The Shin Bet Chiefs Did It

It will soon be the first anniversary of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement initiative - and the circumstances of its conception and birth remain clouded in mystery.

It will soon be the first anniversary of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement initiative - and the circumstances of its conception and birth remain clouded in mystery.

Sharon and his aides refuse to reveal details of the decision making process that preceded the announcement of abandoning the political process with the Palestinians in favor of unilateral action to evacuate the settlements of the Gaza Strip.

The circumstances of Sharon's reversal are sealed in a "black box." All that's clear is that there were no orderly discussions with the army or state agencies in which the pros and cons were considered. Such discussions were held, if at all, after the decision was made and presented to the American administration.

In interviews recently granted by Sharon and his advisor Dov Weisglass, they spoke about the considerations that led to the disengagement initiative. The prime minister described the alternatives that he faced in the fall of 2003.

They included dismantling the Palestinian Authority and a full reoccupation of the territories, an agreement based on a deep withdrawal as in the Geneva Accord, or a proposal by "one minister" (Silvan Shalom). This was to maintain the status quo and pretend there is a political process, meeting every once in a while "with some Abu."

Sharon, according to his own version, rejected it all and chose a different initiative, which he presented to a White House envoy, Elliot Abrams, at a secret meeting in Rome on November 18. On Rosh Hashanah, he was more expansive and revealed that Abrams actually wanted to revive the Syrian track and was instead greeted by the surprising idea of a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

Weisglass presented a more pessimistic version. According to the lawyer, Sharon felt in the fall of 2003 that times was against him and that there was "international and domestic erosion, and everything in the country was collapsing."

The Geneva initiative appeared to have broad support, and the letter from the pilots refusing to take part in missions in the territories were eroding the domestic consensus. To get out of the siege, the unilateral disengagement plan was pulled out, and it was meant mostly to preserve American support for the principle that there be no political negotiation until there is an end to Palestinian terrorism.

According to Weisglass, Sharon's greatest worry was a reawakening of protests on the left, and that's what made Sharon blink and retreat from his long-held position that a unilateral move would only strengthen the terror and encourage the Palestinians "to tail" Israel during the withdrawal. It is possible the prime minister remembered the Lebanon war, when the protests by the left led to his removal from the defense ministry.

An examination of the press from last fall shows that Sharon was under growing pressure of domestic criticism - the refusnik pilots, the Geneva initiative, Shimon Peres' critical speech at the Rabin memorial rally, complaints from Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon about the tough policy in the territories.

Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv that Sharon was considering announcing a withdrawal from Gaza if the Palestinians fought terror for a year. The political system anticipated a Sharon meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, a meeting that has yet to take place.

But the prime minister's focus was mostly on the prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah, which was affirmed by the government on November 9 after much deliberation. Only then, apparently, did he turn to the next political move. Nowhere was there any hint that he was considering a unilateral withdrawal.

According to this analysis, the fateful decision was made between November 10th and 17th, 2003. What happened in that crucial week? The main topic was a joint interview in Yedioth Ahronoth by four former chiefs of the Shin Bet, on November 14, in which they warned that Sharon was leading the country to the abyss.

The prime minister was deeply offended, and when he left for Italy four days later, he accused the four of creating "insecurity in the people." He complained about the negative headlines in the papers. "How can there be an article without `Sharon failed,'" he asked rhetorically. In retrospect is seems the former Shin Bet chiefs managed to shake Sharon's self-confidence, he broke and agreed to unilateral withdrawal.

Now the implementation of the plan is in great doubt, but it is clear Sharon achieved his main goal - a domestic one. Pulling out the disengagement plan immediately doused the protests on the left.

The Geneva initiative was forgotten, the refusals died down, and Labor became an enthusiastic supporter of Sharon - at least up to this week's speech to the Knesset. The domestic consensus about the war was preserved, but at the cost of a crisis in the Likud, which is is doubtful Sharon anticipated.