Given the scenes we’ve been witnessing coming out of Gaza, can anyone imagine that back in 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day War, then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan gave an order not to occupy the Gaza Strip, and that a half-year earlier, the heads of the Mossad and Israeli military intelligence agreed that if the opportunity arose, Israel should not occupy the West Bank? They all knew that occupation of so many Palestinians would cause a tremendous amount of trouble.
Of course, the mystical euphoria produced by the overwhelming victory in 1967 caused the Israeli government to ignore that wise advice. And the three no’s that emanated soon afterward from the Arab League conference in Khartoum–no to talks, negotiations and peace with the Israelis–didn’t help matters.
Still, until the 1973 Yom Kippur War, only a few thousand settlers had moved into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It was the shock of the sudden surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, and the sense of vulnerability it produced, that led to the establishment of the religious Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) settlers’ movement in 1974. Inspired by Orthodox Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook’s belief that the victory in the Six-Day War was divinely inspired and the beginning of salvation, the young founders of Gush Emunim concluded that the establishment of settlements throughout the occupied territories was the only way to maintain control over “Greater Israel.” They felt they were in a race against time, and one of their primary allies at the government level was Ariel Sharon, who served at various times as security adviser to Prime Minister Rabin (in the 1970s), agricultural minister, defense minister and infrastructure minister.
And now, in one of the great ironies of history, Prime Minister Sharon, the “father of the settlement project,” has been cast in the role of being the leader who takes the first step toward a return to sanity in Israeli politics.
This is no small matter. All of the previous prime ministers who could have done this didn’t. Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir lost the 1992 elections because he refused to listen to one of his own ministers who recommended that he declare his readiness to leave Gaza. When settler Baruch Goldstein, a follower of Meir Kahane, tried to derail the peace process by murdering twenty-nine Palestinians in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin didn’t use the opportunity to evacuate the extremist Jewish settler community from the heart of Hebron. And Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was ready to give the Palestinians all of Gaza and, by many accounts, around 90 percent of the West Bank at Camp David II in the summer of 2000, wasn’t ready to remove a single settler until after an agreement was signed.
Sharon was the founder of the Likud combination of parties back in 1977. It was his initiative that enabled the right to wrest control of the government from the Labor movement for the first time in Israeli history. However, the totally secular Sharon was not nurtured on messianic visions, or on the traditional Jabotinsky-Revisionist belief that “both sides of the Jordan” were part of “Greater Israel.” Born on a moshav, a collective-agricultural settlement, he was raised in the pragmatic Labor tradition of settling for what the state can get, while insuring a maximum amount of security. It’s not coincidental that in the midst of what will probably become his defining moment in history, he refers back to Laborites David Ben-Gurion and Dayan, and not to the right-wing ideologue Vladimir Jabotinsky.