Opinion

The Gift That Never Stops Letting Israel Avoid Peace

Netanyahu announces his intent to annex parts of the West Bank at a press conference, September 10, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

On October 26, 2004, with 67 of the Knesset’s 120 MKs in favor – including Benjamin Netanyahu – the legislature approved the cabinet’s decision to pull out of the Gaza Strip, a move led by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In the debate over the disengagement, both on the left and on the right, Sharon is described as a leader who underwent a personality change in his old age – from the father of the settlements to their uprooter.

The plan itself – amid the rockets, incendiary kites and balloons, drones over the towns of the south, and the plumes of smoke over bombed and blockaded Gaza – is often described as a painful failure.

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But if we examine the Gaza disengagement according to its true goal, we must crown it an overwhelming success of the settler right. A gift that never stops giving. Three weeks before the approval, in an interview with Ari Shavit in Haaretz Magazine, Sharon’s bureau chief Dov Weissglas explained that the pullout was designed to provide legitimacy for freezing the peace process.

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

For how long? Until a “deep and extended sociopolitical change” on the Palestinian side – that is, “until the Palestinians turn into Finns.”

The disengagement was depicted by Sharon’s lawyer as a long-term investment: giving up Gaza in order to keep control of the West Bank. Regarding the large settlement blocs, Weissglas said that “thanks to the disengagement plan, we have in our hands a first-ever American statement that they will be part of Israel. In years to come, perhaps decades, when negotiations will be held between Israel and the Palestinians, the master of the world will pound on the table and say: We stated already 10 years ago that the large blocs are part of Israel.”

The interview shatters Sharon’s image as someone who underwent a metamorphosis à la Charles de Gaulle and his quitting of Algeria. It shows Sharon to be someone who cunningly directed a long-term move that guarantees Israelis a stalemate until the annexation of most of the settlement enterprise on that far-off day when an agreement is signed. “So you carried out the maneuver of the century,” Shavit rightly observed.

Yes, the maneuver of the century succeeded: Now it seems Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” will recognize the large settlement blocs as part of Israel and leave hundreds of thousands of settlers in their homes. But there’s still a problem: The disengagement, according to Weissglas, granted Israel “a no-one-to-talk-to certificate” and the preservation of the geographic status quo until the Palestinians become Finns. So why are we now coming back to talk?

This is where Gaza enters the picture. It is forbidden, even for even a second, to forget the historic role that Sharon earmarked for Gaza in the maneuver of the century. In this light it’s easy to understand Netanyahu’s support for the disengagement too. It fits perfectly with his worldview concerning the cultural divide between Israelis and Palestinians that blocks the possibility of a peace agreement: They are terrorists, we are democrats.

It also explains his motivation to leave Gaza in its present state and Hamas in power; this is living proof of the infeasibility of any agreement. For Netanyahu, Gaza is a necessary precondition for negotiations that will never be met.

In the coincidence of the century, two rockets were fired at Ashdod while Netanyahu was visiting the city for a campaign rally. The pictures of Netanyahu being led off by his guards from the Shin Bet security service are much more important. The message that Netanyahu is sending Trump via the pictures is clear: The Palestinians aren’t Finns; with whom exactly do you want us to sign a deal?

Luckily for Trump, the century is still young; he has another 81 years to keep his campaign promises.