Middle East

Middle East

Israel: Sharon’s Gaza Gambit

Israeli settler in Gaza
An Israeli studies religion in the Gaza settlement of Gush Katif, Feb. 12, 2004 (Photo: Nadav Neuhaus/AFP-Getty Images).

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon surprised the entire political spectrum on Feb. 3, 2004, when he announced in an interview with Ha’aretz: “It is my intention to carry out an evacuation—sorry, a relocation—of settlements that cause us problems and of places that we will not hold on to anyway in a final settlement, like the Gaza settlements.” Sharon, one of the settlement movement’s staunchest allies, thus outraged the Israeli nationalist camp and produced startled disbelief on the left.

The following day, Hatzofeh’s editors wrote that Sharon, “who promised the moon and the stars in the war on terror and planted the hope in the hearts of many that he had the key to defeat the terrorist organizations, has been revealed as someone whose old age shames his youth.” The editors accused Sharon of “now trying to curry favor with left-wing circles and the leftist media,” and “sacrificing the residents of Yesha [Hebrew acronym for Judea, Samaria, and Gaza used by supporters of the settler movement] on the altar of his troubles,” an allusion to the various corruption charges that may be levied against him.

Yediot Aharonot’s editorial comment for the same day, Feb. 4, predicted: “Even if Sharon doesn’t lift a finger and does nothing of what he has talked about, there is no doubt that the accumulated weight of his statements will have a decisive influence in the coming period vis-à-vis fashioning the public atmosphere in the State of Israel.”

Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal proposal drew so much fire that by Feb. 5, he was calling for a nationwide referendum to decide the issue. Yediot’s editors criticized the idea, calling it “a transparent trick to buy time and attention” and bolster his position ahead of any possible indictment on corruption charges.  The paper noted that early opinion surveys indicated strong public support for the Gaza evacuation but warned that, “This will disappear and turn into public outrage if it becomes clear—heaven forbid—that this is mere manipulation.”

Ha’aretz analyst Zvi Bar’el wrote (Feb. 8): “The problem is with the basic, seemingly rational assumptions that support the evacuation theory—Sharon will evacuate Gaza because he wants to continue occupying the West Bank; evacuating Gaza will relieve the international pressure, mainly American, on Israel and strengthen the pressure on the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table; leaving Gaza is more acceptable to Israeli public opinion; and finally, terror in Gaza will die down in the absence of available targets like settlements and military forces.”

But the Israeli nationalist camp’s Makor Rishon on Feb. 6 strongly criticized the prime minister: “He’s following [former Labor Prime Minister Ehud] Barak! The unilateral evacuation that Sharon is initiating too closely reminds everyone of the evacuation from southern Lebanon. As in southern Lebanon, so too in Gaza the control in the field will go to the Islamic terrorist organizations.”

Yoel Marcus, commenting for Ha’aretz on Feb. 17, wrote that Sharon “said that evacuating the Gaza Strip would take about a year or two. His ‘year or two’ could be two or three years—and that already qualifies as a vacuum. One way to fill it is to pass a framework law that, according to the author of the proposal, attorney Ram Caspi, will expand horizons and eventually lead to an agreement. This law will give the government power to relocate settlements and set out the rights of those who are evacuated to ample financial compensation and alternative housing. Legislation of this kind will demonstrate that Sharon is serious, and it will provide an incentive for tens of thousands of non-ideological settlers to leave of their own accord.”   

And according to reports on Israeli Army Radio on Feb. 18, the day U.S. envoys arrived to be briefed on the Gaza withdrawal proposal, which is likely to cause political problems for President Bush in an election year, a senior Israeli diplomatic source was quoted as saying: “Israel will delay the Gaza evacuation until after the completion of the November elections.”

Given these latest developments, it may be fitting to name Sharon’s Gaza gambit the “we must make haste, slowly” maneuver.