Sharon Was Planning Diplomatic Moves Beyond Gaza, Leaked Documents Reveal

U.S. cables, Palestinian papers quote then-Israeli prime minister eyeing negotiated withdrawals from West Bank.

Ever since Ariel Sharon sank into a coma eight years ago, many have wondered whether he would have taken the peace process with the Palestinians any further after the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza.

A series of cables from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to the State Department that were leaked to WikiLeaks show that in fact, even before the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon was planning his next big diplomatic move. Moreover, leaked Palestinian documents show that after Yasser Arafat’s death in November 2004, and even more so once Mahmoud Abbas was elected Palestinian president the following January, Sharon made efforts to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority.

The disengagement plan was approved by the Knesset on October 26, 2004, after a stormy debate. Only a month later, on November 30, 2004, Sharon hosted two U.S. senators in his office – Chuck Hagel, who is now defense secretary, and Joe Biden, now vice president. According to an American cable, Sharon stressed to Biden and Hagel that he was committed to making peace with the Palestinians despite the major domestic struggles he would face “from a left that has no power, and a right which was totally opposed to his initiative.” Sharon told them that the post-Arafat era had presented "a new opportunity" to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinians. The report added that Sharon assured them that if disengagement went off successfully, the Road Map could then be implemented in stages, as had been envisioned by then-U.S. President George W. Bush.

On December 27, 2004, Sharon met with Sen. Joseph Lieberman and told him that after disengagement, he wanted to return to implementing the Road Map, on condition that the Palestinians fight terror. “Israel does not expect Abu Mazen [Abbas] to be a Zionist, but steps need to be taken against terrorism,” he said.

In his summary of that meeting, then-U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer makes it clear that Sharon had no intention of stopping with the Gaza withdrawal, but planned to take far-reaching steps in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Kurtzer noted that Sharon put emphasis on annexing the major settlement blocs, implying he would concede other parts of the West Bank, and that while he would not even discuss dividing Jerusalem, he would consider handing over some Arab neighborhoods, “but not the Temple Mount, Mount of Olives or the City of David.”

Two weeks later, on January 10, 2005, Sharon again met with U.S. senators, including Biden. According to Kurtzer’s summary, Sharon said, “If Palestinians do their part on security, Israel and the Palestinians can return to the Road Map. A final settlement might take a few years, but it can be achieved.”

Meanwhile, documents from the Palestine Liberation Organization negotiations department, which were leaked in January 2011 to Al-Jazeera, reveal that after Abbas was elected Palestinian president in 2005, Sharon attempted to coordinate the Gaza pullout with the PA. On February 8, 2005, Sharon and Abbas held a summit at Sharm al-Sheikh that was meant to mark the end of the second intifada and a new start between Israelis and Palestinians. The six-page Arabic protocol of the meeting shows that the encounter was positive and the atmosphere almost playful at times.

Abbas told Sharon that he was determined to assert control over the security situation, battle the smuggling through Gaza tunnels, and stop incitement against Israel in the Palestinian media. He also asked Sharon to release the pre-Oslo security prisoners, the same prisoners whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would finally release over eight years later. Abbas also suggested setting up a covert channel for holding talks on a permanent arrangement.

Sharon, in turn, offered to withdraw the Israeli army from several Palestinian cities and take down roadblocks. He did not agree to release the prisoners Abbas wanted, but agreed to free 900 others. He also made it clear that unless the Palestinians cracked down on terror, there could be no diplomatic progress. “I’m determined to carry out the disengagement and I want it to be coordinated with you, particularly with regard to security and property,” Sharon said. “We must tighten our security cooperation. I want to do big things but I cannot accept terror.”

Three months later, Sharon began losing his patience. On May 30, 2005, he met with several members of Congress, telling them that the previous night a rocket fired from Gaza had landed near the entrance to a packing house on his ranch. According to Kurtzer’s report, Sharon stressed that the Gaza rockets were causing the Israeli public to lose faith in him, and that “his internal situation is exacerbated by every act of terror.”

Three weeks later, on June 22, 2005, only two months before disengagement, Sharon, Abbas and their advisers met again, this time at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. It was a far less pleasant meeting than the one three months before. A summary document written by the PLO negotiations department states that Abbas and his advisers left the meeting frustrated, calling the meeting a recycling of the Sharm al-Sheikh arrangements.

According to the document, Sharon spent the first 15 minutes of the meeting complaining about the Palestinians' lack of willingness to fight terror, saying that Abbas "failed to live up to his promise." In attempt to thwart these accusations, Abbas said that violence is not a Palestinian interest and that "every bullet that is aimed in the direction of Israel is a bullet aimed at the Palestinians as well."

“In the end, the only deliverable Abu Mazen could report was an agreement to issue more [work] permits,” the Palestinian summary states. “There was no agreement on prisoners, no progress on the airport, nothing on easing movement in the West Bank, and nothing on the internal closures.”

Still, the document notes, Sharon hinted that if there was calm during the disengagement operation, “Israel will be able to take further steps in the future. If there are terror attacks, however, the disengagement will be put on hold.”

Half a year after that meeting with Abbas, Sharon suffered a minor stroke, and three weeks later a major cerebral hemorrhage from which he never recovered. It’s hard to know whether and how he would have implemented the plans he had sketched out to the Americans and the Palestinians. The documents show that Sharon became increasingly skeptical about the Palestinians as disengagement got closer. Nevertheless, he did not at the time correctly assess what would happen only two years later, after his debilitation.

In a meeting on March 14 with U.S. Senator Carl Levin, Sharon said he did not expect Hamas to take over Gaza after Israel withdrew. He asserted that Hamas was worried that Israel would hit it harder after withdrawing because the Israeli government would no longer have to take the safety of the Gaza settlers into account.

AP