Magazine article The American Prospect

A Belief in Force: Ariel Sharon's Decades-Old, Unworkable Plan for Palestine. (beyond the Beltway)

Magazine article The American Prospect

A Belief in Force: Ariel Sharon's Decades-Old, Unworkable Plan for Palestine. (beyond the Beltway)

Article excerpt

THE RULING ARRIVED LIKE A letter from another era, written in strange script, waiting to be deciphered. In mid-February, the Israeli supreme court upheld a lower-court decision, thereby dismissing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's libel suit against the Ha'aretz newspaper and its political commentator Uzi Benziman. At issue was a column Benziman wrote a decade ago on Sharon's record as defense minister during Israel's disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Benziman wrote that Prime Minister Menachem Begin--still alive at the time--knew "full well that Sharon deceived him" on the goals and conduct of that war.

Sharon has spent years trying to erase the stain of the Lebanon War. Still, the latest legal defeat would seem to be the least of his troubles. A year after he won the premiership by promising to bring peace and security to Israel's citizens, Sharon has produced neither. The conflict with the Palestinians continues to escalate. The day of the court ruling, four Israelis died in Palestinian attacks; the following day, six soldiers died in a strike against an army roadblock. Sharon responded with a rare speech to the nation--in which he disappointed all expectations that he would announce a new policy direction. Among voters, confidence that he has a strategy is bleeding away. In one recent Israeli public-opinion poll, 29 percent of respondents said that Sharon had a clear plan, while 58 percent said he was simply reacting to events.

Since his election, Sharon has stated two policy goals. The first is an unconditional cease-fire. "Violence and peacemaking are diametrically opposed. Therefore the position of the national-unity government is that Israel will not negotiate under fire," said Dore Gold, ex-ambassador to the United Nations and a member of Sharon's inner policy circle. After quiet is achieved, Gold added, "the diplomatic strategy is to get to a long-term interim agreement" with the Palestinians, rather than a final peace accord. Sharon has said he'd offer the Palestinians a state in 42 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That's the amount of land that Israel already turned over to Palestinian administration under the Oslo Accords, in the form of a collection of jagged enclaves. It's far less than former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer at the July 2000 Camp David summit, which Yasir Arafat rejected. So it's tempting to conclude that Sharon's proposal isn't meant seriously--and that he lacks any vision of how to conclude the conflict.

Last month's court ruling, however, is a timely reminder that Sharon has a long, troubling history that provides a basis for understanding his moves today. Rather than reacting erratically, he almost certainly has a detailed strategy. It's likely to be ambitious--and deeply flawed.

As a general and a politician, Sharon always has acted according to a strategic vision. It includes "battalion-level calculations regarding the value of territory," noted Yossi Alpher, a leading Israeli strategic analyst. To maintain overall military control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Sharon believes, Israel must "control every strategic hilltop and fragment the Palestinian population," Alpher said.

As an architect of Israeli settlement policy, Sharon implemented that approach. Alpher recalls a conversation with Sharon several years ago in which Sharon took out a map and pointed to a desolate corner of the southern West Bank. In one wadi, there was a Bedouin tribe, he said, and in the next wadi there was another. So, Sharon said, explaining his method, "I plant an Israeli settlement on the hilltop between them" to keep them from uniting. In an interview soon after he became prime minister last year, Sharon said that even the isolated Gaza Strip settlement of Netzarim, where a few dozen Israelis live between hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, "has strategic importance" because it divides the Palestinian cities of Gaza and Khan Younis. When Sharon offers the Palestinians enclaves divided by Israeli territory, that really is his map of a long-term solution. …

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