Twelve years ago today, the Knesset approved the Disengagement Plan for the Gaza Strip, rejecting calls for a national referendum. This political and civil act cost billions of dollars, for the sake of removing a few thousand Israeli Jewish citizens. In the aftermath, Palestinians destroyed much Israeli infrastructure left behind, and in the next few years, Hamas won the election, becoming the governing force in Gaza. As a result, Gaza became an armed outpost of rebellion against Israel, which in turn led to a series of Israeli military operations that brought ground troops back into the territory.
In retrospect, what have we learned from this major government decision and its aftermath? I'll blog more about this when we reach the anniversary of the disengagement itself, so now let's just focus on the political implications of the Knesset action.
First, the action dramatized the political clout of P.M. Sharon and his new party, Kadima. Founded as an alternative to the older conventional ideological parties, Labor and Likud, Kadima saw itself as representing the broad middle of the Israeli public. This meant in particular a willingness to seek a two-state solution on pragmatic rather than ideological grounds. It also showed the electorate's trust of a former military leader, Sharon, as opposed to other political figures lacking that pedigree and credibilty.
Second, the decision reflected the government's recommitment to withdrawal from a territory that historically the state never claimed for itself or sought. To the extent that the security of a state rests as much upon contraction so as to avoid overexposure, the act aimed to cease governing a hostile territory that demanded significant resources of troops weapons and money. This reflected the older view of Israeli statecraft that did not assume that more land produced more security, rather that the relation between the two might well be in the inverse.
Third, the state at least in this instance reasserted a cardinal principal of its own and of general political philosophy, namely that the state must make policy for the general welfare and that therefore no faction should usurp that policy-making prerogative. Arguably that statist notion, called mamlakhtiyut in Hebrew, fell by the wayside in the process of settlers occupying the West Bank in the early-mid 1970's, with in effect the settlers forcing the government to adjust to their interests rather than the other way around. In the case of Gaza, the state — under the leadership of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — drove the policy conversation and the subsequent process.
Finally, civil order requires a strong state in the overt sense of decision making. Representative government precludes making major decisions—at least most of the time—via referenda. The majority, inflamed by passions rather than rational considerations, can make poor rash decisions. Policy making requires reasoned deliberation and referenda often fail in this respect.