We will never know with certainty what took place in the mind of Ariel Sharon in February 2004, when he first declared, without consulting anyone, that he is ready to evacuate the Jewish settlements in Gaza. But if we try to put together the pieces of the disengagement puzzle, the scenario that makes most sense is that Sharon believed that this time, as before, he would find a way of evading the plan. This would explain, for example, why the Gaza settlers have not yet received compensation money and why, as the Saturday Supplement of Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot revealed on August 5, almost no steps have been taken to prepare for their absorption into Israel. (1)
Sharon had good reason to believe that he would succeed in his avoidance tactics. In the previous round, when confronted with the Bush administrationâ€™s road map, he committed himself to a cease fire, during which Israel was to revert to the status quo of pre-September 2000, freeze settlement construction and remove outposts. None of this was carried out. Sharon and the army claimed that Mahmud Abbas (in the previous round) was not trustworthy and had failed to rein in Hamas. The army continued its assassination policy and succeeded in bringing the Occupied Territories to an unprecedented boiling point, followed by the inevitable Palestinian terror attacks that shattered the cease fire. During the entire time, the first-term Bush administration stood by Sharonâ€™s side and dutifully echoed all his complaints against Abbas.
During the current period of calm, the Israeli army also continued with incursions into towns, arrests and targeted assassinations. It seemed as if the next terrorist attack, in the wake of which the calm would explode, was imminent, and the Israeli press was full of details outlining the â€œFist of Ironâ€ operation, which was expected this summer in Gaza. But the Bush administration suddenly changed direction. While Israel continued to declare that Abbas was not fulfilling his task, the Bush administration insisted repeatedly that Abbas must be given a chance. What had changed?
Until this turn-around, there was general agreement in Israel that there had never been a U.S. president who was friendlier towards Israel than George W. Bush. Presumably no one thought that a love of Jews on the part of the evangelical Bush was behind this support. But there was a feeling in Israel that with its superior air force, Israel was a huge asset in the global war that Bush had declared in the Middle East. With the euphoria of the power that was felt at the time, it seemed as if Afghanistan and Iraq were already â€œin our handsâ€ and now we would proceed together towards Iran and maybe even Syria.
But in early 2005, the wheels began to turn the other way. The United States was sinking in the mire of Iraq incurring defeats and casualties. Iran, which after the war with Iraq was ready for any terms of surrender, drew encouragement from Iraqâ€™s resistance and from its ties with the Shiite militia. The oil agreements with China gave a boost to its economy and its status. Suddenly the possibility of an attack on Iran didnâ€™t seem as certain. It turned out that even the most advanced weapons may not suffice to bring to their knees entire regions which the U.S. was eyeing. In the meantime, support for Bush had sunk to under forty percent and after each world terrorist attack, one heard the paired words, Iraq and Palestine. Bush will not give up on Iraq so fast. But the headache of Palestine, he really doesn’t need.
Since the beginning of this year, the U.S. steamroller has been moving steadily. First the all-powerful Israeli lobby in the U.S. was quietly neutralized. Two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have been indicted on charges of assisting the transferring of classified information to an Israeli representative. If convicted, this could spell the end of AIPAC and the entire lobby. In the meantime, they will have to sit quietly, regardless of Bushâ€™s actions towards Israel.
The next move was to freeze military support in Israel under cover of the China arms sales crisis. It would have been possible to handle this pesky problem with one small blow, as in the past, but the U.S. imposed real sanctions this time. Contracts for the purchase of military arms were frozen, and the U.S. suspended cooperation on development projects. In Washington, the doors were closed on Israeli military officers.
Under these circumstances, the declared date of the disengagement approached. In light of the open preparations in Israel for a military operation, suspicions grew in the U.S. administration that Sharon would not carry out the plan. According to the New York Times of August 7, the Bush administration exerted pressure to prevent this from happening, and to prohibit the military operation. On July 21, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice arrived in Jerusalem for an unfriendly, hard-line visit. The New York Times reported remarks of Middle East Security Coordinator General William Ward: “General Ward, a careful man, confirmed that two weeks ago, American pressure helped stay the Israeli military when it was poised to go into Gaza… He predicted that there could be similar pressure should the need arise. ‘That scenario is a scenario that none of us would like to see,’ he said. ‘There is a deep realization on the part of the Israeli leadership, including the military, about the consequences of that type of scenario.’ ” (2)
Over the years we have become accustomed to the idea that â€œUS. pressureâ€ means declarations that have no muscle behind them. But suddenly the words have acquired new meaning. When the U.S. really does exert pressure, no Israeli leader would dare defy its injunctions (and certainly not Netanyahu). And so we have pulled out of Gaza. If the U.S. continues to lose ground in Iraq, maybe we will be forced to pull out of the West Bank as well.
(1) According to the article, from the very beginning, back in 2004, â€œthe Prime Minister rebuffed the recommendation of [Major General Giora] Eiland, [National Security Advisor and Head of the IDFâ€™s disengagement Planning Branch] and decided that the government will not build temporary housing.â€
(2) Steven Erlanger, The New York Times, August 7, 2005