The Resistable Rise of Ariel Sharon

Sharon’s defeat of the Palestinians was sealed
in Washington: Not only did he tear up Oslo;
he tore up U.S. Middle East policy and
got the administration to thank him for it

1. Arafat Gone, His Rival Patriarch Leaves the Scene

“History is made by stomach complaints,” my friend and colleague Jamil Hamad told me by phone from his home in Bethlehem, on the West Bank about 18 months ago. Having covered the shifting tides of Middle Eastern politics for the best part of a century, Jamil — sitting in his home in a town under siege — had long since eschewed any faith in what is still euphemistically referred to as “the peace process” to deliver his own people, and the Israelis, to a better place. But in all his years covering the region’s conflicts and potentates he had divined the reality that the bodily functions of those potentates was often more decisive factor in shaping outcomes than the narratives they proclaimed. Within six months, Yasser Arafat was dead, and over the year that followed the movement he created would collapse quickly in the wake of his passing (a process, admittedly, that had begun even in his final years). Eighteen months after that phone call, Jamil’s words seemed almost prophetic, as Ariel Sharon has been removed from the region’s political equation by an event in his own body.

There are some remarkable parallels in the political impact of the death of Yasser Arafat and the demise of Ariel Sharon. In both cases, nature has removed from the scene men who had succeeded in making their own personages the organizing principle of their people’s national consensus (albeit a substantially more recent achievement on Sharon’s part). Although Israel is a well-established democracy profoundly different from the authoritarian personality cult that Arafat built at pinnacle of the Palestinian national movement, Sharon had nonetheless accomplished a remarkable re-engineering of Israeli politics over the past five years to the point that a new party formed in his image and with no policy or position other than a commitment to follow the direction charted by Sharon over the past year (a destination with no publicly expressed endpoint or even next step) looked likely to romp home in the March 28 election with double the share of the vote of either of the two traditional parties of power, Labor and Likud.

Like Arafat, Sharon had achieved this feat through his unique ability (through a complex combination of his popularity, powers of persuasion, ability to manage the most powerful external force and the powers of patronage that derive from incumbency) to forge a working political consensus among fractious fiefs and factions. And this while never making clear where he was taking them. A
perceptive farewell by Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz, a partisan of the Israeli right
explains the secrets of Sharon’s success in terms that would apply in many respects to Arafat:

“Sharon was on the brink of making history here and winning three successive elections not by following a consistent political path. Anything but. He was striding to victory because, unlike any of his rivals, ordinary men and women with ordinary frailties and flaws, he had persuaded Israelis that he was of a different league, a political superman, immune to the limitations of other mortals. He was by no means universally admired, but he had a vast middle ground of confused Israelis wanting to believe that he knew what he was doing – that he, and only he, could steer the country to security and tranquility.

“He achieved this following despite never fully detailing the course he was pursuing; indeed, that very vagueness was one of the secrets of his popularity. Trust me, the implicit message ran. Keep me in power, and everything will be all right.

“And the Israeli public was ready to do so – notwithstanding that history of zigzagging, and more. By rights, he should have alienated just about every voter by now – the left by invading Lebanon, the right by leaving Gaza, the environmentalists by throwing the bulldozers at every housing problem, not to mention most everyone who expects standards of integrity from their leaders by allegedly playing fast and loose with campaign finance laws and embroiling himself in a series of unsavory financial and influence-trading escapades.

“Despite all that, more Israelis were backing him than any of his rivals – a reflection not only of the power and resonance of Sharon’s personality, but of the perceived paucity of the alternatives.

“Had he specified exactly what policies he intended to follow, come cleaner with the electorate, he would have been doing our democracy a service and he would, of course, have left far less of a vacuum now. He would also have dented that extraordinary perception, so widely felt, of his own indispensability.”

In his absence, lesser Israeli political leaders — like their post-Arafat Palestinian counterparts — fret over the absence of an heir with the departed patriarch’s unique standing. Indeed, the Israelis may well follow the Palestinians into their own version of a period of protracted political paralysis, as the least in the matter of how to manage their primary national conflict.

