San Francisco Chronicle
New Page in Israeli-Palestinian Relations Whither the road map? Sharon -- no negotiator
- George Bisharat
Thursday, December 8, 2005
Ariel Sharon is distinguished in Israeli politics by three characteristics: vision, pragmatism and ruthlessness, incorporating a willingness to allow violence toward political ends. This was most clear during 2002 "Operation Defensive Shield" when Israeli forces crushed the infrastructure and governing capacity of the Palestinian Authority. These characteristics have been repeatedly demonstrated over the past four years of his tenure as Israel's prime minister.
They also underlie his recent decision to abandon the Likud Party and establish the new Forward Party. Some American commentators have lauded this move as one that will crystallize political force at the "center" of Israeli politics, lead to a more "liberal" Israeli government and thus reinvigorate the peace process. This is like describing Sharon's new party as "to the left of Attila the Hun." That, certainly, is better than being to the right of Attila -- that would be Bibi Netanyahu and the remnants of the Likud. But no one should imagine that reconciliation with Palestinians nor even negotiations are anytime imminent, no matter the outcome of Israel's spring parliamentary elections.
Several years ago, when American neoconservatives began speaking of a "New Middle East," longtime Israeli commentator Uri Avnery identified this plan's original source: Ariel Sharon. Avnery, author of a political biography of Sharon, noted the similarities between neocon rhetoric and Sharon's visions for a Middle East safe for Israel. It is unclear whether the aims of either truly include democratization of the region, or merely weakening any potential challengers to Israeli regional hegemony -- formerly Iraq, and now Iran and Syria. One of the reasons that the Israeli government supported our Iraq war was the expectation of more favorable conditions for Israel's long-term territorial expansion into the West Bank. That is exactly what has occurred.
Sharon's vision is dark, assuming implacable Arab-Muslim hostility to Israel. He is not wrong in that, although the cause of that hostility is not the timeless anti-Semitism he imagines. Rather, Israel's takeover of British Mandate Palestine in 1948 and the subsequent expulsion of many Palestinians, along with the continuing colonization of the West Bank, have devastated countless lives. Sharon is determined to create permanent bulwarks to seal off Israel from the remaining Middle East, such as the barrier under construction in the West Bank.
Sharon has openly declared his desire to complete the final phase of Israeli state-building: establishment of permanent borders. The Zionist movement, while accepting the partition of Palestine in 1947, never accepted all of the partition's terms. Israel's founders omitted reference to borders in Israel's 1948 Declaration of Independence. The reason was the drive for territorial expansion that is still at the heart of Zionism and Israeli state policy. With Israeli power at an historical apex, the time is ripe for Sharon to complete this long- deferred task.
Sharon's vision of the permanent borders is becoming increasingly concretized -- literally -- in the construction of the barrier. No nation invests $4.5 billion in a structure that will be dismantled a few years later. The only uncertainty involves what will happen to the east of Palestinian population centers in the West Bank. If the barrier completely encircles Palestinian towns and villages, then Israel will permanently exert control over about 50 percent of the West Bank. Otherwise, Israel will annex more like 20 percent of the West Bank. Neither of these is a starting point for negotiations with the Palestinians. Hence negotiations are not likely to start soon, or, if they do, will end quickly and fruitlessly. Unilateralism will continue to be the coin of the realm.
Sharon's pragmatism is evident in his ditching the Likud, when its ideologues demanded permanent control over all of former British mandate Palestine. It was also evident in his earlier exploitation of ideologically motivated settlers of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to accomplish his own pragmatic and strategic ends. Sharon had never shared their messianic ideology, according to which God had ordained all of the land of Israel for Jews. That is why he was capable of enforcing decolonization of the Gaza Strip.
Sharon's historic willingness to employ violence -- running back to the slaughter of 69 Jordanian villagers in Qibya in 1953 under his command, and including the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, that killed some 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians -- is manifested in the ongoing assassinations of Palestinian "terrorists." This program has resumed notwithstanding the hudna, or truce, for the most part observed by Palestinian groups since February. Decapitation is a tremendously effective way to neutralize organizations, and Sharon (as well as other Israeli leaders) have taken the heads of Palestinian resistance leaders for decades.
Pulling out from Gaza, abandoning Likud, creating a new party, not negotiating on the barrier and further West Bank expansion, taken together, constitute a huge gamble. It is admirable at some level that Sharon pursues his vision with such daring and efficacy. On the other hand, the character of the vision matters profoundly. Some of the greatest visionaries in history have also been among its greatest villains.
George Bisharat, a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.
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URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi- bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/12/08/EDGQFG42TQ1.DTL
©2005 San Francisco Chronicle
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