'Disengagement' Planner Reveals PR Campaign

Eyal Arad speaks at Ariel University conference, warns lesson that Israeli public flocks behind strong leader must be learned.

Yoni Kempinski, Ari Yashar ,

Baby expelled from home in Disengagement
Baby expelled from home in Disengagement
Flash 90

A unique conference was held at Samaria's Ariel University on Thursday, investigating the 2005 "Disengagement" plan that expelled all Jews from Gaza. One of the key speakers, political strategist Eyal Arad, spoke from firsthand experience; he ran the Disengagement's propaganda campaign.

Arad began speaking by noting he was the media adviser for Judea and Samaria's Yesha Council in the pre-Oslo Accords period, when he says the seeds of Jewish expulsion were sown by inaction on the political right.

According to numerous opinion polls the Israeli public wants a clear solution to the conflict with the Arabs, said Arad, meaning that "the moment when the 'land of Israel' camp didn't present a realistic solution, it lost the battle."

The media strategist recalled a 2003 meeting with former President Ariel Sharon, when he first heard the plans for Disengagement. Arad notes Sharon brought up the plan unexpectedly, given that his government and standing were seen as stable at the time.

When asked why he wanted to expel Jews from Gaza, Arad comments that Sharon claimed the "national background" necessitated the Disengagement, and asked how the political system and public would receive the process. Leaving the meeting, Arad notes they were giving orders how to present the plan to the public.

Arad discussed the media campaign he arranged to support the Disengagement without any survey data, as Sharon had forbidden polls for fear of information of the plan leaking.

"We started planning the propaganda campaign without a survey, knowing that the term 'peace' lost its power (following Oslo), and that the public didn't believe in the feasibility of a peace agreement, and rather just wanted quiet," recalls Arad.

Forming the campaign

The strategist discussed the term "Disengagement," which he also was behind. According to Arad, the term was meant to play on the public's understanding that "with the Palestinians you can't reach a peace deal." Therefore, Disengagement was presented as a way to "turn our back" on the problem.

Arad claimed the public didn't have such deep attachment to Gaza as it did with Judea and Samaria, leading the administration to "prove" with painful concessions that the problem is with "the Arabs that don't want a solution" - meaning the administration could turn its back to them.

It is worth noting that the move invited an incessant barrage of tens of thousands of missiles from Gaza, and caused terrorist group Hamas to be elected as the government. 

A key point of the media campaign was for it not to be negative, reports Arad, as Jews living in Gaza were not targeted by the propaganda and all criticism of the Disengagement was not responded to.

After the Disengagement was announced, Arad noted that a "mistaken" referendum of Likud members was decided on, a decision he strongly opposed. However, Sharon went with the idea, ruling out the longer process of a national referendum.

The referendum revealed strong opposition to the plan, which was led by the "orange" campaign that Arad appraised as a good campaign, albeit one hindered by being focused on internal dialogue among religious Zionists and therefore "speaking to the convinced."

In response to the gradually falling support for the Disengagement, Arad's team launched the "a solution for every settler" campaign, to impress on the public a planned timeline and serious intentions on the part of the government.

Of course there wasn't a "solution for every settler"; last year, 8 years since the Disengagement, 50% of the evicted Jews from Gaza remained without permanent housing, and suffered from a high 16% unemployment rate.

Arad notes that a last stage in the campaign was the army's ability to carry out the plan, a campaign led by the IDF Spokesperson's Unit headed by Miri Regev, who is now a Likud Beytenu Member of Knesset.

Key lessons - Israelis flock behind firm leaders

According to Arad, the key lesson from the Disengagement is that the public follows a firm prime minister who is willing to push through a plan. "The public goes after a leader based on how convinced they are that he is practical, responsible, and not prevented by foreign interests."

To support his thesis, Arad noted that the Israeli public followed former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when he refused Hamas's demands for kidnapped Gilad Shalit's release, and the same public a year and a half later agreed to the Hamas demands. Arad explains the public sticks with leaders it feels it can rely on.

Arad urged learning the lesson from the Disengagement "because we are before similar decisions." He noted the importance of who would present Israel withdrawals from Judea and Samaria, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has started to do.

The analyst warned that according to his appraisal Netanyahu, or Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon if he were to become prime minister, would be able to rally public opinion if he tried to sell such a withdrawal.

"The settlements in Judea and Samaria haven't succeeded in creating a sense of attachment to the Israeli mainstream," claimed Arad. "I say that to my sorrow. ...The expression 'to return' (Judea and Samaria) expresses the feeling that it doesn't belong to us."