The Disengagement of 2005: An Interview with Yair Sheleg

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This article presents an interview conducted with IDI researcher Yair Sheleg on the occasion of the publication of his IDI policy paper on the political and social ramifications of evacuating settlements in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, which used the Disengagement of 2005 as a case study.

A) Question: Was the decision-making process that accompanied the disengagement from Gaza legitimate from a democratic point of view?

Answer: In general, yes. The bottom line is that we can't deny the legitimacy of the decision, even though it did contain problematic components. Those who opposed the disengagement based their dissent upon four central arguments. Only one of these claims was, as I see it, correct:

  1. A poll of Likud opponents was initiated by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after they decided to resist his continuation with the disengagement plan.  The opponents argued that continuing down the disengagement path was a 'breach of a commitment'. I say that Prime Minister Sharon's commitment was problematic from the start, because a national decision based on a referendum held only for the delegates of one party, even though it was the ruling party, is not proper from a democratic standpoint. So the non-consideration of the poll actually represents a return to proper democratic governance. If they disagreed with his direction, the most Likud voters could do would be to 'get even' with Sharon later.
  2. Sharon fired a number of ministers from the National Unity party, which did not look good. Firing the ministers who tilted the balance against the disengagement prior to the vote created a majority in favor of disengagement. This was definitely unaesthetic and appears problematic. Yet what was forgotten in the public debate is that the ministers had announced they would resign if their opinion was not accepted, which constituted "conditional responsibility." Therefore, all Sharon did was to take his unfair step before they took theirs.
  3. Criminal accusations against Sharon prior to the disengagement plan aroused suspicions that disengagement was born out of Sharon's desire to save his skin. In the end, Sharon was not indicted over the Greek Island affair or the Cyril Kern episode. There might be something to this argument, but there's no sure way of checking it.

    There is also criticism of the press' silence regarding the investigations into Sharon's personal dealings. Some claim that newspaper journalists did not report on these matters in order to advance the disengagement plan. This is a problematic claim, for it was the press that reported on all the episodes Sharon was suspected of; otherwise the public would be totally unaware of them.  Some of the claims protest that, given preoccupation with the disengagement, no one called for the Prime Minister's dismissal. (Only) Amnon Abramovitch voiced the "Etrog concept" (that Sharon was being investigated in order to force him to carry out the policies of the Israeli post-Zionist Left); no one else admitted to curbing their criticism because of the disengagement.  We have no ability to say anything with certainty, because here, too, we have no proof.
  4. The fourth claim of the opponents of disengagement was that Sharon had changed his stance vis-à-vis disengagement suspiciously quickly—within ten months. In the election campaign of Amram Mitzna, who was running against Sharon in the February 2003 elections, Mitzna supported unilateral withdrawal from Gaza by Israel while Sharon was emphatically against it. After the elections Sharon initiated the disengagement plan. This appears problematic, and is a palpable claim by opponents of the disengagement.

    True, it is legitimate to change one's opinion, but still it leaves room for suspicion. Had national interests done a 180-degree about-face within ten months? In principle, it is merited that during election campaigns leaders do not unequivocally commit themselves to matters when they have reasonable grounds to believe they would not be able to live up to those commitments. If the leader's wish is only to appease the public, he has to remember that the public will one day "call in its markers."  And if a leader commits himself and immediately changes his mind following the elections, he must return to the people with a referendum or new elections, problematic as these might be (referendum—populist, elections—chaos).

    Despite the problems, the right thing to do is to return to the people.  Otherwise a high price is paid—the loss of faith in the democratic process by a portion of the public. Today we are paying the damage; today's phenomenon of disobeying orders is derived from this. Therefore it is correct to face the nation.

B) Question: Your policy paper contains a lot of criticism of how the country handled compensation for the evacuees and cared for them after the evacuation. (1) What are your main recommendations concerning the question of damages and rehabilitation? (2) How should this issue be handled if a decision is made to evacuate further settlements?

