In the past 27 years, Israeli governments took numerous decisions to establish, expand, and retrospectively authorize settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
However, since former Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government vote on the Camp David Accord with Egypt, Israeli ministers were not asked to raise their hand in favor of evacuating Israeli communities across the Green Line.
The question of settlement evacuation was not included in the original Oslo Accords. Neither was the option of dismantling settlements mentioned in later agreements with the Palestinian Authority, not even as a symbolic gesture.
On occasion, Israeli prime ministers were forced to make vague pledges to the American administration to "freeze construction in the settlements," but those pledges were not honored and did not limit the speedy growth of "Settlement Land."
It will suffice to note that since the senior Bush's administration conditioned loan guarantees to Israel on a slowdown in the settlement project, the number of residents across the Green Line more than doubled.
In the past 27 years, then, no Israeli government considered settlement evacuation, let alone as a unilateral Israeli initiative that comes with no Palestinian reward.
The Likud, the largest national right-wing party, would thwart such notions early on and enlist public opinion against it. Those rejecting any evacuation, and particularly a unilateral one, would have been led, without hesitation, by Ariel Sharon.
But not only him. The Labor part has also refrained in the past from proposing to unilaterally evacuate all Israeli communities from one or another swath of Palestinian land.
This explains the immense historical significance of the decision to evacuate Gaza and the northern West Bank, approved by the government Sunday.
Moreover, the person placing the proposal before ministers was no other than Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the forefather of the settlement enterprise.
The decision does not impose any conditions on the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, the evacuation is presented as a unilateral, unconditional Israeli withdrawal.
How did this about-face happen? What caused such an absolute change in the worldview of politicians raised on the "Greater Israel" doctrine?
The answer lies in the Palestinian intifadah. The uprising, whether we admit it or not, led the silent majority of Israelis, including most Likud voters, to recognize that the occupation is bad for Israel, and that the damages inflicted as a result of the Israeli rule over the Palestinian people are much heavier than any benefits – assuming such benefits exist.
Greater Israel dream has dissipated
However, the implementation of the unilateral withdrawal was facilitated only once there was no doubt Israel won the intifadah, albeit by paying a heavy price.
This came in addition to the perception that without an Israeli pullout initiative, another withdrawal initiative under international pressure and much worse circumstances would soon follow.
The Israeli government, therefore, took a precedent-setting decision and cannot turn back from it. The decision marks Israel's satisfaction with a Jewish, democratic state whose borders are congruent, more or less, with the map of Israel prior to the Six-Day War, with agreed upon corrections.
Any other interpretation of the disengagement plan's approval marks a twisting of the truth, perpetrated by politicians who need to face, in public, the change in doctrines, views, and beliefs they held in the past.
The Greater Israel dream has dissipated and is no longer on the agenda, at least in this generation.
Israel under the leadership of Ariel Sharon is pulling out of Gaza and evacuating all its communities from there as a first step – and not a last step – ahead of a return to its proper borders.