Widespread media speculation about whether Ariel Sharon would have concluded a peace deal with the Palestinians had he not slipped into a coma eight years ago may be missing the point. Coming to grips with Sharon’s modus operandi, which has driven so much of Israel’s history and continues to shape its policies, requires more than a merciless-warrior-turned-avuncular-peacemaker narrative.
Sharon, who was buried on Monday, exemplified the ethos of Israel’s founding generation: a by-any-means-necessary nationalism tempered with realpolitik, always seeking to push the boundaries of what could be politically, diplomatically and militarily possible at any given moment. Sharon’s journey has been painted as a pendulum swing from hawk to dove, but a closer read shows a remarkable consistency in maintaining the founding consensus of Israeli nationalism. Indeed, in matters of war, peace and territory, Israel’s mainstream Zionist parties — Likud and Labor — were almost indistinguishable in their policies for several decades.
While Sharon may have been a leader of Likud, many obituaries likened him to Israel’s founding (Labor) Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. And the comparison is an interesting one: Ben-Gurion — over the furious objections of the political movement that was the forerunner of Likud — accepted the 1947 U.N. partition plan to create Jewish and Arab states in what was then the British Mandate for Palestine.
But when the war that all sides knew was coming broke out, Israel executed a military plan that substantially expanded the territory under its control and expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to ensure a Jewish majority in Israel.
Labor leaders kept the Palestinian Arabs that remained within Israel’s boundaries under a military governorate until 1966, and it was under the ostensibly more dovish Labor Party that Israel began settling its citizens in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Likud (and Sharon in particular) pursued the settlement project with greater gusto, yet Labor and Likud shared the Ben-Gurion approach of keeping Israel’s borders vague, expanding them on the basis of what could be won militarily and diplomatically. And until the early 1990s, they shared a hostility of acknowledging the validity of the Palestinian national movement.
Both parties could be pragmatic. It was Likud’s Menachem Begin who signed the Camp David peace treaty with Egypt, after all, which required removing all settlements from Sinai — an operation overseen by Sharon. Both parties also understood the need to maintain the close support of Israel’s key international patron, the United States. But the defining motif of Israel’s Zionist political consensus was vanquishing the Palestinian adversary and cementing that victory by creating new facts on the ground.
Sharon personified a mind-set that allowed for tactical retreats and even, eventually, a rhetorical dedication to peace, but at its core — and in its implementation — his was a zero-sum view in which Israel’s national narrative could prevail only at the expense of the Palestinians’. Dignity, empathy and reconciliation as concepts applied to the Palestinians were all anathema to him. And far from changing his view late in life, the facts he created on the ground to the very end show his true legacy.
As Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea notes in one of the most thoughtful pieces written to mark Sharon’s passing, “Sharon was not the father of settlements in the territories: He was preceded by others — Yisrael Galili, Yigal Allon, Shimon Peres. But he turned the drizzle into rain.”
Sharon became prime minister in 2001, at a moment when the Oslo process and changes in the world, the region and in Israel itself made a more challenging arena for pursuing those Zionist goals. As PM in the early ’90s, Yitzhak Rabin showed signs of veering from the old model. The Palestinian “other,” both in Israel and in the Palestine Liberation Organization, began to be viewed differently, with some understanding. Rabin even talked of taking Israelis out of their ghetto mentality of isolation. His two successors and Sharon’s immediate predecessors — Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak — demonstrated their inexperience when attempting to revert to the zero-sum approach. Sharon saw the need to demonstrate that there was plenty of life and flexibility left in the classic doctrine of seeking maximum diplomatic maneuvering space while changing facts on the ground to once again defeat the Palestinian national movement.
Thus Sharon’s harsh military tactics to suppress the second Palestinian intifada, repeating his 1982 achievement in Beirut of crushing the PLO and besieging its leader, Yasser Arafat (for the final time, as it turned out). But this time, Sharon was also the political decision-maker, responsible not only for wielding the sword but also for ensuring that any diplomatic fallout didn’t put Israel in an uncomfortable position.
Sharon and the dominant Israeli nationalist school of thought that he epitomized had never accepted the need to accommodate a Palestinian national narrative or the idea that the Palestinians would be anything like equal partners in determining their fate. Even before they used the term, Sharon and the Israeli mainstream were unilateralists. When Sharon negotiated, it was with the Bush administration. Thus the logic of his 2005 Gaza withdrawal — a move never discussed or coordinated with any Palestinian negotiating partner but for which he won significant praise and even written guarantees from the White House in support of Israel’s negotiating positions.
The withdrawal (and the evacuation of four small West Bank settlements), along with the attendant drama, has been the focus of much of the commentary on Sharon’s passing. It’s important to remember, however, that Gaza constitutes just 6.14 percent of the territory of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, and the removal of settlers from Gaza was accompanied by the far greater expansion of the settler population of the West Bank. It was followed by Israel’s tightening its grip in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and imposing a closure on Gaza (with Egyptian support), and it — whether by design or luck — created rival Palestinian polities that continue to undermine the national movement.
Sharon, as his own advisers acknowledged, gave away a little in order to win more freedom to sidestep negotiations with the Palestinians — of which he’d been a staunch foe and skeptic — while maintaining Western support.
One ironic impact of the Gaza withdrawal has been to amplify calls on the Israeli right for annexation of the West Bank. Annexation of the territories conquered in 1967 had long been taboo in the Israeli consensus because it would require making citizens of 4 million Palestinians. But some members of Netanyahu’s current governing coalition have begun to argue that, shorn of 1.5 million Gazans, the West Bank would be demographically digestible without threatening Israel’s Jewish majority.
Sharon never shouted his territorial vision from the rooftops; instead, he got on with building it on the hilltops. And as prime minister, he understood the importance of packaging his territorial aggrandizements in the language of peace.
But his success may have empowered a generation of the new Israeli right that looks beyond the realpolitik limitations he observed.
The new Israeli right is more transparent about its expansionist goals and is dismissive of Israel’s global alliances. It is growing in strength. For now, Netanyahu has one foot in the new right camp and the other in the nationalist consensus from which Sharon operated. That doesn’t leave much for Secretary of State John Kerry to work with.