Answer: Even today, two years later, it's worth looking at the holes remaining in the Evacuation Compensation Law. For example, individuals who owned their homes in Gaza were significantly deprived of their rights. The Law did not regularize their status and they received only limited compensation under a lenient reading of the Law. Beyond problems in the Law itself, there were also bureaucratic problems in the system. The processing that took place at the Disengagement Administration was inefficient and slow. 

Needs and changes that should be made with regard to future evacuation:

  1. The lessons from 2005 should be learned and loopholes closed in the Law.
  2. A longer timetable must be set for evacuation, allowing time for getting prepared in a meaningful way; half a year isn’t enough. This is of fundamental significance, especially if my recommendation for an “alternative settlement” form of evacuation is accepted. This doesn’t necessarily mean building a parallel settlement for each settlement, but rather that people won’t be obliged to buy apartments in the city. They could preserve their rural-community form of settlement. Thus, whole settlements would be inserted into existing settlements; or new settlements would be established, each comprising several previous settlements.

    Regarding the issue of alternative settlement—There’s a problem in the demand of evacuees to receive new territory and separate locations for settlement for each evacuated settlement. This isn’t a reasonable demand. There’s something outrageous about evacuees not being ready to join an existing settlement, despite the fact they would constitute the majority in their new location. It has the appearance of not being appropriate for them.

    I would provide incentives for those who go to reinforce existing settlement. It’s too bad this opportunity wasn’t exploited for the benefit of existing settlement in the Negev and Galilee, and that almost all alternative settlements are new ones.  In any case, the alternative settlement recommendation demands a longer timetable for getting prepared.
  3. Cooperation and coordination must be more thoroughly. People thought their struggle would be successful; they were accustomed to political success and even the rabbis said “it (disengagement) won’t happen.”  Following the failure of the struggle, most of the evacuees—mainly those with families—will in the future display more willingness to cooperate for the sake of assuring their futures; this alongside their political struggle to thwart the process.

    In any case, even if cooperation is lacking, a longer timetable is needed in order to set up temporary settlements, i.e., a caravan rather than a hotel. Gush Katif evacuees were lodged in hotels, but hotels are not the solution.
  4. The Disengagement Authority should have the actual ‘authority’ it needs in order to be successful. The Authority was seemingly independent, but in fact was subordinated to government regulations, e.g., approval for expenses, obligation for tenders, operating with low sums of money and so forth. This subordination to government regulations was a source of awkwardness in the system and in the work of the Authority, which was aimed at providing a rapid and effective response. If we view the Disengagement Authority as a national task, it would be fitting that special rules and special legal decisions be made for this body.
  5. Funneling the task of rehabilitation to the evacuees, or those close to them, will help to make the process smoother and less painful. Those who are capable of understanding the pain and the special needs of the evacuees should be the ones working with them.

    Across the board it was understood that people need the ability to organize and care for themselves. Even if local councils are dismantled, it would be correct to preserve functional bodies in order to retain a framework that is familiar to people—rabbis, council, secretary, etc. (functionaries the public is accustomed to turning to). Such a process would make the rehabilitation process easier.

C) Question: What's your analysis of the protest response of the opponents of disengagement? Were the limits of their protest legitimate? What's your attitude towards the phenomenon of disobeying orders during the disengagement, as well as recently in Hebron?

Answer: In all, the limits of the protest were legitimate; certainly on the part of the settlement establishment and the majority of the population of settlers. There was one thing that was problematic in the behavior of the establishment (the Yesha Council)—the call to physically block the evacuation, even though not through violent means. The argument was that this is what's done in workers' struggles, and is therefore legitimate.

