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Sharon’s Phony War

In recent weeks, cracks have appeared in a three-year-old Israeli consensus that there is no Palestinian partner for a peace process, that the Palestinians’ real goal is the liquidation of Israel, and that to negotiate with Palestinians before terrorism is ended is to “reward terrorism.”

This consensus has enabled Prime Minister Sharon’s government to maintain that its only option is to wage an unrelenting war against the Palestinians that, in the words of the Israeli Defense Force’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, will “sear deep into the consciousness of Palestinians that they are a defeated people” before any political process can begin.

A number of recent events suggest that this consensus is beginning to erode. About a third of Israel’s public expressed support for an Israeli–Palestinian peace proposal announced by former justice minister Yossi Bei-lin and former Palestinian Authority minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. Some 200,000 Israelis and Palestinians signed a statement supporting a parallel peace initiative led by a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence agency, Ami Ayalon, and a former official of the Palestinian Authority, Sari Nusseibeh. One hundred thousand demonstrators turned out at a rally sponsored by the previously dormant peace camp. Twenty Israeli fighter pilots, considered the military’s elite, issued a public protest of Israeli policies in the territories.

But a statement by Lieutenant General Ya’alon, who in a meeting with Israeli journalists criticized the policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, has had by far the greatest impact, precisely because this criticism came from the official who had formerly talked of how war would “sear deep” into Palestinian consciousness that they are a defeated people. According to Ya’alon, Sharon’s policies, far from defeating terror, “increase hatred for Israel and strengthen the terror organizations.” These policies, he said, contributed to the downfall of Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen, whose opposition to the intifada and determination to pursue a nonviolent policy presented Israel with a rare opportunity to end the suffering on both sides.

General Ya’alon’s sudden conversion was followed by an even more extraordinary event. On November 14, four former heads of the Shin Bet joined in a dramatic warning to the Israeli public that their government’s policies are leading the country to a “catastrophe.” The four, who are anything but peaceniks or leftists, identified the heart of the problem, the government’s insistence on fighting terrorism in a political vacuum. Such a war, they said, is doomed to failure and will lead to the end of Israel’s democracy and of its Jewish identity.

The notion that the war against terror cannot be won by military measures alone but must also provide Palestinians with prospects for a political solution is hardly revolutionary. It is a view that Sharon’s own security advisers have advocated. Sharon has been accused of many things by his critics, but stupidity is not one of them. Why, then, hasn’t Sharon reached this conclusion on his own?

The inescapable answer to this question is that the war that Sharon is waging is not aimed at the defeat of Palestinian terrorism but at the defeat of the Palestinian people and their aspirations for national self-determination. In this war, Palestinian terrorism has been not an enemy but an indispensable ally, providing Sharon with the pretext that has enabled him to proceed relentlessly with the implantation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Over the years, Sharon has made no secret of his conviction that these settlements must be built so extensively as to create facts on the ground that no future Israeli government will be able to undo. Sharon’s assurances that he is committed to the launching of a peace process once Palestinian terrorism is vanquished is a lie intended to gain time for securing the irreversibility of the settlement enterprise.

Tragically, Palestinian terrorism is real enough, but it can be defeated only if terrorists lose the support of the Palestinian people. And the Palestinian people will withdraw their support only if their suffering under Israel’s occupation is alleviated, and if Israel offers them a nonviolent path to the achievement of their legitimate national goals. But Sharon has proved to Palestinians over and over again that his occasional decisions to relax the occupation’s oppressive measures are taken only for tactical reasons, primarily to defuse strains in Israel’s relations with Washington. In recent years, the oppressiveness of the occupation has only gotten worse.

More importantly, Sharon has left no doubt that Palestinian national goals are unattainable no matter what Palestinians do, for the most he is prepared to offer them is a “state” in parts of Gaza and in less than half of the West Bank—in effect bantustans surrounded by Israel’s armed forces and cut off from the rest of the world by a so-called security fence.

The United Nations has just released a report finding that Sharon’s so-called security fence in the West Bank, which he continues to insist is intended to prevent terrorists from entering into Israel, will place 15 percent of West Bank land, home to 274,000 Palestinians, on Israel’s side of the fence. It will, according to the UN, disrupt the lives of 680,000 Palestinians. If the wall follows the route approved by Sharon on its western course, as reported in Israel’s press, it will effectively create at least three noncontiguous and isolated Palestinian enclaves.

The four former Shin Bet chiefs agreed that the fence, as conceived by Sharon and his government, cannot serve a security purpose if it does not establish a border, and that it cannot establish a border if it does not follow the Green Line (the pre-‘67 border).

In rejecting every opportunity to begin a political process, Sharon has argued that as long as Palestinian terrorism continues, a political process rewards terrorism and encourages it to continue. But the dishonesty of that argument has been exposed by Sharon’s current negotiations with Hezbollah over an exchange of four hundred Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian prisoners held in Israel for one Israeli hostage and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers killed in Lebanon. If the life of one Israeli and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers are sufficient reason to risk “rewarding terrorism,” even when dealing with a terrorist organization that is committed to the destruction of Israel, why is a peace negotiation with Palestinians that could save hundreds and perhaps thousands of Israeli lives not worth the risk of “rewarding terrorism”?