2. Sharon Won, Arafat Lost

But let’s not get distracted by ironic symmetries: There are many important differences between Arafat and Sharon, most importantly, the fact that Sharon appears to have beaten Arafat and the PLO by a knockout. To see the extent of his victory, one need only look at the widespread discussion in U.S. media over what his demise will mean for the peace process. A peace agreement was never Sharon’s goal. He believed no such thing was possible, nor did he relinquish his guiding ideological belief that the fulfillment of the Zionist enterprise required the elimination of the Palestinian national movement.

(This in contrast to Israel’s ideological drift during the Oslo years, when even Zionists of the center-left began to recognize that the Jewish State had been created on the basis of an epic injustice for the Palestinian people, the acknowledgment and redress of which, in some form, was the key to coexistence: Barak had famously conceded in an interview in 1999, that had he been born Palestinian, he too would have taken up arms against Israel. You could bet that the same would be true for Sharon, which may be why he saw so clearly the need to smash the Palestinian national movement, even the Palestinian national idea.)

For many of us, Sharon will always be, first and foremost, the man who hoodwinked his own government in launching a fullblown invasion of Lebanon, then watched through binoculars as the Lebanese falangist thugs unleashed on the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp butchered hundreds of unarmed Palestinian men, women and children — a massacre for which an official Israeli inquiry found Sharon “indirectly responsible.” Nor was that episode necessarily an aberration for the most accomplished student of the Vladimir Jabotinsky, the fascist Zionist (literally — the guy saw Mussolini’s blackshirts as a model national movement) thinker of the 1920s still venerated as the founding father of Likud: Jabotinsky believed that the Arab residents of Palestine and its surrounds would never accept the expropriation of Palestine as a separate Jewish state. The only way to fulfill the Zionist dream, therefore was to build it behind an “iron wall,” bludgeoning the Arabs into submission and acceptance. Sharon’s life’s work as a soldier and statesman was premised on the notion that a Jewish state could only be secured by a crushing defeat of the Arabs.

Likud hot-heads criticized his Gaza pullout as a betrayal of Jabotinsky, but the old man knew better. His pursued Jabotinsky’s goals by the “art of the possible,” seeking the to defeat Palestinian nationalism on the battlefield of the military, political and diplomatic battlefield as he found it. He even gave both metaphorical and physical meaning to Jabotinsky’s “iron wall” concept in the way that Lenin did for Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The difference between Sharon and the Likud rejectionists is that the prime minister had a military man’s disciplined approach to politics, avoiding emotionally satisfying mistakes in order to keep his eyes focused on the mission. Typical was his refraining from killing Yasser Arafat when he had him surrounded in Ramallah and his own cabinet was demanding the Palestinian leader’s head. Sharon would have enjoyed nothing more than blowing Arafat away, but he knew there was too much to lose by taking that step — and a lot more to gain by letting Arafat’s own body do the job.

Sharon must have been laughing when the cynical George W. Bush and the craven Tony Blair dubbed him a “man of peace.” That was not why the Israelis elected him, nor did he make any secret of his disdain for the very idea of a peace process: The April 2001 interview he gave to Haaretz’s Ari Shavit, a veritable manifesto for his tenure at the top, made clear that Sharon saw no prospect of a peace agreement with the Palestinians in the current generation. As far as he was concerned, he was still fighting the 1948 war of independence.

Sharon’s Al Aksa walkabout in the wake
of Camp David should be read against
his conception that the 1948 war never ended

Sharon traded not in treaties and promises, but in “facts on the ground.” Rather than engage Israel in a discussion over whether to annex the West Bank, he simply went ahead and built settlements there to make that annexation a reality in large parts of the territory. Rather than seek Prime Minister Begin’s permission to march on Beirut, he told the cabinet that he was sending his troops as far as the Litani River to create a buffer zone deep in Lebanon’s south — and then marched on Beirut, anyway.

