Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon; drawing by David Levine

In the days after the 1967 war, when Israel was celebrating its great victory, an Israeli I know warned that triumph could lead to disaster. Capture of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, he said, would tempt Israel to settle those territories. That would mean colonialism, with all its arrogance and inhumanity. It would undermine the character of Israel.

And it came to pass. The settlement process, carried on for more than three decades, has been sustained by colonial methods: suppressing the local population, seizing land, giving settlers superior legal status. The consequences have been as my Israeli friend foresaw, corrupting. Now the attempt to extend Israel’s dominion threatens its hard-won asset of international legitimacy.

From the day of its rebirth as a state in 1948 Israel had to struggle for acceptance. The Arab world refused to recognize the state or even, for a long time, to call it by its name. Anwar Sadat’s visit in 1977 meant so much to Israelis because it represented acceptance. Then, in 1993, the Oslo Agreement brought recognition of Israel’s legitimacy by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Palestinian negotiators at Oslo assumed that Israel would gradually abandon the settlements and withdraw to something very like its pre-1967 borders. But Oslo left those steps to further negotiation, and they did not happen. The settlement process continued unchecked after Oslo. (Peace Now reported this March that an aerial survey of the West Bank showed thirty-four new settlement sites built in the last year.) More than 200,000 settlers now live in the West Bank. Settlements, some of them really small cities, and special highways for the settlers have effectively cut the West Bank into cantons separated by Israeli military forces and checkpoints.

At Camp David in 2000 Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to withdraw from (by different estimates) between 86 and 91 percent of the West Bank; but his proposal would have left in place barrier settlements and roads that divide the territory. Yasser Arafat said no. Many of us who long for a peaceful end to the conflict thought Arafat’s refusal even to explore Barak’s offer was a terrible mistake. But in the Palestinians’ view, seven years after Oslo they were justifiably skeptical of Israel’s willingness ever to give up effective dominion over the occupied territories—ever to allow a genuine Palestinian state free of Israeli barriers.

After Camp David the conflict rose to new levels of bloodshed and destruction. Palestinians carried out appalling acts of terrorism. Hamas’s suicide bombers and then elements of Arafat’s Fatah targeted civilians in cafés and pizzerias. Israel retaliated with what in time became its biggest military operation since it invaded Lebanon twenty years ago.

Israeli voters, frightened by terror, brought to power in February 2001 the man who through decades had demonstrated his belief that the answer to Palestinian aspirations is force, Ariel Sharon. Under Sharon as prime minister, Israeli forces laid siege to the West Bank and Gaza, virtually confining the inhabitants to their own villages and towns. (The Economist of London said the siege cut the occupied territories “into 200 disconnected enclaves.”) Bulldozers destroyed houses and plowed under olive groves. Israel often responded to acts of terror by punishing people who had not committed the terror, using F-16s to destroy Palestinian Authority police buildings and shelling other sites from naval ships. When terrorists crossed from Egypt and killed Israeli soldiers near the Gaza Strip, Israel demolished fifty-nine houses in a refugee camp miles away. The siege has wasted the Palestinian economy, increasing unemployment levels to 35 percent in the West Bank and 50 percent in Gaza. A World Bank report at the end of March said Israeli restrictions had brought the Palestinian economy close to collapse. If the restrictions continue, the bank’s director for the area, Nigel Roberts, said, “helplessness, deprivation and hatred will increase.”

Recently Kofi Annan wrote to Sharon protesting that Israel had wounded or killed “hundreds of innocent noncombatant civilians,” fired on ambulances, and blocked medical access to the wounded. At the climax of Sharon’s retaliatory campaign, Israeli forces entered several cities and refugee camps that were supposed to be under Palestinian Authority control, then smashed through the walls of many houses and rounded up hundreds of men for interrogation.

Israel carried out assassinations of alleged Palestinian terrorists, a practice that amounted to conviction and execution without trial. The human rights committee of the Israel Bar Association warned last year that any Israeli who carried out such a killing could be prosecuted for a war crime.

Particular incidents may show the nature of Sharon’s policy better than generalities. In the early morning hours of March 8, Israeli tanks and armored troop carriers went into the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, firing shells and machine guns to discourage resistance. Issa Faraj was playing with his children in their home when two bullets struck and killed him.


