Sharon and the Future of Palestine

1.

When Ariel Sharon first announced his intention to “disengage” unilaterally from Gaza and to dismantle four isolated settlements in the northern West Bank, many observers believed he was on his way to fulfilling their expectation that, sooner or later, he would transform himself into an Israeli De Gaulle and make the tough decisions that would finally end the Israeli– Palestinian conflict. Even those who were skeptical of the possibility of such a transformation, and believed that Sharon intended the Gaza withdrawal as leverage to gain international acceptance of Israel’s control over much of the West Bank, believed that a disengagement from Gaza would create a precedent that would lead to further withdrawals from the West Bank as well, for it would dispel the myth that any effort to dismantle settlements would drag the country into a civil war. For this reason, not only the Bush administration, which has found no measure taken by Sharon too outrageous to deserve American support, but also the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia (the other three members of the Quartet formed to oversee the implementation of the “road map”), as well as much of Israel’s left, welcomed Sharon’s initiative.

The perception that the principal architect of the settlement enterprise had been transformed into a crusader for their removal has been reinforced by an ever-widening breach between Sharon and much of his own ruling Likud Party—which overwhelmingly turned down his proposal for the Gaza disengagement in a referendum on May 2. The Likud Central Committee humiliated Sharon once again on July 31 by voting down his proposal to bring the Labor Party into the government to create a majority in his cabinet in support of the disengagement. On October 11, many in Sharon’s ruling party joined the political opposition in support of a pro forma motion repudiating the prime minister’s “state of the nation” speech marking the opening of the winter term of Israel’s parliament. It was the first time in Israel’s history that the Knesset voted to express no confidence in a prime minister’s opening address. Subsequently, on October 26, a clear majority of the Knesset voted to endorse Sharon’s plan, overriding the opposition to him within the Likud Party.

Sharon’s willingness to risk his premiership and to split his own party over the issue of the Gaza withdrawal has persuaded many in the most unlikely quarters that he has finally realized, in the words of an Economist editorial, that “he cannot erase the national dream of the Palestinians by force.”1 The Economist admonished “a world that has grown used to demonising Mr. Sharon” to wish “for his success.”

Similarly, Avraham Tal, an Israeli columnist, asked, “Will Sharon ever shed the demonic image that is attached to him? Even when he decides to take actions no one ever imagined him capable of, struggling valiantly against persistent forces in his own party trying to torpedo him, Sharon continues to be painted as a cunning politician who always cloaks his true intentions.”

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