3. PLO in Tatters

When he came to power, the Palestinian Authority controlled 42 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. That, too, was an intractable reality, and Sharon recognized it as such. He made clear he might consider recognizing some form of Palestinian autonomy in the 42 percent of the occupied territories ruled by the Palestinian Authority, or perhaps a little more. That would even suit his objectives, since it was not Israel’s control over Palestinian land, but Israel’s control over Palestinian populations, that had become politically and diplomatically untenable. But he had no intention of completing Oslo, he declared that he had come to bury it.

And in that endeavor he has enjoyed spectacular success. Today there is no peace process; Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza had nothing to do with a peace process — it was, quite explicitly, an attempt to avoid a peace process and resolve the issue of the occupation (the untenable colonial rule over the Palestinians) on Israel’s own terms. The world, even the Palestinians, may have been waiting to see whether Sharon planned to follow that up with withdrawals from the West Bank in line with his own “42 percent” map, as described by his iron wall. Only Sharon knew. But there was never any question of his sitting down to negotiate a final-status agreement with the Palestinian national leadership. And his victory has two dimensions: One is visible in Ramallah; the other in Washington.

The Palestinian national movement today is in tatters. Mahmoud Abbas has to decide whether or not to go ahead with elections which, whether they are held or postponed (once again) will confirm the eclipse of his own leadership, and that of the Fatah “Old Guard” nurtured in exile by Arafat, the generation who authored Oslo from the Palestinian side but whose own corrupt and authoritarian grip on power has seen them thoroughly discredited in Palestinian eyes. The only question now is what the balance of power among Abbas’s inheritors will be, between the younger Fatah militants, led by the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, and the Islamists of Hamas who have profited most from the desire of ordinary Palestinians to punish the corruption of the Palestinian Authority. My money is on Hamas winning a plurality of seats in the next Palestinian legislature, an outcome that would have perfectly suited Sharon’s diplomatic needs by removing any expectation that he go to the negotiating table with the Palestinians.

Sharon and his flock:
Condi visits Sycamore Ranch

4. Twisted Around His Little Finger

Brent Scowcroft famously upbraided his former protege Condi Rice when she enthused that Sharon’s Gaza plan was an important step towards peace, warning her that he was doing that in order to avoid doing much else, and declaring that the Israeli prime minister had President Bush “wrapped around his little finger”.

Indeed, it was arguably in Washington that Sharon won his greatest victory, helped by the ascendancy in the Bush administration of an alliance between the Likudnik neocons, the apocalyptic rightwing Christians of the GOP base, and the hardline foreign policy hawks of the Cheney-Rumsfeld stripe who had always deemed Oslo a mistake. And if that wasn’t enough to tip the balance in Sharon’s favor, the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel’s cities came to define the conflict, in Western eyes, by images of terrorism rather than images of occupation. Sharon jumped on the opportunity to reverse decades of U.S. foreign policy that had sought to achieve a balance between Israeli and Arab interests, and had prioritized resolving a conflict that had come to define Arab relations with the West.

Sharon got Washington to agree that there was no Palestinian partner and embrace his demonization of Arafat (based largely on the mythology aggressively promoted by Israel’s partisans over what had transpired at and after Camp David, notwithstanding the fact that Sharon had rejected the deal offered by Barak far more vehemently than Arafat ever had). He got the administration to sign onto Israel’s insistence that it had no obligations to the Palestinians before the PA had dismantled Palestinian radical groups that Sharon knew could never be summarily dissolved without setting off a Palestinian civil war. He didn’t stop there, he even got President Bush to reverse decades of policy that had proclaimed Israel’s settlement of the territories conquered in 1967 as illegal — as part of his “reward” for his unilateral Gaza withdrawal, Sharon was given a letter declaring U.S. recognition of Israel’s right to keep its major West Bank colonies. (The administration lamely tried to cover itself by saying such recognition had been implicit in the deals being negotiated at the end of the Oslo process, which is correct — but those were premised not only on Palestinian consent, but also on a quid-pro-quo transfer of land from within Israel’s 1967 borders.

