08 February 2010
Ariel Sharon was considered the godfather of the Israeli settlements movement. His ardent support of settlements construction and the legitimacy he lent to the strategic argument for settlements as a means of enhancing Israeli security were vital to the success of the enterprise, particularly in the years after he left the Israeli military for politics. Sharon’s basic argument revolved around security. During my time as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Sharon would often hold forth on the rationale for and his own role in the planning of new settlements.
But Sharon was also a multi-dimensional politician whose political twists and turns confounded even his supporters. One evening in his office he expounded on his role in establishing the Qatif bloc of settlements in the Gaza Strip. Sharon explained to me the security rationale for implanting an Israeli presence there: It would separate the Palestinian population in Gaza from Egypt. He boasted of the political maneuvering he employed to get the project through the Cabinet. Now, what really made this conversation so interesting is when it took place: late 2004, namely, after Sharon had decided to withdraw all settlements and settlers from Gaza.
Even more interesting was Sharon’s decision in 2004 to ask Talya Sasson, an Israeli Justice Ministry official, to investigate the legal status of Israeli settlement outposts. By that time, there were an estimated 87 such outposts that had been set up by settlement activists outside the Israeli government’s legal framework for approving such activity. Since the mid-1990s, successive Israeli governments had adhered to a policy of not authorizing the establishment of new settlements. In response, settlement activists had taken to creating their own “facts on the ground”, to use an old and well-known Moshe Dayan phrase. Under pressure from the United States on this issue, Sharon promised President George W. Bush at the Aqaba summit meeting in May 2003 that the Israeli government would dismantle all of the unauthorized outposts that had been established since Sharon became Prime Minister in March 2001.