On the same day, March 8, Israeli tanks and troops took over a Lutheran Church school in Bethlehem, the Dar al-Kalima School. It is on a hilltop, and the troops used it as an outpost for surveillance of the city. After a few days they left, and officials of the school reentered it. They sent an e-mail about what they found: smashed iron external doors and wooden interior ones, crosses taken down and destroyed, graffiti on the walls and other acts of what officials called “pure vandalism and hatred.” “What is so offensive to an Israeli soldier about a child’s painting of a clock,” the e-mail asked, “leading him to throw it on the floor and step on it?”

Sharon’s policy of massive retaliation has troubled an increasing number of Israelis, too. In February, more than two hundred military reservists said they would refuse to serve their required annual active duty in the occupied Palestinian territories, where they said Israel was “dominating, expelling, starving, and humiliating an entire people.” By mid-March some 170 more reservists had joined them. A thousand former officers, among them generals, called on Israel to withdraw unilaterally from the territories.

Some Israeli and outside analysts suggested that Prime Minister Sharon had a purpose beyond deterring terrorism in his harsh actions: to prevent the resumption of political negotiations with the Palestinians looking to a final peace agreement. As Henry Siegman, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, put it, “The Sharon government seeks pretexts to avoid a political process, not ways to renew it.” Siegman suggested that Shar- on’s resumption of targeted assassinations during a period when a cease-fire ordered by Arafat last December had dramatically reduced violence was a provocation designed to produce new acts of terror—which it did.

Sharon has always fought the Palestinian vision of a viable state. He played a leading part in the creation of the settlements, and he opposed the Oslo Agreement. Uri Avnery, a pro-peace Israeli who over the years has written three biographical essays about Sharon, two with his cooperation, wrote this January that Sharon’s “minimum” aim now was “to imprison the Palestinians in several enclaves,…each one surrounded by settlements, by-pass roads and the army. In these big prison camps, the Palestinians will be allowed to ‘manage their own affairs,’ supplying cheap labor and a captive market. He does not care if they are called ‘a Palestinian state.'” Sharon’s “maximum” aim, Avnery said, was “to exploit a war situation or a world crisis to expel all Palestinians (including those who are Israeli citizens) from the country.”

An Israel that achieved Sharon’s “minimum,” much less his “maximum,” would not be regarded as legitimate by much of the world. That is not just because the goal of Israeli acquisition of territory by force would be deemed impermissible, though several Security Council resolutions make it so. It is because the means Israel has used to maintain its domination of the occupied territories are unacceptable. As it happens, the means are also spectacularly ineffective as a deterrent to terrorism. Every assassination, every smashed refugee camp brings new recruits to the Palestinian organizations that target Israelis. Sharon’s strategy, Henry Siegman said, is “a prescription for the ‘Lebanonization’ of the occupied territories and of Israel’s own heartland.”

The Bush administration has also brought disaster on itself by its response to Sharon’s policy. For a year and more it gave Sharon a blank check, offering no objection to his most brutal actions and supporting his confinement of Arafat in a few square blocks of Ramallah—a step that predictably raised Arafat’s approval ratings among Palestinians. US diplomats in Israel surely sent dispatches pointing out the folly of what Israel was doing. Both they and State Department officials in Washington knew of Sharon’s well-advertised views. Yet when Sharon said on March 4 that the Palestinians had to be “battered” and “beaten,” Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush indicated that they were shocked—and began applying pressure on Sharon.

Bush officials were similarly dense in their failure to understand the effect on the Arab world of what was being done to the Palestinians. Night after night Arab television stations showed such scenes as Palestinian children being killed by Israeli weapons—as, again, US diplomats must have reported. Yet Vice President Dick Cheney seemed surprised when he toured the Middle East in late March and government after government told him that US support of Israel’s tactics made it impossible to approve of any American action against Iraq. It is hard to know whether the best adjective for American policy toward the conflict over the last year is stupid or shameful.


The Israeli reservists who have refused to serve in the occupied territories call the current phase of the Israeli– Palestinian conflict the “war of the settlements.” That is to say that the issue is unambiguous: occupation. There can be peace only when Israel withdraws from the territories it conquered in 1967, leaving an uninterrupted West Bank as part of a viable Palestine. (As Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia said in his recent proposal, there could be adjustments to incorporate some settlements into Israel, for example to thicken Israel’s narrow waist—if comparable territory, perhaps bordering on the Gaza Strip, were transferred to Palestine.)

