Disengaging Sharon

Cover of Challenge magazine, issue #85, May-June 2004.

Most Israelis consider it pointless to keep settlements in Gaza, where 7,500 of their countrymen live beside 1.3 million mostly impoverished Palestinians. In recent opinion polls, 56% or more of Israeli Jews backed the disconnection plan of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, calling for the evacuation of all 21 Gazan settlements plus four in the West Bank. It foundered, however.

Doubtful of support from the Likud members in his cabinet and the Knesset, Sharon had the idea of bypassing them by means of a referendum among his party’s 193,000 rank-and-file. Here too the opinion polls had at first seemed favorable. The party that, with him at its head, had taken center stage in Israeli politics, winning 40 of the 120 Knesset seats in the last election, would surely want to keep this centrist position in the eyes of those who had voted Likud. For years the slogan has been, “Only the Likud can do it!” Only the center-right, that is, can bring along the rest of the right - without irreparably dividing the nation - in making the “painful concessions” that will bring about peace and security. After two years in office, it was time to begin delivering. Likud members, thought Sharon, would surely go along.

They did not. With only half turning out to vote, 60% opposed the plan. Sharon had overestimated his charisma. By dint of good organization and massive funding, the settlers (very few of whom are Likudniks) had persuaded the party’s members to stand by the “homeland”.

On this, “the day after”, Israel faces one of the severest political crises in its crisis-ridden history.

Sharon conceived the idea of the referendum at the end of March, when preparing to go to Washington. He knew he did not have a firm majority within his coalition. Senior Likud ministers Benjamin Netanyahu, Limor Livnat and others were inclined to oppose, but they feared the ire of the White House. It was convenient to all concerned, therefore, to pass the buck to the party members. Everyone would bow to the decision. If the members approved the plan, the hesitant Likud ministers would be able to accept the result without appearing to betray the settlers. If the party voted against, here too they would accept - and not appear to be betraying their PM.

Sharon, who is given to excessive self-confidence, belittled his cabinet colleagues. He also ignored the Palestinian side, which had signaled its willingness, under certain conditions, to assume responsibility for the Gaza Strip. Instead he focused on US President George W. Bush. He procured from him a letter, which included two American concessions. First, Bush indicated that Palestinian refugees would not be permitted to return to Israel. Second, with an implicit reference to Israeli settlement blocs, he acknowledged that any final agreement would have to take account of the fact that the situation on the ground had changed since 1967.

Sharon regarded Bush’s letter as a decisive answer to his opponents, as well as “the harshest blow to fall on the Palestinians since 1948.” (Knesset speech, April 22.) Thus he tried to package his plan in a right-wing wrapper, to which he added the assassinations of Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi. In this, however, Sharon committed the same mistake as previous Israeli leaders. One cannot defeat the right wing on its own ground. He fell victim, in the end, to the same small group of Messianic settlers that he himself had nurtured over many years. These were the very people who had incited against Yitzhak Rabin until one of them assassinated him in November 1995. Since then they have enthroned and dethroned prime ministers in succession: Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and now, it would seem, Sharon.

The case of Barak provides striking parallels. That former general likewise belittled the Knesset and his coalition colleagues, while acting toward the Palestinians with condescension, suspicion and repugnance. In July 2000, backed by only a quarter of the Knesset, Barak forced Arafat to come to the Camp David summit, thinking that Clinton’s support would suffice to make the Palestinian leader sign a final agreement. With that in hand, Barak believed, he would win a majority among the Israeli public and present the Knesset with a fait accompli. The outcome is now history. Barak fell, and his place was taken by none other than Ariel Sharon - who has managed, it seems, to forget the lesson.

The assumption that words from Bush would work miracles proved false. This is a wounded president. He is under attack for the way he functioned in connection with the events of September 11. He is finding it hard to explain his decision to launch the war in Iraq. Seeking a diplomatic achievement to pull him out of the mire, he bit Sharon’s bait. This meant presenting a unilateral Israeli disconnection as part of the “Road Map”, but few were fooled. By his letter to Sharon, he forfeited his position as “honest broker” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and now, it turns out, for nothing. On top of this failed gamble, Washington is now faced with photographs of Americans abusing Iraqi prisoners, further tarnishing its image in the Arab world. There are indications, as we go to press, that Bush will attempt to mend the bridges by inviting Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Ala to the White House.


Apart from Sharon’s tactical errors, his predicament is a basic one. The disconnection plan is not workable. Israel cannot disengage unilaterally from an occupation of 37 years. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. With no one else to take over, Israel would still be the occupying power. It would still control all the gates of Gaza - on land and sea and air - and in this sense too it would remain responsible for the suffering inside.

We can understand, then, why the notion of unilateral disconnection got cold shoulders from Jordan and Egypt, two states that have found a modus vivendi with Israel. The plan is not a political program. It is Sharon’s revenge on the Palestinians because they have not played by Israeli rules. Behind it lies an unresolved contradiction on the Israeli side: Neither the right nor the left has sufficient power to offer a real alternative to the present deadlock. This alternative would be a peace agreement, including an end to the Occupation. The present leadership refuses to consider such a price. For one thing, like its predecessors, the Sharon regime wants to perpetuate Israeli supremacy, which implies, among other things, keeping the Palestinians from attaining real sovereignty. For another - and again like all its predecessors - it is not prepared to confront the extreme right, because such a confrontation would rip the frayed fibers that still hold Israel together.

Thus we witness a single phenomenon with different nuances. The Israeli leaders are undermined in record time because of the same dilemma. Barak burned his credit within 18 months. As for Sharon, he is now a minority within his own party and coalition. In the opposition, however, including the Labor Party and even parts of Yahad (formerly Meretz), his plan found firm support. By hoping that Sharon would pluck its chestnuts out of the fire, facing up to the settlers and dismantling their homes, the opposition manifested its inability to present a program of its own. It has no other way out of the impasse.

Sharon (who is also threatened by corruption scandals) seeks ways to escape from this trap of his own devising. Yet a nationwide referendum or new elections would prove extremely risky for him. One day after the debacle, his followers bruited the idea of “disconnection minus”. He is seeking a magic formula, requiring so little that the settlers can accept it, but still giving enough that Washington will consider it significant. We may doubt whether such an animal exists. If he merely marks time, however, he will face major pressure both from outside (the Quartet) and within (Shinui with its 15 mandates threatens to leave his coalition).

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict suffers today from the absence of a trustworthy international mechanism for reaching a solution acceptable to both sides. The consensus in Israel holds that what is good for America is good for Israel, but the other peoples of the world, above all the Palestinians, have reason to believe the opposite: wherever America wins, we lose.

The catch is such that the outcome of the conflict will be determined neither in Ramallah nor in Tel Aviv. It is rather in Iraq that events will decide the fate of the American empire and, as a result, that of Israelis and Palestinians. If America manages to impose its will on Baghdad, the Palestinians will be doomed for many years. If America fails, a chance will open for the creation of new conditions. The weakening of America may make possible a new international atmosphere, in which we shall hear no more of unilateral disconnection, rather of cooperation with dignity.

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    This article first appeared in Challenge magazine, issue #85, May-June 2004. Challenge is a bi-monthly leftist magazine focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a global context. Published in Jaffa by Arabs and Jews, it features political analysis, investigative reporting, interviews, eye-witness reports, gender studies, arts, and more. Challenge had its start in the first Intifada, continued through the Oslo process, and now it elucidates the turbulence following the collapse of negotiations.