This perception is problematic for several reasons:

  1. In workers' struggles, the fight is against factory owners or a coalition government decision. In the case of the evacuation this was a Knesset decision, (i.e. a decision by the majority of the public)
  2. Any economic decision is reversible. Unilaterally blocking an evacuation process, and certainly an international arrangement, is irreversible.
  3. The main rationale is that you can't compare one with the other. As far as the means are concerned, evacuation is a unique issue. This has been the central division of opinion in Israeli society for the past forty years. Whoever blocks a democratic decision in such a matter is saying to the other side that his democratic struggle is of no significance; this pushes him into a corner of an undemocratic way of acting.

Therefore, as far as this issue goes, it is especially important to stick to the rules of the game, formal and informal. Supporters of the evacuation must beware of trying to achieve a chance majority via "bribery" or bypassing normal rules; and the opponents of evacuation must not block the decision after it has been properly passed, because this is not an ordinary issue.  The fact is that opponents of disengagement demanded a referendum on the issue; they would not have demanded it for other matters. Even they understood that this was not a conventional issue.

Still, to the credit of the settler establishment, it should be mentioned that ultimately, at the decisive moment (Kfar Maimon), they decided not to block by force the decision of the Knesset. This was an ideological-value based decision that stemmed not only from the quantity of forces they faced. They should be given credit for this.

There were elements outside the establishment that did things that were not legitimate—encouraging the refusal of orders, damaging vehicles, etc.  That's not legitimate, it's criminal, and it deserves a criminal justice response.

Regarding the refusal of orders: This is not legitimate. It would be disastrous for Israeli society if people would fulfill orders according to their philosophical and ideological inclinations. It is not only religious and right-wing soldiers who have consciences. Many others acted against their consciences out of sense of collective responsibility.

D) Question: How did the disengagement influence religious Zionism?  Do you believe that it created more extremism and alienation from national institutions? Did the disengagement have a significant influence on religious Zionism's perception of the nature of the country?

Answer:  Overall, with the exception of small groups, there was no ideological retreat from identifying with the country. Religious Zionism did not cease being Zionistic, although naturally, those small extreme groups grab the headlines. The point is not based on ideology, it is emotional. Enthusiasm for the country has gone down; the excitement, the willingness to answer the country’s call to volunteer has perhaps lessened.  An indicator of this is the rising incidence over the last two years of non-recruitment into army service that extends beyond the Haredi population, based on the stance of “Our faith is the Torah.” This indicates that the national religious sector is choosing to go to higher yeshivas (full-time Torah academies) rather than hesder yeshivas (Torah learning, combined with Army service). They want to explore options other than military service. While they once had the zeal to serve, which overall still exists, today I see a decrease in enthusiasm.

If confrontations continue in matters of evacuation and/or other matters such as army recruitment for girls, enthusiasm is likely to drop even further.  This is a problematic situation.

E) Question: In your opinion, how has the evacuation influenced Israeli society as a whole? Can it be argued that a rift has been created only with religious Zionism? How, if at all, have other groups in society—secular, Haredi, Arabs, Israelis, and others—been influenced by the evacuation of settlements in Gaza?

Answer: The biggest rift has been with religious Zionism. There has also been another influence, with respect to Israeli Arabs: The evacuation of Gush Katif has strengthened ideas of exchanging territory.

Firstly—The entire reasoning for the (disengagement) plan was demographic balance; therefore this outlook is currently being adopted in relation to settlements in Wadi Ara (within Israel proper).

Secondly—The pictures of the evacuation of Jews from their homes were heart wrenching, and there are those who are voicing the idea that if it was possible to do this to Jews, then Arabs can certainly be evacuated as well.  From this point of view, evacuation is perceived as legitimate and easier, because with the Arabs all that has to be done is to redraw the border.

This has been a source of intense discourse over the past two years and has public legitimacy, not only among the circle of Lieberman (rightwing nationalist) supporters, but also in other circles and even in the plan recently publicized by President Peres. Beyond this, we have the potential for a snowball effect: because all of the Arab vision statements recently published are also, to a great extent, a reaction to the fact that some segments of Israeli society have wanted to remove them from Israeli sovereignty. And here a chain reaction occurs.