Fifteen years ago this month, the day after Tisha B’Av in 2005, 1,751 families (about 9,000 people) were evicted from their homes in Gush Katif and northern Samaria, as thousands of Israelis from elsewhere had come to offer their support against the move.

A total of 26 Jewish communities were turned into ruins in what the government called “disengagement” and opponents referred to as “expulsion.”

The unprecedented event, which then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon initiated as part of the peace process, is still etched on the hearts of many on the right and the left as a serious trauma and a major mistake in terms of defense and security.

As the years passed, a few reports were published about the second stage of disengagement that Sharon had planned or considered for Judea and Samaria. In his final months as prime minister, prior to suffering a stroke that left him comatose, Sharon denied these reports.

Now new details are emerging that put these denials in a different light, especially when it comes to tactics.

“Disengagement II,” the “Realignment Plan” that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert attempted to implement during his time in office, was cooked up under Sharon. Sometimes, things were done with his explicit approval, and sometimes without any response, but Sharon knew everything. He certainly didn’t forbid work on the matter.

In December 2005, three months after the disengagement plan was complete, Sharon and then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni appointed a committee under the leadership of the director general of the Justice Ministry, Aharon Abramovich. It was a sort of continuation: Abramovich and his people had previously led the work of the teams that put together the legal and financial framework for the disengagement.

At that time, the team was asked to present the security and defense, economic, legal and diplomatic framework for another withdrawal, this one from Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), to be based on the lessons of the disengagement from Gaza and northern Samaria. The committee was not given a mandate to lay down the borders of the retreat or decide which settlements would be evacuated, but was asked to map out the Israeli interests of another unilateral move for the area of the West Bank, if it turned out that there was no Palestinian partner for peace negotiations.

Thus, for example, Abramovich and his friends looked as the financial costs of evacuating 15,000 settler families (about 100,000 people) from far-flung communities. This would have been 10 times as many setters as the number evicted from Gush Katif.

Attorney Dov Weissglas, who at the time served as Sharon’s chief of staff, tells Israel Hayom that these were “initial thoughts.”

He clarifies: “We thought we needed to reorganize the Israeli presence in Judea and Samaria. No doubt, if Sharon hadn’t taken ill, the reality there would be completely different. It was a film that was cut off because of a power outage.”

Weissglas confirms a report by the late journalist David Landau after the disengagement. In his book, Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon, Landau wrote: “In October 2005, we all–[Weissglas], Sharon, his sons, Reuven Adler, my wife and I, went to the Galilee for a weekend. We talked for hours about the future. … The disengagement from the Gaza area was a move in and of itself, but it was intended to be combined with an additional move that would come later that was based both on the Road Map [a plan devised by the Middle East Quartet and adopted by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush] and the desire to avoid an impasse. The thinking was to continue on to a similar action in the West Bank. We hoped that the security barrier would help create that reality, that the Jews living on the other side of the fence would start coming back to Israeli territory … that we would gradually withdraw our forces from more and more cities, more and more areas–without the whistles and bells of negotiations about a permanent peace deal, which would certainly get stuck on the issue of Jerusalem. That was exactly Sharon’s thinking … that was where the decision to set up the team under Abramovich was made.”

The committee’s concern

Abramovich’s team included Finance Ministery Director General Yossi Bachar, Deputy Attorney General for International Law Shavit Matias, Deputy IDF Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky and attorney Daniel Reisner. Abramovich worked in secret, far from the spotlight, while Sharon was flatly denying remarks by Olmert, who was acting prime minister, and his close associate Eyal Arad that a second disengagement was expected or being considered.

The committee’s existence came to light only after Sharon fell into a coma and Olmert took his place. Olmert made the Realignment Plan one of his main issues and talked about it openly. Unlike Sharon, he didn’t try to hide it at all. Abramovich, who moved from director general of the Justice Ministry to director general of the Foreign Ministry–along with Livni, who also switched ministries—continued his work.

In August 2006, after Sharon had been comatose for eight months, the committee submitted Olmert and Livni with a thick report that contained hundreds of pages and revealed a number of problems entailed in executing the move. The committee members started out by listing major differenceד between Gaza and Judea and Samaria.