And he got the Bush administration to accept the principle that Israel henceforth negotiates changes in the status quo not with the Palestinians, but with the Americans. His diplomatic achievement can not be underestimated. It is, of course, a disaster for the Palestinians. And because it does nothing to resolve the basic lines of conflict with the Palestinians, it ultimately condemns another generation of Israelis to continue fighting Sharon’s 1948 war.

But it would be a mistake to buy into Sharon’s own mythology about his invincibility and ability to sweep all before him. Sharon’s achievement is all the more astonishing because of its improbability. The very idea that Sharon could ever be prime minister of Israel would have seemed laughable before the winter of 2000/1.

He only became prime minister because of the disastrous political errors of others. He’d been left for dead politically by the fallout of the Lebanon invasion, and was widely loathed and mistrusted on both sides of the Israeli mainstream. By the late 90s, his inclusion in Likud governments was generally a sop to the radical settlers whose interests he had long championed. After the hapless Benjamin Netanyahu managed to lose to Ehud Barak, Sharon was installed as leader of Likud precisely because there was no election looming. The party believed, like everyone else, that Sharon was unelectable, but it had no stomach for a bruising competitive leadership battle in the wake of Bibi’s loss, so Sharon was chosen as a caretaker — the cricket equivalent would be sending in a lower-order batsman as a nightwatchman when your side loses one of its opening batsmen shortly before the close of play.

But then came Camp David (a process for whose collapse Barak and Clinton are certainly as responsible as Arafat, but that’s another story), Sharon’s provocative walkabout in the grounds of the al-Aksa mosque, and the onset of the Second Intifadah and the collapse of Barak’s government. Suddenly, the “unelectable” Sharon became the choice of an Israeli electorate looking for a bully to teach the Palestinians a lesson. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Sharon’s stewardship came about as a result of the errors of others — Bibi, Barak, Clinton, Arafat and other Palestinian leaders who seemed to forget the basic lesson of insurgency, that you confront your enemy where he is weakest, not strongest (a military confrontation was always going to be won by Israel, and not only that — it effectively neutralized the Palestinians’ advantages in the realm of politics and diplomacy). And his success in rolling back Oslo has been similarly premised on the mistakes and cynicism of others.

But his victories, as profound as they may appear right now, may nontheless prove to be tactical rather than strategic. In the place of Arafat’s PLO there will arise a new Palestinian political consensus, established at the ballot box and both more reflective of Palestinian opinion and more accountable to it than the Arafat generation had been — and probably, as a result, less palatable to U.S. preferences. Hamas will play a substantial role in that new Palestinian political order, to be sure, but as much as that fact will remind Israel and the West that Palestinian sensibilities cannot be ignored, it will also acquaint Hamas with the fact that Israel’s existence is an intractable reality. And an Israeli society that remains locked into a state of protracted conflict with the Palestinians will accelerate the internal collapse of Zionism. Indeed, Sharon may have convinced the Bush administration, but he has failed to persuade the majority of the world’s Jews to sign on to his vision of their future.

So, Sharon may have won the day, and that’s bad news for all who believe in justice for the Palestinians — and those for whom the term ‘Jewish’ is an ethical calling more than a tribal rallying cry. But he has not ended the conflict on his terms. And whether his inheritors manage to complete his work may depend on the ability of all those who seek a just solution understanding how Sharon’s victories were achieved.

The great hope of those on the Israeli left who supported Sharon’s Gaza pullout was that although Sharon had no intention of pursuing a credible two-state solution with the Palestinians, he might nonetheless set in motion a train of events over which he’d lose control. At the time that sounded like nothing more than wishful thinking. Ironically, his departure from the political scene makes it a more plausible belief. But given the current state of politics on both sides of the divide makes any expectation of movement back towards a peace process in the near term seem giddily optimistic.

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5 Responses to The Resistable Rise of Ariel Sharon

  1. The party believed, like everyone else, that Sharon was unelectable, but it had no stomach for a bruising competitive leadership battle in the wake of Bibi’s loss, so Sharon was chosen as a caretaker — the cricket equivalent would be sending in a lower-order batsman as a nightwatchman when your side loses one of its opening batsmen shortly before the close of play.

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    Great Point, Tony karon.

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