Sharon's philosophy, persona drive Israel's disengagement

August 17, 2005|By Aluf Benn

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will face the toughest challenge of his long and storied military and political career today: the forced evacuation of the remaining Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip and a few enclaves in the northern West Bank.

For Israel's right wing, Mr. Sharon's "disengagement" amounts to heresy, a destruction of Zionism and a security folly. For the left, it offers a chance to consolidate Israel's democracy and its Jewish majority, albeit on a smaller slice of Middle East territory. The less ideological centrists will be happy to get rid of the Gaza nightmare, even if "the day after" is blurred in uncertainty.

It is no small irony that it is Mr. Sharon who carries out the task of leaving Gaza. My generation of Israelis grew to treat him as a reckless user of force who launched an adventurous, but morally and politically wrong, invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In his many Cabinet roles, he was always the patron of the settlement enterprise, using the settlers' religious fervor to realize his concept of topographic superiority over the Palestinians.

His about-face in Gaza has left his erstwhile allies devastated, vowing to destroy him, while winning him the admiration of his liberal former critics.

No previous Israeli government, even the most dovish, has ever dared to remove any settlement in the West Bank or Gaza, parts of the pre-1948-mandate Palestine. Under the Oslo peace deal with Yasser Arafat, all settlements were to remain in place until all the other thorny issues were resolved.

But Oslo failed, and Mr. Sharon, who had fiercely opposed the 1993 agreement, is now taking it from there, and further than any of his predecessors.

Why Mr. Sharon? There are two explanations: the nature of Mr. Sharon's political philosophy and his public persona.

At the heart of Mr. Sharon's strategy lies a conviction in unilateralism. It fits his psyche and his deep distrust of Arabs. "My mother told me, `Never believe them,'" he said recently.

Upon taking office as prime minister, Mr. Sharon feared an internationally imposed resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one that would require Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem and virtually all of the West Bank. To pre-empt it, he avoided negotiations with Mr. Arafat, whom he viewed as a hopeless terrorist. To Mr. Sharon, peace talks equaled a "corral" leading Israel to the slaughterhouse.

When Mahmoud Abbas took the reins of the Palestinian Authority, following Mr. Arafat's death in November, Mr. Sharon praised his moderation but dismissed him as a peace partner. For Mr. Sharon, acting unilaterally leaves the initiative in Israel's hands and avoids the corral.

So Mr. Sharon launched the project of his lifetime, drawing Israel's border with the Palestinians in two segments - the security barrier in the West Bank (which leaves about 10 percent of the West Bank's land on its Israeli side) and the pre-1967 "green line" in Gaza.

Although Mr. Sharon still denies the territorial implication of the barrier route - it is not a border but a means of ensuring Israel safety, he says - it is clear to most Israelis (and everyone else) that what looks and behaves like a border will eventually become one, even though this implies the future evacuation of more Israeli settlements on its "other" side.

But Mr. Sharon's unilateralism is only part of the explanation behind disengagement. His leadership image is no less important. Mr. Sharon is a unique combination among Israeli leaders: He possesses an unrivaled military record and unmatched political shrewdness, based upon a sharp, instinctive knowledge of human desires and weaknesses.

Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak were glorious generals but got lost in party politics. Shimon Peres is Israel's eldest politician, but he has never worn a uniform. Benjamin Netanyahu lacks the warrior credentials and proved too inexperienced in politics while in power. Only Mr. Sharon has the long history of striking hard against Israel's Arab adversaries and the unmatched ability to manipulate his fellow politicians.

These skills were destined to bring him finally to the threshold of the Gaza withdrawal, past endless political hurdles. And they have also brought Israel to a threshold as well, perhaps the most important in recent history. After today, we'll have a better idea if Mr. Sharon's destiny includes making it successfully to the other side.

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Columnist Steve Chapman is on vacation.

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