According to the committee, the West Bank is “tactical terrain,” whereas the Gaza Strip is topographically lower than Israel. The West Bank also has a number of water sources that are important to residents of Israel, which Gaza does not. The Gaza Strip is entirely closed off and easier to control from the outside in terms of security. In contrast, the committee said, Israel would have difficulty finding a solution to the threat of rocket fire from hilly areas in Judea and Samaria, and there was also concern that Hamas would gain control of the large population centers there, making continued IDF presence in key parts of Judea and Samaria the most reasonable way of preventing rocket attacks and a Hamas takeover.

The committee members also assessed that in the case of a necessary military presence of that kind, Israel would not be able to receive international recognition of an “end to the occupation.” They also expressed concern that a unilateral withdrawal would endanger the stability of Jordan, and observed that unlike Gaza, from whence Israel retreated to the Green Line, it wanted to hold onto the West Bank settlement blocs, part of the Jordan Valley and eastern Jerusalem until a permanent peace agreement was signed.

Arik asked: ‘What will Condoleezza Rice say?’

Abramovich declined to be interviewed for this article. Former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said little, but clarified that “Aharon Abramovich did work on the Israeli interests in such a case [of a second “disengagement” in Judea and Samaria- N.S.], but it was in principle, not because of any specific decision.”

Olmert offers another significant point of view about the matter. During his time as prime minister, he tried his utmost to carry out the Realignment Plan, without success. Speaking to Israel Hayom, Olmert describes a meeting with Sharon at the end of August 2005, when Olmert was designated acting prime minister as well as finance minister.

The meeting took place about 10 days after the Katif area was evacuated and razed, as Olmert was about to go meet then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“Arik asked me what I would tell Rice. I answered that I would tell her that the disengagement from Gaza had been a ‘preview’ and I [Olmert] wanted to promote a bigger step; that we were planning to start talks with the Palestinians, and that if we didn’t reach understandings about a broader deal, we would have to make another, bigger, unilateral withdrawal,” Olmert says.

Olmert says that Sharon was not enthusiastic.

“He wanted me to be more moderate. I told him I was speaking on my own behalf and would stress that when speaking to Rice. Sharon arrived at that meeting from a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and he was very tired. Effi Eitam had cursed at him. Arik didn’t like the idea, but he didn’t have the energy to argue with me, so he knew exactly what I was going to tell Rice,” he says.

In his book, In Person, Olmert writes that when he returned to Israel after meeting with Rice, he gave Sharon a “general idea” about the conversation with her.

Q: Did Sharon ever tell you he was considering a disengagement from Judea and Samaria, too?

Olmert: No.

Q: Is it possible he chose to keep you out of the loop?

Olmert: I don’t rule out the possibility that things happened with Dov Weissglas and things were said. It’s possible that he shared them with Sharon, and not with me. What I know clearly is that originally, Arik [Ariel Sharon] wanted the disengagement to include not four settlements in northern Samaria, but 17 settlements in the West Bank. The Americans were the ones who stopped him from that. They were afraid that internal opposition in Israel would wreck everything.”

‘The fence as a starting point’

Another person involved in what was happening at the time is Brig. Gen. (res.) Eival Gilady, who was then deputy GOC of the Israel Defense Forces Planning Directorate. Gilady, who had previously been involved in negotiations with the Palestinians, has also made it clear that “a withdrawal to the security barrier was and remains the general idea behind the disengagement.”

Gilady says that Sharon “adopted it in principle–and apparently would have implemented it if he hadn’t ‘gone to sleep’ two years too soon. The security barrier was supposed to have been the starting point for an adjusted border, by mutual agreement.”

The security barrier was supposed to have surrounded seven to eight percent of the West Bank, and was planned to go around the large settlement blocs near the old border, which would have included 76 percent of the settlers living there, and 0.7 percent of the Palestinian population.

Landau’s book quotes Gilady as saying that “the concept was designed to encourage the remaining 24 percent of the settlers to move into the settlement blocs or within the ’67 borders of their own volition, within a two-year period.”

Weissglas describes things similarly: “The fence was designed to create that reality and convince Jews who were left on the other side of it to come back to Israeli territory.”

