Retreating Forward

Sharon is showing us how he carries out a withdrawal: He announces a disengagement plan from the whole of the Gaza Strip and, meanwhile, he orders the IDF to return to large parts of the territory and deepen its hold on them.

On December 13, 1977, when then-prime minister Menachem Begin showed the ministerial security committee the plan to withdraw from Sinai that he had presented to Egypt, then-agriculture minister Ariel Sharon disagreed with him.

Sharon had another suggestion, which he thought was better. He did in May 2000, as well, when then-prime minister Ehud Barak carried out the Israel Defense Forces' withdrawal from the south of Lebanon. Sharon, then the leader of the Likud and head of the opposition, claimed that he had suggested leaving Lebanon a long time ago. Had his position been accepted, he said, Israel's situation would have been immeasurably better, and the evacuation of the security strip would not have been perceived as the IDF fleeing in alarm.

Now Sharon is showing us, this time as prime minister, how he carries out a withdrawal: He announces a disengagement plan from the whole of the Gaza Strip and, meanwhile, he orders the IDF to return to large parts of the territory (Beit Hanun, Jabalya) and deepen its hold on them.

This fickle approach is not characteristic only of the present circumstances: In Lebanon and during the peace negotiations with Egypt, Sharon advocated contradictory positions that aroused astonishment among those who heard him. On the face of it, he was in favor of evacuating Lebanon, but in reality he raised a hue and cry each time this initiative came up for discussion. He appeared to be supporting a peace agreement with then-president Anwar Sadat with all his might, but in practice he seemed to take every opportunity to sabotage the talks (especially by his control of the ministerial settlement committee, which would decide on building new settlements, or expanding them, at sensitive points in the negotiations). However, at crucial moments he helped Begin pass the peace agreement in the cabinet and Knesset.

It was always difficult to understand Sharon and so it is today. Are the moves he is initiating merely tricks? Are they signs of a real conflict within him? Are they a reflection of cynical conformism that adapts itself to the changing circumstances? Should they be interpreted mainly in the context of a secret agenda intended to promote his personal goals?

One observation appears certain: Sharon is a very small strategist - as testified by the dead end he is now facing, having crushed the Palestinian Authority and its leadership. It is also evident that he continues to treat "Arabs" (Egyptians, Lebanese, Syrians or Palestinians) with total mistrust and sees his duty as strengthening Israel's security, with military and topographic means, more than in achieving peace.

The circumstances in which the disengagement plan is now imprisoned are a powerful illustration of Sharon's familiar behavior pattern. It is not acceptable to the IDF and it has structural weaknesses that raise doubts as to its wisdom and objective (how would it improve security, if the retreat enables the terror organizations to operate high-projectile weapons toward towns and communities within the Green Line?). The assumptions at its base are refuted daily (the world is not allowing Israel to attack Gaza without restraint in reaction to the Qassam rockets) and the Palestinians and international community are not reacting to the plan as Sharon had hoped (there is no one to take control in Gaza; evacuating the Strip will not be considered the end of the occupation - Israel will continue to be pressured to evacuate the West Bank, and the world will see the continued terror against it as a legitimate means to an end).

On the other hand, the precedence-setting importance of the withdrawal from Gaza is so crucial that the heart tends to forgive Sharon the contradictions inherent in his initiative and begs him to press on and complete the job, soon and according to proper procedure. If he believes in his plan's validity and usefulness, he must drastically shorten its execution process and not make moves - either political or military - to thwart it.