“Disengagement has already produced a long list of benefits,” Sharon said. “Because of it, there is no criticism of Israeli actions against terrorism. Now it is clear to everyone that when Israel declares its willingness to make painful compromises, it indeed intends to make genuine and painful compromises. Very painful.” He thus seemed to contradict his earlier statement that most Israelis are "justifiably not willing" to endure Israel's continued presence in Gaza and much of Judea/Samaria.
The Prime Minister enumerated several hopes for 2005 – the year, he assured the audience, that Israel would leave Gaza. “In 2005 we have the opportunity to extricate ourselves from the recession,” he said. “In 2005 we will establish new, improved relations with the international community. Europe has begun to understand our need to fight terrorism. In 2005 Israel will have the opportunity for a historic breakthrough with the Palestinians – a breakthrough for which we have been waiting many, many years.”
Sharon outlined several other priorities of his government, including the absorption of one million new immigrants in the next 15 years - in 2002 he said it would take ten years - and the implementation of the educational reforms outlined by the Dovrat Commission. He stressed, though, that the most important issue, in his view, is the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern Shomron: “Israel’s most important opportunity is leaving Gaza, which we will implement next year. This decision is the cornerstone of these opportunities.”
The Prime Minister claimed that the majority of Israelis support his plan. “The decision that we will not be in Gaza and have nothing to look for there does not divide the people or tear the nation apart,” he said, referring to bumper stickers and placards across the country decrying the expulsion of Jews from their homes. Terming those who oppose the disengagement “a small minority,” Sharon insisted that his plan in fact “brings the nation together.”
Sharon reiterated the fact that US President George W. Bush backs his plan and has promised that Israel will be “allowed” to maintain some large blocs of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and not have to completely return to Israel’s pre-1967 borders. MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union) today contested this claim, saying, "Read the Bush letter 1,000 times, and you will not see one word to this effect. All he says is that Jerusalem and other settlement issues should be left for a later stage in the negotiations."
The Prime Minister cited the release of Israeli Druze Azzam Azzam from Egyptian prison as a sign of new Egyptian goodwill. He expressed his hope for “Egyptian cooperation in stopping the weapons-smuggling” along the Egyptian-Israeli border, which “will allow Israel to leave the Philadelphi route as well.”
Ironically, Egypt announced just yesterday that it was postponing until April 2005 its increased military deployment along the Israeli border - a deployment which is meant to contain arms-smuggling into Gaza.
“Both people can live on this strip of land in peace,” Sharon concluded wistfully. “I believe it is within our grasp.”
Gush Katif Spkesman Eran Sternberg responded: "Sharon's address was a carbon-copy of that delivered by Shimon Peres in Oslo and is another step in the strangulation of Israeli democracy."
"The Israeli public threw the left-wing out of power," Sternberg added, "but via deceitful actions, has found itself returned to the hallucinations of Peres."
Just a few hours prior to Sharon’s address, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak assured a Herzliya Conference audience, “After Gush Katif and the northern Shomron will come the removal of Bracha, Itamar, Yitzhar and all the other isolated settlements in the Shomron.”
According to Barak, the Likud Party has been deceiving the nation ever since 1977 by building communities in places they knew “would not remain in our hands." Barak also called for what many suspect is Prime Minister Sharon’s ultimate goal as well: the removal of all Jewish communities on the eastern side of the partition fence currently being erected.
Major-General (res.) Yaakov Amidror, a former Deputy Head of IDF Intelligence, sharply protested the limited time that conference organizers allotted to speakers with opinions opposed to the Prime Minister’s plan. He pointed out that pro-disengagement speakers were granted large blocks of time to express their ideas, as opposed to mere minutes allotted for anti-disengagement views.
Professor Uriel Reichman, who heads the Herzliya Inderdisciplinary Center, seemed to confirm this when, upon introducing Sharon, he said: “Mr. Prime Minister, I am sorry you weren’t able to join us for the entire conference – you would have enjoyed yourself. Nearly all the speakers gave you compliments on your handling of the political situation.”
Click here for the full text of the Prime Minister's speech.