With the passage last week of a budget bill in Israel, the government of Ariel Sharon appears to be ready to remove more than 8,000 Israelis living in Gaza with force, if necessary.
In addition to the legal dubiousness of this step and its historically unprecedented nature (challenge to the reader: name another democracy that has forcibly removed thousands its own citizens from their lawful homes), the planned withdrawal of all Israeli installations from Gaza amounts to an act of monumental political folly.
It also comes as an astounding surprise. After the Oslo round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (1993-2001) ended in disaster, many Israelis looked back on Oslo's faulty assumptions, their own naïveté, and resolved not to repeat that bitter experience. Israelis awoke from the delusion that giving the Palestinians land, money, and arms in return for airy-fairy and fraudulent promises would lessen Palestinian hostility. They realized that, to the contrary, this imbalance enhanced Palestinian rejection of the very existence of the Jewish state.
By early 2001, a divided Israeli electorate had largely re-unified. When Mr. Sharon became prime minister in February 2001, a wiser leadership had apparently taken over in Jerusalem, one that recognized the need for Israel to return to toughness and deterrence.
These optimistic expectations were indeed fulfilled for nearly three years, 2001-03. Mr. Sharon engaged in a quite masterful double diplomacy in which he simultaneously showed a cheery face (toward the American government and his leftist coalition partners) and a tough one (toward his Likud constituents and the Palestinians). The purposefulness and underlying consistency of his premiership from the start impressed many observers, including this one; I assessed Sharon's record to be "a virtuoso performance of quietly tough actions mixed with voluble concessions."
Mr. Sharon decisively won re-election in January 2003 over Amram Mitzna, a Labor opponent who advocated an Oslo-style unilateral retreat from Gaza. Mr. Sharon unambiguously condemned this idea back then: "A unilateral withdrawal is not a recipe for peace. It is a recipe for war." After winning the election, his talks in February 2003 about forming a coalition government with Mr. Mitzna failed because Mr. Sharon so heavily emphasized the "strategic importance" of Israelis living in Gaza.
By December 2003, however, Mr. Sharon himself endorsed Mr. Mitzna's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. While he did so in a spirit very different from the prior Oslo diplomacy, his decision has the same two main characteristics.
First, because the decision to retreat from Gaza took place in the context of heightened violence against Israelis, it vindicates those Palestinian voices arguing for terrorism. The Gaza retreat is, in plain words, a military defeat. It follows on the ignominious Israeli abandonment of its positions and its allies in Lebanon in May 2000, a move which much eroded Arab respect for Israeli strength, with dire consequences. The Gaza withdrawal will almost certainly increase Palestinian reliance on terrorism.
Second, the retreat is heating up the political climate within Israel, bringing back the dangerous mood of exaggeration, incivility, hostility, and even lawlessness. The prospect of thousands of Israelis evicted from their homes under threat of force is rudely interrupting what had been a trend toward a healthier atmosphere during the relative calm of 2001-03.
Mr. Sharon's plans at least have a disillusioned quality to them, sparing Israel the wooly notions of a "new Middle East" that so harmed the country a decade ago. But in another way, Mr. Sharon's plans are worse than Oslo; at least that disaster was carried out by the clueless Left. A Right - led by Mr. Sharon – valiantly and staunchly opposed it. This time, it is the Right's hero who, allied with the far-Left, is himself leading the charge, reducing the opposition to marginality.
There are many theories for what reversed Mr. Sharon's views on the matter of a unilateral Gaza withdrawal in the 10 months between February and December 2003 – I have my own ideas about the hubris of elected Israeli prime ministers – but whatever the reason, its consequences are clear.
Mr. Sharon betrayed the voters who supported him, wounding Israeli democracy. He divided Israeli society in ways that may poison the body politic for decades hence. He aborted his own successful policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. He delivered Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim rejectionists their greatest boost ever. And he failed his American ally by delivering a major victory to the forces of terrorism.
For a discussion of the challenge in the second paragraph above, see "The Forcible Removal of Israelis from Gaza" For a discussion of the U.S. role, see "Sharon's Gaza Withdrawal and the United States."