Obituary writers take a life and frame it. They choose what goes into the history books, and what stays out. So, as I read the media coverage of the impending end of former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s life, I am deeply disturbed that they have largely forgotten his most important acts — his efforts for peace through the withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Sharon was a warrior. He achieved monumental success and saved many Israeli lives. He was a brilliant strategist who made bold moves in the Sinai and other places. Sadly, however, he also made some tragic mistakes which ultimately caused innocent people to pay the ultimate price. That is a part of his legacy. But the most important acts of his very public life were for peace and security.

Prime Minister Sharon took great risks in withdrawing from Gaza. A Likudnik to the core, it cost him many of his strongest and longest serving supporters. Many predicted it would lead to the demise of Israel.

Before and during the 2005 withdrawal I was leading The Israel Project. Our polls and focus groups showed that Israel was being blamed for the violence against its citizens. People around the world were saying that the terrorism against innocent Israeli civilians was justified because of “the occupation.”

When we learned of the plans for the withdrawal, we did public opinion research, and saw that it was a vital opportunity for the world to know that Israel was making painful sacrifices in hopes of peace. It would help shape global understanding of the facts. Finally, they would understand the real “matzav” (situation). Still, PM Sharon and the IDF weren’t eager to open Gaza to reporters as they saw it as a needless security risk. Pollster Stan Greenberg PhD and I spent month working to convince the Prime Minister’s team and the IDF to open up the process to reporters. They were doing the withdrawal for reasons of security and peace, not PR. Ultimately, the Israeli government agreed to open the process to press.

After all that however, the reporters did not want to come to Gaza because they did not believe that Prime Minister Sharon would actually go through with it! Almost always thinking the worst of Israel and its “hardline Prime Minister”, the media thought it was a trick — a bait and switch. Additionally, they had spent their travel budgets covering a Pope’s funeral and summer Olympics. They didn’t want to spend scarce dollars and their typical vacation period of August on a farce. Thus, we spent months visiting reporters one-by-one to beg them to come and see the withdrawal with their own eyes. We sent them letters, postcards, emails and called them over and over to beg them to see the facts. It worked.

On August days during the withdrawal, when it got to be as hot as 117 degrees, we were in Gaza. Also there was Amb. Gideon Meir of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rannan Gissim of the Prime Minister’s Office, Ruth Yaron, Nachman Shai and Jacob Dallal of the IDF, and thousands of reporters. Until the last moments, few reporters believed Sharon would go through with it.

Under some trees we had a place we called “has-beer-a” (a play on the Hebrew word “hasbera” which literally means “to explain” but has come to mean “PR for Israel”) where reporters could get a free beer or soda and free wi-fi. They could meet with these Israeli officials, learn more facts, and get on the record quotes for their news stories. Then they could take a shuttle bus to watch the evacuations of settlers that were all happening because of the decisions of PM Sharon.

In Gaza we saw first hand the pain in the hearts and eyes of soldiers and settlers alike as more than 9000 Israelis had to give up their homes, farms, synagogues, schools and more to the Palestinians. Even the cemeteries had to be moved as they would have been desecrated after the exit of the Israelis.

More than 2000 reporters were with us to document the withdrawal. It was on page 1 of newspapers across the globe and on all the TV networks. Thankfully, though tensions were extremely high, no one got physically hurt in the process. The PR campaign brought a lot more international support for Israel, but the price for the evacuation was extremely high.

The amount of goodwill towards the Palestinians at that time by the government of Israel and its supporters was huge. Philanthropists Mort Zuckerman and James Wolftson gave millions to buy greenhouses for the Palestinians in Gaza — who then destroyed them instead of using them to sustain their people. It was a heart breaking process as the Palestinians voted in Hamas, and Israel got rockets in return for giving up Gaza.

Ultimately Israel was forced to defend its citizens from even more rockets, and innocent Palestinians died as terrorists used them as human shields. A terrible tragedy for all sides. But still, Israel didn’t need to keep bases in Gaza, the rockets have now slowed, and Palestinians still have a chance to make peace work. Diplomats are still working overtime for a permanent peace.

Ariel Sharon made mistakes in his career. But in the end he formed Kadima, left the right, and made bold sacrifices for peace. Will his obit writers remember the facts? During the withdrawal:

AFTER THE WITHDRAWAL:
SOURCES:
  1. “Rabbi rules Gaza graves must be moved; ZAKA refuses to lend a helping hand,” Israeli Insider, May 4, 2005
  2. Interview with Dror Vanunu, Head of Public Relations for Gush Katif, July 7, 2005
  3. Interview with Dror Vanunu, Head of Public Relations for Gush Katif, June 15, 2005
  4. “Engaging Disengagement,” The Jewish Agency for Israel, Department for Jewish Zionist Education, June 20, 2005
  5. Plushnick-Masti, Ramit, “Israel to use 45,000 troops in Gaza, West Bank pullout,” Detroit Free Press, July 6, 2005
  6. Klein, Zeev, “Haber: HCJ ruling will raise disengagement cost to NIS 500m,” Globes: Israel’s Business Arena, June 5, 2005
  7. Arrow, Minda Lee, “Gaza settler relocation: new progress, ongoing complications,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 15, 2005
  8. Lazaroff, Tovah, “Gush Katif dairy farmer has sleepless nights over cow remo(o)val” Jerusalem Post, May 3, 2005
  9. Stahl, Julie, “Gaza farmers say government has no plan for them,” Cybercast News Service, April 11, 2005
  10. Ettinger, Yair, “Even the animals won’t leave Gaza early,” Haaretz newspaper, June 21, 2005
  11. “Israel,” Freedom House, July 6, 2005