspect and from a national aspect."
Aug. 10, 2009 update: As a side-note to the larger mistakes, a report from the Israeli government office titled the "Administration for Assistance to Settlers from the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria" finds that, four years after the withdrawal, it has spent NIS 10 billion, or $2.54 billion, on those persons who were evicted from their homes, with no end in sight. From them one hears only complaints, so it appears to be money badly spent.
Jan. 31, 2010 update: Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi appears to be the first foreign politician to condemn the Gaza withdrawal: "what happened in Gaza should prompt some thought. It is not possible to evacuate communities to [then] face burned synagogues, acts of destruction, and inter-Palestinian violence and missiles being shot into Israeli territory."
Aug. 18, 2010 update: The ever-insightful Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe looks at the Gaza withdrawal five years on and deems it "a staggering failure, a disaster in every respect." Here's a partial list of reasons why:
The fruit of disengagement was not the "new morning of great hope" that Sharon and Olmert -- and their countless enablers in the West -- envisioned. Instead, it was an erosion of respect for Israeli strength and deterrence. It was the Second Lebanon War of 2006 and the three-week Israel-Hamas war that began at the end of 2008. It was the entrenchment of Iran, via Hamas and Hezbollah, on Israel's northern and southern borders. It was the burning of Gaza's synagogues and the trashing of its famous greenhouses. It was the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, who has been a hostage in Gaza for more than four of the five years since Israel abandoned the territory to its enemies. It was the further blackening of Israel's international reputation. It was the immiseration of Gaza's Palestinians under a fundamentalist Hamas dictatorship.
Aug. 7, 2012 update: Ehud Yaari explained to IDF Radio "Hakol Boer" (as transcribed and translated by Aaron Lerner of Independent Media Review and Analysis, IMRA) that Bedouin who
were never close to Islam, and certainly not to fanaticism and fundamentalism. Some of them underwent a transformation. We know why. We can lie to ourselves a thousand times why this happened. I can tell you why it happened because I hear it from the Bedouin themselves. It happened because of the disengagement [from Gaza] of 2005.
How does Ashaf Hanani, one the prominent Bedouin intellectuals in Sinai put it? ... He says "a fireball rolled from Gaza to Egypt. First northeast Sinai integrated into the Gaza economy via the smuggling and tunnel industry. The second thing was the flow and influence of Hamas and Salafi ideology from Gaza to tribes in Sinai.
Nov. 20, 2012 update: With war flaring anew between Hamas and Israel, Bret Stephens, then editor of the Jerusalem Post and now on the Wall Street Journal editorial board, writes "I was wrong to support Israel's 'disengagement' from the [Gaza] Strip in 2005." His reason: "The diplomatic and public-relations benefit Israel derives from being able to defend itself from across a "border" and without having to get into an argument about settlements isn't worth the price Israelis have had to pay in lives and terror." He also advocates Israel taking back control of the Philadelphi Corridor.
Nov. 21, 2012 update: (1) Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations also has second thoughts about the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, though only the security forces, not the residents: "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. ... 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." That said, Boot 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."
(2) Jonathan S. Tobin of Commentary writes that, looking back on the 2005 withdrawal, "it is clear that the decision was a colossal blunder" that "yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect." But Tobin offers no mea culpa on the grounds that he had plenty of doubts at the time yet supported the decision to withdraw because it "was the decision of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel. Indeed, I believe the defense of that principle — that Israel's people must be accorded the right to make their own decisions about their fate — is a far more important duty for us today than the need to second-guess the decision of a leader and a government that has long since faded from the country's political scene." Tobin goes on to condemn "American Jewish wiseacres, be they of the left- or the right-wing persuasion," who offer their own views on Israel's security.
Comment: I replied to Tobin's argument four years ago, in the Jerusalem Post, at "May an American Comment on Israel?" An excerpt:
Responding to what foreign governments do is my meat and potatoes as a U.S. foreign policy analyst who spent time in the State and Defense departments and as a board member of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and who as a columnist has for nearly a decade unburdened himself of opinions. A quick bibliographic review finds me judging many governments, including the British, Canadian, Danish, French, German, Iranian, Nepalese, Saudi, South Korean, Syrian, and Turkish. Obviously, I do not have children serving in the armed forces of all these countries, but I assess their developments to help guide my readers' thinking. No one from these others countries, it bears noting, ever asked me to withhold comment on their internal affairs.
