Sharon Needs to Be Told to Stop Shooting and Start Talking

Avi Shlaim

International Herald Tribune, 10 January 2002

Ariel Sharon is a very dangerous man.  His long and chequered career as a soldier and politician is marked by three main features: mendacity, reliance on military force to solve political problems, and the most savage brutality towards Arab civilians.  The best illustration of these features is Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 when Sharon served as minister of defence.  The war was fraudulently named ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’; it deployed military force on a massive scale in a vain attempt to break the backbone of Palestinian nationalism and to create a new political order in Lebanon; and it ended with the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla for which Sharon had indirect responsibility.

As leader of the opposition Sharon contributed to the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa intifada by his provocative visit to Temple Mount on 28 September 2000.  In the general elections held three months later, Sharon won a decisive victory against Ehud Barak by promising peace with security.  In his first year in office, however, Sharon utterly failed to deliver either peace or security.  On the contrary, the year has been marked by complete deadlock on the diplomatic front, by mounting violence and bloodshed, by Palestinian suicide attacks, and by ever more brutal and savage Israeli retaliation.

Despite this grim record, Sharon has been remarkably successful in holding his national unity government together and in retaining the support of the country for this government.  Henry Kissinger once remarked that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics, and the present cabinet is a case in point.  At the moderate end of the spectrum there is Shimon Peres, the architect of Oslo, while at the other end there is the Rasputin-like figure of Avigdor Liberman, the advocate of the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the Land of Israel.  To keep his multi-party coalition together, Sharon has refrained from putting forward any plan for the resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.  By insisting on seven full days with no acts of violence as a condition for resuming the negotiations on the final status of the territories, he has ensured that no political dialogue can take place at all.

On the kind of final settlement that he would like to reach with the Palestinians after the guns fall silent, Sharon has remained studiously silent.  He has conceded the need for an independent Palestinian state but he has also expressed great reluctance to yield to the Palestinian Authority more than Gaza and the 42% of the West Bank that it currently controls.  This implies a weak and demilitarized Palestinian state, make up of a series of enclaves, with Israel controlling its borders.  Having rejected Ehud Barak’s offer of statehood over Gaza and 95% of the West Bank, there is not the remotest chance that Yasser Arafat would accept such a plan and Sharon knows this.  His aim, in the short term, is to undermine the Oslo accords, to weaken Yasser Arafat, to delegitimize the Palestinian Authority as an organization sponsoring terrorism, and to tighten Israel’s military grip over the territories.

But where does Sharon want to lead Israel in the longer term?  His record may offer a few clues.  Ever since 1967, he has consistently maintained that there is room for only one Palestinian state to the West of Israel, and he has been an outspoken proponent of the thesis that ‘Jordan is Palestine’.  Whereas the Labour Party was strongly committed to the survival of the monarchy in Amman, Sharon held that the transformation of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan into the Republic of Palestine would work to Israel’s advantage: it would reduce international pressure on Israel, encourage Palestinian migration from the West Bank to the East Bank of the river Jordan, and facilitate the absorption of the West Bank into Greater Israel.

In fairness to Sharon it has to be said that since coming to power he has behaved in a more cautious and pragmatic manner than in the past.  The fierce hawk and the aggressive expansionist has reinvented himself as a kindly grandfather and as a man of peace.  But the dangerous notions with which Sharon was associated for decades could come to the fore again if the situation continues to deteriorate.  Moreover, in the absence of a meaningful peace process the military conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is likely to escalate with all the attendant dangers of a regional war involving Syria, Jordan, and Iraq.  And in the context of a regional war, the temptation to solve the Palestinian problem at Jordan’s expense may prove too strong to resist.  To keep this danger at bay, the full weight of the international community, with the United States and European Union in the lead, should be brought to bear to persuade Ariel Sharon to stop shooting and start talking.