5765: a Year of Politics and Promise for Israel, the Year Remembered Most for One Word: Disengagemen

Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank dominated the year 5765. After months of rancorous confrontation with Jewish settlers and other opponents of the “disengagement” plan in the Knesset, the courts and the streets, the government moved in mid-August to evacuate 21 settlements in Gaza and 4 in the northern West Bank. Despite warnings of possible civil war, the evacuation of Gaza’s 9,000 settlers and a few thousand radical supporters took less than a week and was virtually free of serious violence. More than 50,000 army and police took part in the operation, on the assumption that the larger the evacuating contingent, the less force it would have to employ.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received warm praise from the international community for going through with his initiative despite strong domestic opposition. The withdrawal left the Palestinian Authority in control of Gaza and was widely hailed as a significant first step toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But Sharon’s move alienated large sections of his own Likud Party, and left him fighting for his political life.

Sharon argued that the pullout was of vital strategic importance for Israel: It eases the demographic problem, creates better defensive lines, may earn Israel international backing and generates a dynamic that could lead to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But Sharon’s Likud Party opponents characterized it as a huge strategic blunder: In handing over land to the Palestinians without demanding anything in return, they argue, Israel has encouraged more terrorism.

The disengagement opponents mounted a vigorous campaign. In the months leading up to the withdrawal they lobbied in the Knesset, appealed to the Supreme Court, held mass demonstrations and blocked major roads.

They failed at every turn.

Their battle in the Knesset collapsed March 28 when legislators rejected a proposal for a referendum on the withdrawal by an overwhelming margin of 72-39.

Their court struggle ended June 9, when the Supreme Court denied petitions against withdrawal. And any hope they may have had of intimidating the authorities by sheer numbers evaporated when police successfully prevented an estimated 200,000 demonstrators from marching on the Gaza settlements from the nearby village of Kfar Maimon in late July.

The anti-disengagement forces finally won a victory when Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resigned Aug. 7 — granted, just 10 days before the withdrawal was to begin — and announced that he would challenge Sharon for the Likud leadership and the premiership.

Netanyahu, a former prime minister, argued that in pushing through disengagement, Sharon had abandoned Likud principles and no longer was fit to lead the party or the nation. Netanyahu’s challenge sparked speculation about a possible split in the ruling Likud Party and a significant realignment of Israel’s political map.

There were dramatic developments on the Palestinian side too. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who was seen both by Israel and the United States as personally responsible for ongoing Palestinian terrorism, died Nov. 11, paving the way for the emergence of a more moderate Palestinian leadership.

Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected Jan. 9 to succeed Arafat, immediately renounced terrorism as inimical to the Palestinian cause. On Feb. 8, at a summit meeting at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheik, Sharon and Abbas announced a cease-fire, ostensibly ending the bloody intifada after more than four years.

Five weeks later, at a meeting held under Egyptian aegis in Cairo, Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups agreed to abide by the cease-fire until the end of 2005. As a goodwill gesture, Israel released 500 Palestinian prisoners in February, and 400 more in early June. Israel also handed over the West Bank cities of Jericho and Tulkarm to full Palestinian control in March.

In early May, however, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided to freeze further planned hand-overs on the grounds that the Palestinian Authority was ignoring its commitments to dismantle terrorist groups and arrest or disarm wanted terrorists.

Despite the cease-fire, sporadic terrorist attacks continued, including suicide bombings in Tel Aviv in February, Netanya in July and Beersheba in August, and the firing of hundreds of rockets and mortars at Israeli communities in and around Gaza before the evacuation.

Several analysts, including a former Israeli military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, warned that unless Israeli-Palestinian negotiations went forward, a new intifada would erupt.

Although Sharon’s disengagement policy enhanced Israel’s already close ties with the Bush administration, there were some glitches. Israel’s decade-old plans to build in a key strategic area outside Jerusalem known as E-1, and its failure to remove 24 illegal West Bank settlement outposts, led to stern U.S. criticism.

Israel and the United States also clashed over Israel’s military relationship with China, specifically an Israeli contract to refurbish unmanned air vehicles it had sold to China.

After months of delicate negotiations between the Pentagon and Israel’s Defense Ministry, Israel bowed to an American demand to keep the UAVs rather than repair and upgrade them. The issue was resolved when, on Aug. 16, Israel and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding providing for prior consultations on potentially problematic arms deals.

The disengagement from Gaza and renewed dialogue with the Palestinians under Abbas led to improvement in Israel’s international and regional standing. In February, the Jordanian ambassador, recalled soon after the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, returned to Israel. Egypt, the only other Arab country to have made peace with Israel, sent its ambassador back in March.

In April, Russia’s Vladimir Putin paid the first-ever visit to Israel by a Soviet or Russian president. In July, Sharon — for years the butt of sharp criticism in Europe, especially France — was feted in Paris by the French government and lauded in the French media.

On Sept. 1, barely a week after the evacuation of the Gaza settlements, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom met publicly in Istanbul with his Pakistani counterpart, prompting speculation about imminent ties between Israel and the huge Muslim nuclear power, which had ostracized Israel in the past.

The year 5765 also marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp and the end of the World War II. In mid-March, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, presidents, prime ministers and delegations from 40 countries attended the opening of a new Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. On May 5, Sharon took part in a ceremony at Auschwitz, where 1 million Jews perished between 1942 and 1945; and on May 30, Israeli President Moshe Katsav addressed Germany’s Parliament.

The cease-fire with the Palestinians and the disengagement helped the Israeli economy recover from the battering it took during the intifada, growing by about 4 percent for the second straight year.

Other indicators also pointed to economic resurgence: Nearly 2 million tourists were expected in 2005, an increase of half a million from 2004, double the number in 2003 and close to record pre-intifada levels, and the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange reached new heights in the first few weeks after disengagement.

There also were at least two major financial transactions: Israel’s giant pharmaceutical company, Teva, became the largest generic-drug producing company in the world after a $7.4 billion buyout of U.S.-based Ivax in August. And on June 30, Israel and Egypt signed a $2.5 billion deal for the supply of natural gas from Egypt to Israel over the next 15 years. Opponents warned that the gas deal risked national security by giving a potentially hostile country a stranglehold on a key strategic resource, while backers said it would tighten Israeli-Egyptian ties that have remained cold despite a formal peace treaty signed 25 years ago.

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