by Robert Klein & Gila Ansell-Brauner

  1. The Context
  2. Letter from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to U.S. President George W. Bush, April 14, 2004
    Exercise & Analysis points
  3. Prime Minister Sharon's address to the annual Herzliya Conference on December 16, 2004
    Exercise & Analysis points
  4. Other Possible Factors
  5. Likud Party Referendum, May 2004
  6. Compensation-Evacuation Law – Table & Analysis points
  7. Political Instability and Disengagement
  8. FAQ: Questions about Disengagement

A. The Context

The Israeli Disengagement Plan emerged from a political and a diplomatic context that can be best summarised as follows:

  • Since 2000, the Intifada had escalated and abated but had not ended, despite many attempts to restore the Peace Process, including the Quartet's Road Map, and all Israel's security precautions;
  • Israel had been involved in responsive action against terrorism and moved into building a Security Fence, to address incursions from Judea & Samaria/the West Bank, with international implications at the UN and ICJ;
  • Prime Minister Sharon won the 2003 Israeli General Election on his reputation and the Likud's defense and security platform, with references to Israel having to make "painful concessions" - but without a Likud platform addressing them. However, he already spoke of some of issues and the Plan, in the context of the Road Map at the Fourth Herzliya Conference in December 2003 and at a foreign press conference in January 2004
  • In November 2003, President Bush was reelected as US President. In 2004, he began his second term with a new Secretary of State, and declared his intentions of reviving the Road Map / the Peace Process, and demanding progress from both sides.
  • The Disengagement Plan might therefore have been unexpected, but there is a definite international context to it, with more of a domestic vacuum around its emergence, and minimal process. To a great extent, PM Ariel Sharon was playing solo, holding his cards close to his chest, and reserving the right of the political leader to develop new strategies in changing circumstances and play center stage - as have others before him.


B. Letter from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to U.S. President George W. Bush, April 14, 2004

The letter outlines the factors behind PM Sharon's decision to design and implement the Disengagement Plan:

“The Palestinian Authority under its current leadership has taken no action to meet its responsibilities under the Roadmap. Terror has not ceased, reform of the Palestinian security services has not been undertaken, and real institutional reforms have not taken place. The State of Israel continues to pay the heavy cost of constant terror. Israel must preserve its capability to protect itself and deter its enemies, and we thus retain our right to defend ourselves against terrorism and to take actions against terrorist organizations.

“Having reached the conclusion that, for the time being, there exists no Palestinian partner with whom to advance peacefully toward a settlement and since the current impasse is unhelpful to the achievement of our shared goals [i.e. two-states coexisting side-by-side -Ed.], I have decided to initiate a process of gradual disengagement with the hope of reducing friction between Israelis and Palestinians. The Disengagement Plan is designed to improve security for Israel and stabilize our political and economic situation. It will enable us to deploy our forces more effectively until such time that conditions in the Palestinian Authority allow for the full implementation of the Roadmap to resume.”

Prime Minister Sharon's original mentioned four major factors behind his decision to work towards disengagement from Gaza and northern Samaria

Exercise: What were they?

Analysis Points:
1. The political impasse caused by the lack of a negotiating partner during the Intifada and because of Yassir Arafat;
2. On-going terrorism/lack of security;
3. The economic situation;
4. The working assumption that in a Final Status Agreement, no Israelis would be living in the Gaza Strip, while large Jewish population centers in the West Bank will remain.

C. Prime Minister Sharon's address to the annual Herzliya Conference on December 16, 2004

Eight months after the publication of the letter to President Bush, Prime Minister Sharon introduced a number of other factors, not mentioned in his letter to President Bush:


“Disengagement recognizes the demographic reality on the ground - specifically, bravely and honestly. Of course it is clear to everyone that we will not be in the Gaza Strip in the final agreement. This recognition, that we will not be in Gaza, and that, even now, we have no reason to be there, does not divide the people and is not tearing us apart, as the opposing minority claim. Rather, the opposite is true. Disengagement from the Gaza Strip is uniting the people. It is uniting us in distinguishing between goals which deserve to be fought for, since they are truly in our souls - such as Jerusalem, the large settlement blocs, the security zones and maintaining Israel's character as a Jewish state - rather than goals where it is clear to all of us that they will not be realized, and that most of the public is not ready, justifiably, to sacrifice so much for. “One of the goals of Arab terror was to divide the country and break its spirit. Stopping terror on the one hand, and the Disengagement Plan on the other, a plan which the great majority of the public supports, forges national unity and creates broad national consensus regarding the justness of our struggle for security, tranquility and peace.

“The initiative of disengagement has produced a long list of political accomplishments. Because of it, the Palestinians have no excuse not to abandon terror. Because of it, there is no criticism of Israel's determined actions against terror. Now it is clear to everyone that when Israel declares its willingness to make painful compromises, it indeed intends to make genuine and painful compromises. Very painful.

“Israel's international standing has improved immeasurably. The most important accomplishment is the understandings between U.S. President George Bush and me, which provide a new, more stable basis than ever before for the strategic understandings between Israel and the United States. This week, we heard President Bush repeat his support for these understandings.
The understandings between the U.S. President and me protect Israel's most essential interests: first and foremost, not demanding a return to the '67 borders; allowing Israel to permanently keep large settlement blocs which have high Israeli populations; and the total refusal of allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.”

