On Ariel Sharon and Gaza.

The Gaza Strip.

The Gaza Strip.

News came out of Israel last week that the health of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (who has been in a coma since January 2006) had begun to deteriorate; it’s been reported in the past few hours that he’s now in critical condition. It really is just a matter of time before the media will have to start publishing obituaries — and if they’re anything like last week’s proto-obituaries, it’s a good bet most will get the story of Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza wrong.

So before that happens, a few quick notes.

The way this story is generally told is some version of the following: “Ariel Sharon, a hawkish former general known throughout Israel as ‘the father of the settlements,’ surprised the world when he left the rightwing Likud to form a centrist party, Kadima, and took the difficult if pragmatic decision to withdraw Israel’s military from the Gaza Strip in 2005, despite fierce backlash among his once fervent supporters.”

The reason this version of the story is inaccurate is because it is incomplete.

The decision to withdraw from Gaza was fiercely contested, it did come as a surprise, and it was pragmatic — but not because Sharon had become somehow less hawkish. It was pragmatic precisely because Sharon was still a hawk, and he had understood that he had to lose Gaza in order to save the West Bank.

As former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies Yossi Alpher pointed out soon after Sharon announced his plan to pull out of Gaza, “the advent of the Geneva Initiative and the frenzied response of the Israeli right – with every senior political figure espousing his or her new plan, and most advocating disengagement – precipitated this development.”

One characteristic of Sharon’s approach has not changed at all: He did not present a realistic strategy for peace. First he “hijacked” the [security] barrier and distorted it by transforming it from a legitimate means of self-defense into a political tactic for creating a Palestinian bantustan. Now he has hijacked the idea of disengagement and the dismantling of settlements – which was originally intended by the left to rescue Israel demographically… and seeks to reconstitute it as a rationale for fencing in the Palestinians and grabbing the rest of the West Bank.

Alpher’s reference to the Geneva Initiative is the key element here. The Initiative (also frequently called “the Geneva Accord”) is a draft plan for a two-state peace along the 1967 borders with a shared Jerusalem. Launched by a group of Israeli and Palestinian thought leaders in October 2003, the ideas represented by the Initiative quickly gained significant support among the Israeli public — by the summer of 2004, that support had reached as high as 76%.

Sharon had seen the writing on the wall, and knew full well that a two-state peace meant the loss of the West Bank and an end to any notion of Greater Israel. Always a very savvy politician, he grabbed some of the Intiative’s ideas and vocabulary in order to stem the tide.

Or, in the words of his close adviser, Dov Weissglas, in October 2004:

The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political [diplomatic] process with the Palestinians.

…The American term is to park conveniently. The disengagement plan makes it possible for Israel to park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from political pressure. It legitimizes our contention that there is no negotiating with the Palestinians. There is a decision here to do the minimum possible in order to maintain our political situation. The decision is proving itself…. It compels the world to deal with our idea, with the scenario we wrote. It places the Palestinians under tremendous pressure. 

The “disengagement” also included a withdrawal from four small Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank, which Weissglas described thus:

The withdrawal in [the West Bank] is a token one. We agreed to only so it wouldn’t be said that we concluded our obligation in Gaza.

…Arik [Sharon] doesn’t see Gaza today as an area of national interest. He does see Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] as an area of national interest. He thinks rightly that we are still very very far from the time when we will be able to reach final-status settlements in Judea and Samaria.

And finally, it’s very important to remember that Sharon refused to actually negotiate the pull-back with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, insisting instead that the withdrawal be unilateral — which in turn meant that two-state minded Palestinians had nothing to show for a decade of negotiations, and Hamas, which during the same decade had waged a brutal terrorist campaign, was able to claim victory.

The withdrawal from Gaza was a unilateral act intended to freeze out the Palestinian leadership and put the peace process itself on ice, so that Israel could deepen its hold on the West Bank.

And guess what? It worked.

UPDATE 1/12/14: Haaretz ran a report today suggesting that newly revealed documents show that Sharon was already thinking about further territorial concessions in the West Bank at the time of his death. I’m not sure I agree with the conclusions the writer draws, and will blog about it sometime this week, but I thought I should link to the report in the meantime — to read it, click here. [h/t and thanks to Brent Sasely].