Weissglas and Gilady aren’t alone. Dennis Ross served in a number of senior positions in the American administration, including director of policy planning in the State Department, special Middle East coordinator and senior director for the Central Region [which includes the Middle East] under presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively. Recently, in the book Be Strong and of Good Courage (Yedioth Books), which he co-authored with David Makovsky, Ross wrote that Sharon’s successor, Olmert, intended to implement Sharon’s plans, but failed.

Ross, like many others, has the impression that the 2006 Second Lebanon War and the police investigations against Olmert weakened him and forced him to resign, thereby preventing him from executing the plan. This week, I asked Ross if the plan had been conceived by Sharon, and mainly–had he ever heard, in real time, from Sharon or any of his people any thoughts about or intention to carry out “Disengagement II.”

Ross refrained from a direct answer, but responded in an email: “Sharon clearly planned an additional withdrawal in the West Bank. There was no need to create [the] Kadima [Party] if he did not plan a further withdrawal. I describe the history of his creating Likud after he retired from the military. It was not a small decision for him to leave the party he forged and start a new one, but he knew after Gaza, Likud would oppose any further withdrawals. He was convinced that the only way to preserve what Israel needed long-term in the West Bank and ensure Israel would not become a binational state was to carry out a limited further withdrawal.”

‘The versions aren’t contradictory’

Not all of Ariel Sharon’s close associates or the people who worked with him in those years adopt the story about plans for a “Disengagement II.” Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland, who served as head of the National Security Council, claims that there was no such plan.

“It could be that there were informal forums in which it came up. I wasn’t involved. But what I can say? The disengagement process was based on both dialogue and understandings with the Americans that the disengagement would include some part of Judea and Samaria. On Feb. 15, 2005, I presented Sharon with three possibilities. We could rebuff the American pressure and disengage from part of Judea and Samaria, too; we could evacuate the four settlements [in northern Samaria]–Ganim, Kadim, Homesh and Sa-Nur; and the third option was to clear out 17 isolated settlements. Sharon supported the second option, and that is the one that was carried out.”

Eiland says that from the moment it was decided, “As far as I know, there was no thought or consideration about any other act in Sharon’s time. Only six months later did Olmert announce the Realignment Plan, as part of the Kadima party’s platform, and adopted it when he became prime minister.”

Eyal Arad, Sharon’s media advisor, and Assi Shariv, his spokesman, as well as Lior Schillat, Sharon’s personal aide and adviser, think that he had not planned another disengagement for Judea and Samaria.

“Sharon told me explicitly that the disengagement from Gaza and northern Samaria was a tactical issue for a specific diplomatic purpose, and he had no intention of repeating it in other areas,” Arad says.

“He saw the Road Map plan as a diplomatic and defense achievement for Israel, in a number of different aspects. The disengagement from Gaza was conceived after concern arose that the Road Map would be changed to Israel’s detriment, as a result of pressure from various quarters,” Arad adds.

Schilllat says something similar: “I never heard Sharon talk about a similar move in Judea and Samaria. There was only thought about moving isolated settlements to within the settlement blocs, but that never developed into any preparatory work and certainly not into anything that reached the prime minister. At the time, the world of Judea and Samaria and settlements was my world of content. I find it hard to believe that something would have happened in the Prime Minister’s Office that I didn’t know about.”

Shariv, Sharon’s spokesman, echoes that but notes that there was “an attempt to look into the legal significance of such a possibility” [the Abramovich Committee–N.S.].

Today, it’s hard to decide one way or the other, but the facts are that behind the scenes, and despite Sharon’s denials at the time and while he was still in office–and with his knowledge–the issue was being discussed. Decisions might not have been made, but there was definitely talk and debate. The very work of the Abramovich Committee about the issue is testimony of that, as well as what Weissglas, Ross, Livni, Gilady and Olmert all say–that Sharon was kept up to date and knew, and even if he had reservations, did not torpedo the meeting with Rice in which she was told that the disengagement from Gaza had only been a “preview.”

And maybe everyone is right, or as Aluf Benn, who at the time was the diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz and who followed the events closely, puts it: “Sharon, like a good politician, kept both options open: on one hand, he denied that a disengagement from the West Bank was in the works. On the other hand, he wanted to have tools at hand in case he decided on a disengagement from there, too, so the supposedly ‘contradictory’ versions from his associates today don’t necessarily contradict each other.”

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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