Sharon has skillfully avoided every opportunity to place his war against terrorism within a credible political setting, and he has done so because a serious negotiation would reveal the emptiness of his vague promise of eventual Palestinian statehood. During his term as prime minister, Sharon learned early that most Israelis and many Americans would rather deny the obvious consequences of what he is doing on the ground than give up the illusion that he is about to turn into another De Gaulle. He discovered that all that was needed to sustain this illusion was to feed it every so often some empty slogans, such as his willingness to make “painful compromises,” or his acceptance of peace plans to which he attaches “reservations” that render them meaningless. Many Israeli pundits, including so-called leftists, not to speak of the American Jewish establishment, became excited when Sharon recently uttered the word “occupation” to describe Israel’s presence in the Occupied Territories. Could there be any clearer evidence, they asked, that Sharon’s true-if-still-secret yearning is for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank and the establishment of a workable Palestinian state? Few commented on his subsequent clarification that he had applied the term “occupation” only to the Palestinian people, but not to the land on which they live.

While visiting President Putin in Moscow in November, Sharon said that “very soon a Palestinian leadership that objects to the path of terror, violence, and incitement of Yasser Arafat will arise and will be prepared to act with us to honestly implement the Road Map.” Earlier, addressing Israel’s Knesset, he declared, “There is a real chance that in the months ahead we will be able to break the impasse and renew progress toward a settlement.” But Ze’ev Schiff wrote in Ha’aretz (October 31) that “a thorough inquiry reveals there are no contacts toward a settlement” and that Sharon “was throwing sand in the eyes of the public.” “The bluff goes on and on,” he wrote, “and it’s a pity that journalists are accomplices.”

The illusions continue, and they have even survived Sharon’s latest announcement that he intends to build hundreds of new housing units in Jewish settlements deep inside the West Bank and Gaza. Nor were they affected by the recent allocation of vast sums from Israel’s sorely overstretched national budget for the enlargement of illegal outposts that Sharon had promised President Bush would be removed.

Sharon and those closest to him have often expressed their surprise over how easy it has been, in the name of fighting terrorism, to “push the envelope” of what the international community finds acceptable Israeli behavior. During Israel’s last presidential election, Sharon’s son Omri explained to a group of Likud faithful how cleverly his father has handled the US and other nations:

Today…we are located in the Palestinian areas, we are violating international agreements, and no one is saying anything. So we talk Palestinian state, Palestinian state, but in the meantime not even Area A exists any longer.* And there is no Orient House, no Palestinian representation in Jerusalem, and Palestinians are afraid to walk around with weapons in their own cities. Obviously we all want peace, who doesn’t want peace. But [my father’s] statement about a Palestinian state is a very remote statement. [Ha’aretz, December 13, 2002]

What Omri Sharon was describing is an incremental approach by which his father has managed to obtain US acquiescence in Israel’s gradual obliteration of Palestinian self-government in the Occupied Territories, and even in targeted assassinations. At first these assassinations were supposedly limited to “ticking bombs,” but they were gradually extended to political leaders of Hamas and Jihad as well. They inevitably and consistently kill large numbers of Palestinian civilians.

Sharon is relying on these very same tactics to defuse the demands for a change in policy that are already being made as a result of General Ya’alon’s criticism. His government’s announcement that Israel has eased restrictions in the West Bank is no less fraudulent than his similar announcement following his meeting in Aqaba with President Bush and Abu Mazen last June. According to Danny Rubinstein (Ha’aretz, October 11), despite the removal of a checkpoint in Ramallah, restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank became more severe, in part because of new obstacles created by the separation wall now being built by Sharon’s government.

The rage of Palestinians at Israel’s repressive measures has not diminished their disgust with the petty wranglings for personal position and privilege by the Palestinian politicians attempting to form a Palestinian Authority government. Again and again, Palestinians have seen that neither Arafat nor his cronies are willing to place Palestinian national interests above their own personal ambitions, whether in meeting Palestinian demands for an end to corruption, or in ending the violence and terrorism that Sharon has so successfully used as a cover for the settlement enterprise. Palestinians express their disdain for this leadership in demonstrations within the territories that are not generally seen by the Western press and television. Nevertheless, they will not repudiate their current leaders while Sharon and his government are allowed to pursue a war intended to destroy Palestinian self-determination.

The Bush administration’s Middle East peace policy continues to be shaped by the belief that Sharon will begin a peace process leading to Palestinian statehood once Palestinians remove the obstacles identified by Sharon—for example, flawed Palestinian institutions, terrorist networks, Arafat’s leadership, etc. So long as the US follows such a policy, it will remain irrelevant to peacemaking in the Middle East. US policy will become effective only when it understands that its goal must be to overcome Sharon’s opposition to a Palestinian state.

Sharon may not be deterred from his longstanding goal of retaining Israeli control of the West Bank even if President Bush were to declare that he is no longer fooled by Sharon’s deceptive war on terrorism. But such presidential candor would reinforce the recent stirrings of life within Israel’s political left. It is hardly likely that Bush would express such a sentiment now that his reelection campaign is impending. But statements of sup-port for the two most recent informal Israeli–Palestinian peace initiatives by Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz—despite the violent condemnations of them by Sharon—are new and unexpected. Such support, if it were strongly sustained, could hold out what hope there is that Israelis and Palestinians will finally shed their conviction that there is no partner for peace on the other side, and insist that their leaders act in their common interest.

—November 19, 2003

  1. *

    Area A” refers to the parts of the West Bank that were placed under the rule of the Palestinian Authority following the Oslo agreements.

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