Ariel Sharon’s sudden exit from the political stage has raised serious questions about the future of Israel’s strategy of unilateral separation from the Palestinians. For answers, the Forward turned to the man who, perhaps more than any other, can claim to be the architect of unilateral disengagement, retired major general Uzi Dayan.
Dayan, a former deputy chief of staff of the Israeli military, first proposed a plan for unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza in 1999, while serving as national security adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Dayan stayed on as national security adviser after Sharon succeeded Barak in 2001, and presented the new prime minister with the Gaza withdrawal plan. He also pressed him to erect a West Bank security fence, a proposal that was traditionally identified with the left but was gaining popularity as a possible defense against suicide bombers.
After leaving government in 2002, Dayan launched the Public Council for a Security Fence for Israel. In May 2005 he formed a new political party, Tafnit — Hebrew for “turning point” — and two weeks ago he unveiled his party’s plan for disengaging from the West Bank. A nephew of Israeli military legend Moshe Dayan, he spoke with the Forward last weekend about the future of Israeli unilateralism without Ariel Sharon.
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How did Ariel Sharon come to be the champion of unilateral disengagement?
When I was national security adviser, I tried to convince Sharon about disengagement. It took him three years to understand that it was what had to be done, but after understanding the issue, he carried through with disengaging from Gaza.
By doing that, Sharon took Israel past a point of no return. Most Israelis now understand that we have to disengage from the Palestinians if we don’t want to live in a binational country. I had a big contribution to it, but Sharon made it possible.
Can disengagement from the West Bank, or from parts of the West Bank, succeed without Sharon?
It’s very helpful to have a strong leader, but disengagement can also work if there isn’t any strong opposition. Disengagement will happen because Israeli public opinion has already accepted it. The power that Sharon’s new party got was because most Israelis think that disengaging from the Palestinians is important in order to protect the essence of our existence.
Don’t most Israelis think that disengaging from the Palestinians is important primarily for security?
I don’t think that we left Gaza for security reasons, and I never claimed so. I supported it very much because I thought it was a step in the right direction. Israel without Gaza, without Nablus, without Ramallah is stronger than Israel with Gaza and Nablus and Ramallah.
Has disengagement from Gaza made Israel safer?
I think it makes Israel stronger. The disengagement line is much better for protecting Israelis, but the main reason for it is not security. The main reason is because it’s a line that enables us to live in a Jewish, democratic state — to keep a solid Jewish majority in a moral and legal way. If it’s not moral and not legal, then it’s not Jewish, and it’s not democratic either.
Which of the main candidates for prime minister — Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz and Benjamin Netanyahu — is most likely to support further disengagement?
Olmert is closest to the way Sharon did it. But Olmert is thinking about reaching an agreement with the Americans, and I don’t think it’s going to happen. Peretz is trying to return to negotiations for a full agreement. If Peretz does so without preparing my West Bank disengagement plan as a safety net, we’ll end up with another round of terrorism. And Netanyahu is just buying time. In the end, every one of them understands that we will have to disengage from the Palestinians.
What reason is there to believe that whoever replaces Sharon will follow his unilateral path?
Two of the main Israeli political concepts collapsed when we left Gaza: There is no more Greater Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River — “the Promised Land” — and there is no more land for peace. So a new paradigm is needed.
What would disengagement from the West Bank look like?
My plan gives it three years before implementation, in order to learn the lessons derived from the Gaza disengagement. The plan gives time to build an Israeli national project that offers a vision for the people who are going to be evacuated. And three years gives enough time to negotiate a possible partial agreement or a full agreement with the Palestinians — I give it little chance of success, but I want to give it a chance.
If negotiations don’t work out, then we are ready to draw a new line — one that is better for Israel from a security point of view. It’s a disengagement line that can ensure us a majority of Jews in Israel. A demographic line. And it’s a line that, even if it doesn’t give the Palestinians everything they want, puts them in a much better position than today.
Is the route of the security fence intended to be a demographic line?
The reason to build a security fence is to save lives. There is no way to be effective in fighting terrorism unless you have a very good defense. Around Gaza there is a security fence, and in the last five years not even one group has managed to infiltrate through the fence to commit a terror attack in Israel.
I don’t claim that the security fence doesn’t have an effect, that the route of the fence does not impact Palestinians’ everyday lives. I think that we should be very serious about taking into consideration their human rights. But we also have to remember that the basic human right is to live, so we have to balance it.
If the violence in Gaza continues or gets worse, how would it affect plans for further disengagement?
In the long run it wouldn’t affect them, but in the coming period of time it would oblige Israel to react very determinedly in order to be able to continue later with the disengagement process. If you’ve disengaged from Gaza, and it continues to be a problematic place, everybody will say, “Okay, if you disengage from the West Bank, or part of the West Bank, you’ll face the same situation.”
If a third intifada breaks out, will Israel have been mistaken in taking a unilateral approach toward the conflict with the Palestinians?
Terrorism will continue to be a part of our lives, but the more we have a disengagement line between us and the Palestinians, the more we can relate to it as a border. The disengagement line will serve as a de facto border — though I’m not saying we are going to use it to annex land — and will allow us to have some kind of coexistence.
The use of force will be a part of that coexistence. If we continue to be attacked, it’s a better line to defend, like the one now around Gaza. At the same time, having disengaged will give us more of a justification to react determinedly to attacks.
Today, there is no way to achieve full coexistence, and so we have to make sure we are secure. A secure defense that includes the main settlements close to the 1967 line, I think, is altogether a good solution.