Nov. 23, 2012 update: Caroline Glick fiercely opposed the 2005 Gaza withdrawal; she begins an article today, "The trap that Arik built," by reviewing Israel's poor choices in the just-finished Second Hamas-Israel War, then notes that "Israel is in a strategic trap. ... of its own making." After reviewing Ariel Sharon's unethical and possibly illegal maneuvers to withdraw from Gaza, she bitterly but accurately notes that
in America withdrawal opponents were boycotted, demonized and blacklisted by the American Jewish community and the previously supportive conservative media.
During the years of the fake peace process, conservative US Jewish groups and conservative publications led by Commentary, The Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal forcefully opposed it. But when Sharon joined the radical Left by adopting its plan to withdraw from Gaza, these formidable outlets and institutions enthusiastically followed him.
Leading voices like former Jerusalem Post editor and Wall Street Journal editorial board member Bret Stephens, Commentary editors Norman Podhoretz and Neal Kozodoy, commentator Charles Krauthammer and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol not only lined up to support the dangerous planned withdrawal. They barred all voices of opposition from the pages of their publications. To greater and lesser degrees, their shunning of voices that warned against the Gaza withdrawal continues to this day.
So, too, with the exception of the Zionist Organization of America, every major American Jewish organization supported the withdrawal. Like the editors of Commentary, the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal, they barred voices of opposition from speaking to their groups. All commentators who warned of the strategic calamity that would befall Israel in the aftermath of a withdrawal from Gaza were marginalized and demonized as extremists.
Glick's right and the exclusion she refers to rankles still today, sundering long-time friendships and alliances.
Mar. 14, 2014: Almost a decade after the Gaza withdrawal, it's receded as a topic for judgment – but still that issue pops up from time to time. Ben Caspit does so today in "PIJ rockets remind Israelis of failure of Gaza withdrawal." An excerpt:
Sharon carried out the disengagement. The Jewish settlements were demolished and burnt (four additional settlements were evicted in north Samaria). Some 8,600 settlers became homeless, and Israel deployed along the international border of the Gaza Strip.
Since then, the rockets have turned from a nuisance into a strategic problem. Hamas seized the Gaza Strip by force, booting out the Palestinian Authority and Mohammed Dahlan's security bodies, and turning it into a hub of terrorism replete with rockets and missiles — a hub which currently poses a threat not only to Israel's southern region but also to the center Dan metropolitan area, as far north as the coastal city of Herzliyah. Since Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip, its southern citizens have been living under a constant threat of the "red color" siren alert. Forced to stay close to safe rooms or shelters, they find it hard to lead a normal life.
Aug. 10, 2014 update: The third Hamas-Israel war took place over the last month; in contrast to the prior two, of 2008-09 and 2012, this one is taking place long enough after the unilateral withdrawal of 2005 that that decision is no longer an issue. Wrongly not an issue, in my estimation, because the errors then are still propounded today by those who think that an Arab-Israeli resolution will follow on more Israeli unilateral withdrawals.
It's striking to note that one of the few references to 2005 comes from someone who avidly supported it then and still does now. That would be the current justice minister, Tzipi Livni, who in mid-2005 served as acting minister of justice. She today went out of her way to say she has no regrets. The Jerusalem Post reports:
Livni said that the withdrawal was a correct move, and that terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip exploited it to launch attacks against Israel. The justice minister said that "maybe there is hope" in re-installing the Palestinian Authority as the rulers of the Gaza Strip. ... "This conflict is not Israel versus the Palestinians," she said. "This is about the good guys versus the bad guys."
Comment: That sure makes sense.
July 22, 2015 update: Opposition Leader MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said today, commemorating ten years of the withdrawal, that "Without a doubt, security-wise, the disengagement was a mistake."
July 24, 2015 update: Respected journalist Nadav Shragai looks back a decade:
The main objectives of the disengagement plan, as it was presented by its architect, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, were founded on security considerations. But these objectives were not achieved. The disengagement plan has failed the reality test: Hamas has grown stronger and taken over the Gaza Strip. Its operational capabilities have increased dramatically and it has turned into a small terrorist army. Today, 70% of Israel's population has been exposed to the threat of Gaza rockets (as far north as Haifa). Since the disengagement, 11,600 shells and rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel.