Natan Sharansky and Ariel Sharon
Natan Sharansky in talks merging his Yisrael B’Aliyah party with the Likud of then prime minister, the late Ariel Sharon, in 2003.. (photo credit:GILI COHEN MAGEN/REUTERS)


On September 15, 2005, exactly a month after the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon lumbered through the corridors of the United Nations as if he was taking a victory lap. Presidents, prime ministers and princes all wanted to meet him, to slap his back, shake his hand.

It was an astounding reversal for a man so long demonized around the world, and – to a lesser extent – in certain circles in Israel as well.

Sharon the super-hawk, Sharon the settlement- builder, Sharon the bulldozer had bulldozed down the settlements in Gaza, and forcibly evacuated all the Jews there. At the UN, the world stood and applauded.

Ten years later, Natan Sharansky – now head of the Jewish Agency, but at the time a recently-resigned minister from Sharon’s cabinet – said that applause, that acceptance, that legitimacy was undoubtedly a factor in Sharon’s decision to do what Sharansky still finds inexplicable: unilaterally pull out of Gaza.

Sharansky was the diaspora affairs and Jerusalem minister in Sharon’s government, and resigned from the cabinet over the disengagement plan on May 2, 2005, a few months before the August 15 withdrawal.

He handed Sharon a letter spelling out the reasons for his resignation, saying the plan “is a tragic mistake that will exacerbate the conflict with the Palestinians, increase terrorism, and dim the prospects of forging a genuine peace.”

Sharansky wrote that “the guiding principle behind the disengagement plan is based on the illusion that by leaving Gaza we will leave the problems of Gaza behind us,” he wrote.

“As the familiar mantra goes, ‘We will be here and they will be there.’ Once again, we are repeating the mistakes of the past by not understanding that the key to building a stable and lasting peace with our Palestinian neighbors lies in encouraging and supporting their efforts to build a democratic society. Obviously, these changes surely will take time, but Israel is not even linking this departure from Gaza upon the initiation of the first steps in this direction.”

Leave Gaza without gradually setting into place institutions that would ensure democracy was a recipe for disaster, Sharansky argued then, fruitlessly.

That argument rested on a diplomatic plan he presented to Sharon three years earlier, in May 2002, based on the idea of linking a peace process to the expansion of freedom in Palestinian society.

Peace, he argued then and still believes today, will not come until there is democracy in the Palestinian areas – something that will take time, money and energy to develop.

His diplomatic proposal, which he said could be dusted off and considered today, called for the establishment of an interim Palestinian administration, which would be selected from a coordinating body headed by the US, including representatives from Arab countries that recognize Israel.

The interim administration would run the territories under Palestinian control for a transition period of about three years, during which time democratic and civil institutions would be developed; freedom of speech and press guaranteed, as well as the right of free political, social and religious organization; and the educational curriculum glorifying terrorism would be replaced with one sanctifying peace. The refugee camps would be dismantled, and proper housing for the residents built.

During this period, Israel would retain overall security control. Three years later a free election would be held, and Israel would then hold peace talks with the elected representatives.

The theme underpinning the plan is that peace with a dictatorial regime – at that time led by Yasser Arafat – would never work, and that for real peace, there had to be a real Palestinian democracy.

“Our problem is that we don’t have common interests with nondemocratic leaders on the other side,” Sharansky explained. “Arafat’s interest as a dictator was how to control his people, and how to have us as an external enemy. That is why he was not interested in any concessions we gave to him if it diminished his control over his people.”

The moment a government is elected on the basis of wanting what is good for the society, of improving lives, not political control, then the logjam can be relieved, he asserted.

SHARANSKY BELIEVED this then, as he believes it now, and tried to convince Sharon. He failed, and Sharon paid no interest in the democratic institutions that did or did not exist in the Gaza Strip that he left.

“It is a riddle for me until today why exactly Sharon did this,” Sharansky said this week during an interview in his office at the Jewish Agency.

“I had a meeting with him two days before I wrote that letter [of resignation], and told him what I was going to do. I said I really didn’t understand [what he was doing].

“He told me that the world is against us,” Sharansky recalled. “He said there was the Geneva Initiative [a plan drawn up by previous Israeli and Palestinian negotiators that Sharon opposed], and it was only a matter of time before the UN would pass a resolution against us and things would only get worse and worse.”

Once Israel left Gaza, Sharansky quoted Sharon as saying, “it will be clear, and I quote him, ‘We will be here, they will be there. If they shoot one missile at us, we will destroy them, and at least for 10 years – I am not naïve, I can’t say forever – but at least for 10 years if they fire one shot we can do whatever we want because it is a border, a clear border.

“‘We are not there, it is all theirs, they can do whatever they want. We know how to fight. We will destroy everything there, and the world will be with us. I can’t promise forever, but for 10 years I guarantee that they will be with us’.” Sharansky quoted Sharon as saying.

Sharansky, who said he had a very good relationship with Sharon, remembered replying to Sharon: “You will not have 10 days, let alone 10 years.”

