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Debating the Wisdom of the Gaza Disengagement

With Kerry arriving, Ariel Sharon’s last major political act looms large

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Tzipi Livni speaks at an election campaign rally in the southern city of Sderot on January 26, 2009.(Getty)

It practically seems to be an obligation of a blogger to place the news of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s reported deterioration in health within a current day context. Fine. I’ll play your parlor game. But where to begin?

The obvious choice is the last major political act of Sharon who led Israel out of Gaza in 2005 with an audacious disengagement plan. To do it, he had to create his own new party Kadima (also of recent failing health) and convince the Israeli public that it was in their best interest to quit the territory it won from Egypt in 1967. At the time, Sharon’s decision to leave Gaza was greeted around the world with surprise and admiration; after all, it was a bold risk made by a notoriously hawkish leader.

But the result of the act has not been what Sharon would have hoped for: A Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, a controversial blockade, and two wars in eight years (with another flare-up seemingly on the way). The fate of Gaza (and Southern Lebanon before it) remains the top talking point for those who oppose territorial concessions for peace. As Israeli negotiators debate the wisdom of handing over the West Bank and, for example, placing the country’s international airport in the crosshairs, the Gaza Effect that Sharon created comes into play.

On the other hand, the Sharon-led disengagement from Gaza (like Southern Lebanon before it) is also an occasion to discuss the failings of unilateral withdrawal. Israel left both territories without a note, treaty, or agreement and have only received rocket fire and violence in return from both fronts. If Israel (with American backing) were to sign an agreement with a viable partner for peace, would a withdrawal from the West Bank be seen as the capitulation that Hamas and Hezbollah spun the previous disengagements?

With John Kerry arriving in the region, it’s a question that might be confronted. Kerry’s tenth(!) trip to Israel in the past year is shaping up to be the most momentous of them all, especially with the peace talks faltering. This time around, Kerry seems keen on channeling a little bit of Sharon himself by laying it all out there.

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Kerry will discuss with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a proposed framework to serve as a guideline for addressing all core issues in the decades-long dispute. The core issues include the borders between Israel and a future Palestine, security arrangements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and conflicting claims to the holy city of Jerusalem.

Sure, it’s only a proposed framework, but if Kerry and the peace talks fail, what the Israelis do here will no doubt impact how future debates about the peace process are handled, especially in the public forum. Did Israel do all it could to advance peace? In the era of bad deals and bad faith, is a Sharon-like maneuver still possible?

The risks of action remain the same, but the risks of inaction have only grown. Sharon knew the window was closing and that demographic realities stood to poison Israel’s long-term standing in the world. He also knew that there wasn’t an alternative and, like the lifelong strategist he was, he made do. Would he have done the same thing if he knew what the outcome would be?

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Debating the Wisdom of the Gaza Disengagement

With Kerry arriving, Ariel Sharon’s last major political act looms large

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