On the face of it, the factors mentioned by Prime Minister Sharon in both his letter to President Bush and his Herzliya speech most probably were - each to a greater or lesser extent - amongst the motivating factors.

Exercise: List the factors that appear in this speech.

Analysis Points:
1. The demographic situation vs. the goal of preserving a democratic Jewish state;
2. The lack of political, military, or economic benefit in Jews living specifically in the Gaza Strip;
3. General Israeli discontent with having to protect the Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip;
4. Israel's desire to maintain those areas of the West Bank with large Jewish populations;
5. The need for implementation of Israeli political consensus as a means of boosting national morale;
6. The perception that the presence of the IDF and Jewish civilians in the Gaza Strip provides an excuse for terrorism;
7. International pressure, specifically International condemnation of Israel's measures against Palestinian terrorism vs. International apathy vis a vis Palestinian terrorism against Israel;
8. Israel's desire to maintain US support and political coordination between the two countries.

D. Other Possible Factors

In addition to the twelve factors already mentioned, there are at least three other interpretations as to what factors led to the formulation of the Disengagement Plan which have been proffered in various forums. They are:
1. To improve Israel's image and regain international approval, through significant but relatively minor territorial concessions as part of the Road Map
2. Prime Minister Sharon's desire to make his mark as an experienced leader and statesman, particularly in contrast to Yassir Arafat (at that time);
3. Political survival – see D. below (Minority government, leadership rivalry, ongoing legal investigations).

E. Likud Party Referendum, May 2004

Prime Minister Sharon did not wish to take this to a national referendum and opted to vote on it in the Likud party in May 2004, where he believed it would carry a definite majority, but to his dismay, the party membership voted against the plan (56%). This led him to seek a formula or amended version* which would be acceptable to the Likud members of the Cabinet and to inform other Ministers that they would be fired, if they did not vote with the Government (June 2004)

Not only were two Ichud Leumi (National Union) ministers sacked, but two Mafdal (NRP) ministers resigned and PM Sharon was left with a minority government that had little chance of long-term survival. From this point, the Plan was combined into a proposed Bill that addressed provisions for both the military and civilian withdrawal and relocation of residents of all the communities in the Gaza Strip/northern Samaria.

The Israeli Cabinet approved what became known as the Compensation-Evacuation Bill in June 2004
[], but it had little chance of passing in the Knesset. At this point, the settlement movement began campaigning strongly for a National Referendum on the Disengagement issue and questioning the Prime Minister's mandate to carry out these sweeping decisions in a minority government and with support of the left-wing (with or without the Arab parties in the Knesset). PM Sharon remained firmly against a Referendum, despite heavy opposition from inside the Likud, and worked towards winning a parliamentary majority for the Law.

F. Compensation-Evacuation Law

The Law eventually passed on 25th October 2004, with the support of the Labor Party from the benches of the Opposition.

The Knesset Vote – How & Why

Party For Against Abstentions Absent Analysis Points
Likud 23 17     Which Ministers opposed it? (note 1) (note 2)
Labor 19        
Shinui 14     *1 Which MK was absent? (note 3)
Shas   11     Why did Shas oppose it? Positions
Yachad 6        
Mafdal-NRP   6      
National Union *1 6     Who supported it in the split vote? (note 4)
U. Torah Judaism   5     Why did the UTJ oppose it? Positions
Am Echad 2   *1   Who opposed it in the split vote? (note 5)
U. Arab List 2       Why did the UAL support it? Positions
Hadash     3   Why did Hadash abstain? Positions
Balad     3   Why did Balad abstain? Positions
Total 67 45 7 1  

The Government Center-Right Likud Party split its vote, 23 for and 17 against;
The Left and Center-Left parties (Labor, Shinui*, Yachad, Am Echad*) voted in favor;
The Right and Center-Right parties (Shas, National Union*, National Religious, and United Torah Judaism) voted against.

See also: Knesset approves PM Sharon's disengagement plan

G. Political Instability and Disengagement

With a weak, minority Government, the fate of the law became uncertain, particularly after Shinui resigned on issues of social reform and budget; it was essential that the government be widened to include other parties, despite internal Likud opposition to the Labor Party. Labor later joined the Government in order to ensure that the Disengagement process would not be shelved. Nevertheless, there was not a majority to support the 2005 Budget and the budget vote was delayed until the end of March.

The Israeli political right came out in strong opposition and heightened the public campaign to prevent Disengagement, or – at least - impede its process (protest, demonstrations, Referendum Law, questioning governmental process and legitimacy, claims about repression of free speech, delegitimation of opposition).

The diplomatic context changed somewhat with the death of Yassir Arafat and new hopes for more peaceful times, law and order, cooperation and coordination with the PA around Disengagement. This led to the Sharm-el-Sheikh conference in February 2005, but its immediate outcomes were limited, as were progress towards democratic reform and improvement in law enforcement in the PA.

While many Likud MKs joined the campaign for a Referendum, the Israeli Labor Party made it clear that they would withdraw if the Referendum bill were to pass its first Knesset reading; the Israeli government garnered the necessary support and the Referendum bill did not pass its first Knesset reading in March 2004. The budget passed at the end of March and the government survived.

FAQ: Questions about Disengagement

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Statement on the Day of the Implementation of the Disengagement Plan





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07 Nov 2005 / 5 Heshvan 5766 0