That is the dovish view of how peace can be achieved. Everyone knows what a final agreement would look like. The borders of the new Palestine would be something like what President Clinton proposed following Camp David—and what the two sides discussed at Taba in Egypt in January 2001—including the West Bank, all of the Gaza Strip, and the predominantly Palestinian parts of East Jerusalem. The other claim that Arafat made at Camp David—a right of return for Palestinian refugees—could not be included except in some modest symbolic way, controlled by Israel. Otherwise, Israel would soon become another Palestinian state. As Sari Nusseibeh, the philosopher who is Arafat’s representative in Jerusalem, has said, the idea of a mass return is inconsistent with the Palestinian leadership’s endorsement at Oslo of a two-state solution: Israeli and Palestinian states, living side by side in peace. In February, in an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times, Arafat called for “creative solutions to the plight of the refugees while respecting Israel’s demographic concerns.” That sounds reasonable, but exactly what he means can only emerge in a negotiation.

The Israeli right wing, and influential American conservative supporters of Israel, do not believe in the premises of the two-state solution. They contend that Yasser Arafat has not really accepted Israel’s right to exist. They argue that Palestinians, most of them, want not just to reclaim the occupied territories but to destroy Israel. So they would make no more concessions to the Palestinians. They would rely on force to keep what Israel has now. Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who threatens Sharon from the right, would be even harsher. And to his right there are those whose solution is to “transfer” all the Palestinians out of Palestine.

A significant recent recruit to the right’s pessimism about Palestinian in- tentions is Benny Morris, an Israeli history professor who outraged conservatives by writing, in a 1988 book, that the thousands of Arabs who fled the new Israel in 1948 in large part did so not because of broadcast advice from the Arab world—as the traditional Israeli thesis had it—but because Israeli fighters forced or frightened them into fleeing. This February, writing in London’s Guardian, Morris did not renounce that view of history. But he had come to believe, he said, that today the Palestinian leadership really denies Israel’s legitimacy. “This question of legitimacy,” he wrote, “seemingly put to rest by the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian peace treaties, is at the root of current Israeli despair and my own ‘conversion.'”

Morris called Arafat “an inveterate liar.” For a few years through Oslo in 1993, he said, Arafat and the PLO “seemed to have acquiesced in the idea of a compromise. But since 2000 the dominant vision of a ‘Greater Palestine’ has surged back to the fore.” Lately, he noted, Arafat has taken to questioning whether there was ever a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. He thus refuses, Morris said, “to recognize the history and reality of the 3,000-year-old Jewish connection to the land of Israel.”

Then, in his article, Morris took a sharp turn. “Don’t get me wrong,” he wrote. “I favor an Israeli withdrawal from the territories—the semi-occupation is corrupting and immoral, and alienates Israel’s friends abroad….” But Morris said he did not believe a two-state solution would last. Arafat was incapable, he wrote, of really giving up the right of return—of looking the refugees in the eye and telling them, “I have signed away your birthright, your hope, your dream.” So in time there would be more terrorism, an Israeli military response, and, in the end, one state in all of Palestine that would be predominantly either Jewish or Palestinian.

I can agree with some of what Morris says. Yasser Arafat is not the leader Palestinians deserve; he has not been able to make the transition from guerrilla chieftain to statesman, to bring his people with him, to inspire the trust of his one-time enemies. His Palestinian Authority is undemocratic and corrupt. His denial of the existence of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem is despicable.

Arafat allowed terrorism to flourish to a point where he probably could not stop it when he wanted to. The terrible suicide bombing that killed 20 Israelis at a Seder in Netanya on March 27, for example, was against Arafat’s interest in the maneuvering over a cease-fire and over peace prospects more broadly.

In the end, though, it seems to me, the pessimists have no solution. Military force to keep control of the West Bank has been tried and failed. The settlements do not give Israel security “depth,” as the right wing likes to say, but put heavy burdens on the Israel Defense Force. Think of the troops committed and the lives lost to protect the Israeli settlements that take up a quarter of the stiflingly overcrowded Gaza Strip. It is overwhelmingly clear now that there is no hope of ending terrorism until the Palestinians see a realistic prospect of negotiating a viable state of their own.

A solution along the lines of Crown Prince Abdullah’s proposal would entail risks for Israel, of course. Suicide attacks might still continue. But such a solution is a better gamble than a policy that has not stopped terrorism, that has corrupted Israel’s values, and that has aroused antagonism toward Israel in much of the world. Zionism, with its noble goal of a Jewish national homeland, faces the ultimate test of its legitimacy: whether it will accept limits, accept that another people has a legitimate claim to a national home in Palestine. With Israeli troops entering Arafat’s compound as this article is being printed, on March 29, that possibility seems more remote than ever.

This Issue

April 25, 2002