This week is the twentieth anniversary of Ariel Sharon’s announcement of Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip, first in an interview with the late Haaretz political columnist Yoel Marcus and later that day to the cabinet.
Sharon’s announcement was astounding. Just over a year earlier in the election campaign, he had said that Netzarim, the most isolated of the Israeli settlements in Gaza, “is just like Tel Aviv”.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (R) leans over housing plans as he meets with contractors organising the 2005 evacuation of Gaza (Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images)
Twenty years later, Israelis are still divided over whether dismantling the settlements and withdrawing entirely from Gaza was the right thing to do and why Sharon did it.
At the time it was a popular move, with two-thirds of Israelis in favour. The IDF is now back in Gaza, and no one is willing to bet on how long it will stay. According to a poll conducted last week by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) only 26 per cent of Israel’s Jewish citizens are in favour of the IDF both remaining in Gaza and rebuilding the settlements.
They are a minority (according to the JPPI poll even among right-wingers) but they’re also the only section of both the Israeli public and political establishment who are publicly presenting a plan.
Last Sunday night, thousands arrived at the International Conference Centre in Jerusalem to take part in the launch of a campaign to build settlements in Gaza. There were maps of six proposed sites (including a new city to be built on the ruins of Gaza City) and you could sign up to become a resident in any of them.
Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks during a convention calling for Israel to resettle the Gaza Strip and the northern part of the West Bank (Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images)
There is currently no realistic scenario in which those settlements get built. The IDF has been scaling down its forces in Gaza for weeks now and nothing in its current deployment could support the preparation for settlement-building. And while there was wild talk at the event of somehow “encouraging the migration” of the more than two million Palestinians living there, to make way for the settlements, that isn’t about to happen either.
But the detachment from reality didn’t seem to be a problem for the 11 ministers and 15 other Knesset members, all from the coalition, to attend and sign the Declaration of Victory and Renewal of Settlement in Gaza.
One reason for the prominence of Sunday’s event is that while the situation on the ground doesn’t give any reason to believe that they will ever see their vision realised and not one of the politicians at the event is a member of the war cabinet, there is still an empty space where Israel’s post-war strategy in Gaza should be.
In the war cabinet itself, there are three different approaches, none of which has been presented in detail to the public. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant believes that the IDF should not remain there permanently after the war and in a closed meeting this week with the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, spoke of “non-Hamas elements within Gaza which will take over”.
It’s hard to see who these elements are, if they even exist. Some experts say that in such a scenario, local warlords and gangs will take over, hardly a recipe for security and stability, especially as they are likely to be co-opted by Hamas.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach is even less clear. Every couple of days he puts out a statement promising “total victory” and saying that the “IDF will be in charge of security from the river to the sea” but he’s unwilling to supply any details of who will actually run Gaza. When asked a few weeks ago of his opinion on the calls to rebuild the settlements, he said weakly, “That’s not realistic.” But if he has a vision of reality, beyond remaining in office, he has yet to tell anyone about it.
The pragmatic wing of the war cabinet, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, are in private open to the plan being presented by the Biden administration, which includes a “revitalised” Palestinian Authority taking over in Gaza, followed by a massive rebuilding project financed by the Saudis, who are promising diplomatic ties with Israel if a serious diplomatic process towards a two-state solution is relaunched. Gantz has some reservations on that, but either way, neither he nor Eisenkot are prepared to share with the Israeli public what they think should happen.
In the polls this week, their National Unity Party is still riding high, with more than double the vote of Netanyahu’s Likud. Most of this rise in support is from those who voted Likud just 15 months ago and have now lost trust in its leader. Gantz knows that if he says the dreaded words “Palestinian state” he could lose many of them. He’s still struggling to find a different set of words that would be palatable to the Americans and the Saudis and keep his new supporters on board.
The Biden administration understands Gantz’s dilemma, which is why in recent days they’ve stopped talking about the day-after strategy and the two-state solution and have started to put all their efforts into pushing a hostage agreement.
There is, of course, real concern for the fate of the hostages remaining in Gaza, whose official number is 136, but at least 30 of whom are presumed to be dead. But there is also a realisation in Washington that the only way to get some kind of movement in Jerusalem is through releasing the hostages, in return for a large number of Palestinian prisoners, probably in the thousands, and a long truce, if not full ceasefire.
On a political level, this is something that Gantz and Eisenkot are prepared to get behind. Once an actual agreement is on the table, Netanyahu will also have to make a call. If he accepts the deal, he will almost certainly lose his original coalition, as both Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir have made it clear that anything beyond a short truce, like the one which lasted just a week at the end of November, is a red line.
Whether or not Smotrich and Ben-Gvir actually believe rebuilding the settlements in Gaza is a realistic proposition, they are both fighting for the same section of the Israeli electorate which wants to be believe it is. That’s why they were both at the event on Sunday with all their MKs in tow. Any deal with Hamas that includes a long truce or ceasefire will be seen as betraying that vision. At least one of them will be forced to use the opportunity to show themselves as true believers and leave the coalition over it.
If Netanyahu decides not to jeopardise his majority and finds a reason not to accept the deal, it will almost certainly force Gantz and Eisenkot out of the war cabinet instead. Either way, it will set the ball rolling for an early election and a different government. This one is obviously incapable of deciding on Israel’s strategy in Gaza for the day after the war.