“I couldn’t believe then, and I don’t believe now, that he believed what he was saying,” Sharansky added. “Maybe he believed that we could slam them, but I didn’t believe he really thought the world would be with us.”

Sharansky, who developed a close relationship with then-US president George W. Bush, largely because of a book he wrote entitled The Case for Democracy, which Bush not only liked but often quoted and recommended, wrote the president a letter explaining his decision to resign.

In a handwritten letter to Sharansky, Bush wrote back that he shared with Sharansky the vision of “peace through democracy.”

“Democracy is the way forward and that is our goal as we head down the road,” Bush wrote. “I have told all our folks that this process is like that of a child: crawl, stand, walk, run, sprint. We are crawling toward peace and must establish the institutions of democracy in Gaza before we can stand and walk.”

To this day Sharansky is incredulous as to why Sharon left Gaza without insisting that these institutions of democracy be put in place.

In a private conversation later with Bush, Sharansky recalled the president telling him regarding concerns and doubts about the Gaza withdrawal, “I have to rely on General Sharon.”

SHARANSKY SAID THAT as diaspora affairs minister at the time, he was in charge of fighting anti-Semitism, and often pointed out in the cabinet the problems Israel was facing on campuses abroad.

“After all my visits to campuses I would bring [anti-Israel] material to the cabinet. No one was interested but Arik,” he said of Sharon, using his nickname. “He took the material home. There were many pictures of him, with swastikas on his face.

Hatred toward Israel came out as hatred toward Arik.

I saw how much he laughed, but he took it all home to study.

“He took it very seriously,” Sharansky continued.

“I saw that it was hard for him that he was so hated. I would always tell him, jokingly, ‘Arik, you have to be proud – this is an area where you have no competitor, not Benjamin Netanyahu, not Shimon Peres, no one can compete with you regarding being the target of the hatred of the haters of Israel.’” Sharon laughed it off, Sharansky said, but “I think that because he was so illegitimate, that influenced him. I think he wanted to change that. The disengagement changed the treatment of him, though not for a long time. He no longer appeared in all those hatred-filled cartoons.”

Talk of Sharon’s desire for legitimacy led the conversation with Sharansky to how Sharon was treated at the time by the Israeli press.

In February 2005, Channel 2 commentator Amnon Abramovich said candidly at a press conference at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem that “we have to protect Sharon like an etrog,” referring to the padding that protects the citrus fruit taken by the Jews on Sukkot as one of the four species.

“Protect him in a sealed box, padded with gauze, cotton and plastic wrap, at least until the end of the disengagement,” Abramovich said as numerous corruption scandals began touching on Sharon and his family, triggering concern by some that this could derail the whole disengagement plan.

Sharansky said he brought this up with David Landau, the late journalist who was editor-in-chief of Haaretz during this period and who later wrote a book on Sharon and came to talk to Sharansky about him. Landau was quoted as defending the etrog policy in dealing with corruption allegations involving officials like Sharon or former prime minister Ehud Olmert.

“I said to him, ‘tell me, are you not ashamed, and don’t you think you have a great contribution to all the corruption in Israel,” Sharansky said he told Landau for commenting that politicians going in a certain diplomatic direction should be coddled.

Landau, according to Sharansky, defended his position.

“‘Do you know what a state’s witness is?’ he asked me,” Sharansky said. “‘It is someone who if he helps the state get rid of a more serious crime, then they forgive him of lesser crimes. I say the same thing to Olmert – if you help us free ourselves from the biggest crime we have, the occupation, then I will be willing to forgive a lot.’” Sharansky characterized this way of thinking as “horrible,” but said it was important to understand in seeking to explain the culture of corruption that has developed in this country.

AGAINST THE BACKGROUND of seeing Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza as having to do with a desire to gain legitimacy and favor in the eyes of the world and critics at home, Sharansky – who acknowledged he has his criticism of Netanyahu – said he “has to give a great deal of credit to Bibi that he doesn’t do these things.”

Today, Netanyahu has replaced Sharon as the Israeli everyone loves to hate. Today, it is his face on photographs that is painted over with swastikas, and his visage starring in cartoons of Israelis drinking the blood of innocent Palestinians. Today, he is the one disparaged regularly in the op-ed pages of the world’s elite media.

Netanyahu could easily turn that tide by dropping his fierce opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, or by taking some dramatic initiative with the Palestinians, as Sharon did.

“He could easily now get the support of the New York Times,” Sharansky said, “Tom Friedman would be glad to praise Netanyahu if he would come down off the tree. But he doesn’t, because he believes it.

“Though the image of Arik was the one it was impossible to move, and that Bibi moves from place to place, Arik is the one who made the big move. Bibi is consistent.”

A week before Sharon took his victory lap at the UN in September 2005, Netanyahu, then his chief political rival, sarcastically noted – playing on the Hebrew phrase for trading land for peace (shtachim tmurat shalom) – that Sharon traded land for red carpets (shtahim tmurat shtihim).

Sharansky said Netanyahu could now do the same. In his telling, and as one who witnessed up-close Sharon’s decision to take a step that would overnight transform his image, it is to Netanyahu’s credit that he has not been so tempted.

As reported by The Jerusalem Post