Sharon Changes Direction, Not Style





Laura King, writing for the Los Angeles Times (Feb 8, 2004)

Years before he became prime minister, Ariel Sharon was fond of taking visitors to a bare, rocky West Bank hillside overlooking Israel's narrow but densely populated coastal plain. There, in a set-piece speech, with wind-ruffled maps at hand, he would forcefully insist on Israel's need in the name of self-defense to hold fast to this piece of strategic high ground -- never mentioning that this same stony earth was the heartland of the Palestinians' dreamed-of future state.

Sharon, a lifelong military man, has always viewed the world from a battlefield perspective. But now, in what could be the twilight of his political life, his notion of how to hold the high ground -- that is, how best to defend the Jewish state against all threats -- has fundamentally changed.

Sharon's vision of a Greater Israel, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, has given way to acceptance of the idea that the Palestinians will one day have a state of their own on part of that territory. But the Israeli leader, ever the tactician, has clearly demonstrated that he wants that to happen on his own terms -- not those of the Palestinians, probably not those of the American administration, and certainly not those of the rest of the outside world.

This evolution in the 75-year-old Sharon's thinking found its latest expression last week in a dramatic initiative that could result in Israel relinquishing nearly all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip -- which the prime minister once described as a crucial line of defense that Israel would never give up.

In the months before that, Sharon put residents of remote West Bank Jewish settlements on notice that their communities, too, were marked for uprooting. He indirectly floated the once-heretical idea of officially sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians and last year spoke for the first time of the massive Israeli military presence in the West Bank and Gaza as an"occupation."

One Israeli columnist has dubbed it Sharon's"Dance of the Seven Veils" -- a series of carefully stage-managed, incremental pronouncements, often swiftly softened afterward by underlings to make them more palatable to right-wing political allies and a domestic audience left wary and embittered by more than three years of ferocious warfare with the Palestinians.

But however couched and conditional they might be, Sharon's statements of the last 18 months, taken together, amount to an utter transformation of his political persona.

The onetime champion of the Jewish settlement movement is now regarded by settlers as perhaps the greatest threat to its existence. The man who always held that force was the only language the Palestinians understood now speaks calmly and philosophically of the need for two bloodied peoples to simply separate from one another.

The old general who has played some part in every one of his country's wars since Israel's founding in 1948 stands ready, it seems, to cede battle-won territory without so much as a treaty in return.

"I think Sharon did realize in these last two years that for many reasons, that he simply will not be able to hold on to the territories," said Yoram Peri, a political analyst at Tel Aviv University."He didn't really change his mind on peace issues, but he is confronting reality. A field commander doesn't come out and say, 'I withdraw,' but instead he finds a way to do this to his best advantage."

During the same period, though, Sharon has also displayed his blunt-edged side, the one that years ago earned him the sobriquet of"The Bulldozer." Sharon has embarked on the construction of a barrier in the West Bank that Palestinians denounce as the baldest of land grabs. Under him, Jewish settlements have continued to grow, despite strong American pressure to halt the expansion.

He is widely blamed for helping engineer the fall of one moderate Palestinian Authority prime minister, and for doing little to help the Palestinian successor stave off what many predict will be a similar fate.

Perhaps most significantly, the Israeli leader -- even while pledging himself to an American-backed blueprint for peace based on the premise that Israel and the Palestinians will negotiate terms for Palestinian statehood -- has been steadily laying the groundwork for an Israeli-imposed solution that he calls his disengagement plan.

Under this strategy's still-emerging outlines, Israel would unilaterally withdraw to what it considers defensible borders -- defined at least initially, by all indications, by the more than 400-mile West Bank barrier that is still under construction -- and discuss statehood terms with the Palestinians only when the Israeli government is ready to do so.

The Palestinians fear that such a course of action will predetermine the outcome of any negotiations, and ultimately leave them with a territory so truncated and fragmented as to be a state in name only.

"Sharon will evacuate Gaza, if he indeed does so, believing that doing so will make it easier for Israel to hold on to large swaths of the West Bank," the respected Haaretz newspaper predicted in an editorial last week."There is no place for negotiations with the Palestinians in such a narrow perspective ... nor is there any room in such a perspective for a viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel."

Sharon has promised that he will move ahead with his plan only if the American-backed"road map" fails. But the peace plan has achieved no traction in the nine months since its launch, and with the U.S. election season in full swing, there is strong skepticism among both Israeli and Palestinian officials that the United States will play any significant role in coming months -- the window during which Sharon has indicated his government will begin to act.

The prime minister has directed his national security advisor, Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, to chart security lines that Israel can militarily defend until there is a Palestinian government in place with which Israel is prepared to negotiate. Israel refuses to have any dealings with the Palestinian Authority president, Yasser Arafat, and has indicated that if the appointed Palestinian prime minister is unable to act independently, it will not engage him in serious dialogue either.

Those close to Sharon insist that he is acting in the interests of peace, and that the land hand-overs he has outlined are wrenchingly painful to him.

"He is entirely sincere, and anyone who does not believe that does not understand his character," said Eli Landau, a businessman and a longtime close friend of the prime minister.

"I watched him through the years, saw how he nurtured and watched over every Jewish settlement, so to be prepared now to do what he is prepared to do is for him a real tragedy," Landau said."But now he is the leader. He stands at the top of the pyramid, and he can see this is the only way forward."

Sharon's defenders scoff at the notion that the prime minister's timing for unveiling the Gaza initiative is intended to deflect attention from his interrogation by police in connection with bribery allegations involving a failed development venture. Both the disengagement plan and the scandal have been in play for months, they point out, insisting that the timing is coincidental.

However, the possibility of a bribery indictment still hangs over the prime minister, a contingency that might drive him from office, throw the Israeli political scene into disarray and probably scuttle his initiatives of recent months -- particularly if his hard-line heir apparent, Benjamin Netanyahu, is to take the reins. A complicated nexus of factors helped nudge Sharon toward the view that Palestinian statehood was inevitable, analysts said.

In more than three years of fighting, it has become apparent to all that Palestinian militants cannot achieve anything approaching a military victory over a vastly superior Israeli force. But they can and do continue to strike Israeli cities and towns, using a seemingly inexhaustible supply of suicide bombers to kill and maim Israeli civilians.

A battle-weary Israeli public last year was intrigued by and surprisingly supportive of several unofficial peace plans calling for large-scale territorial concessions in exchange for peace with the Palestinians.

Also galvanizing debate in recent months has been the premise that Palestinians in the territories and Arab citizens of Israel, with their faster population growth rate, will soon outnumber Jews in the area comprising Israel proper, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. A parade of prominent Israelis, led by former parliament Speaker Avraham Burg, have bluntly warned that demographics will eventually make it impossible for Israel to retain both its democratic character and its Jewish nature -- unless it relinquishes the Palestinian territories.

"Look, Sharon is not [Yitzhak] Rabin," said Peri, the analyst, who was a political advisor to the assassinated prime minister."Late in his life, Rabin realized that the Palestinians are a nation, that we have to deal with them as partners. Sharon has not changed on that issue, but this is a matter of realpolitik -- he sees what is happening, and his aim is to achieve as much territory as possible."

Despite the tremendous difficulties that lie ahead, there are strong indications that Sharon is serious about proceeding with the evacuation of Gaza settlements and, later, isolated West Bank communities.

Already, the government is minutely calculating the costs of relocating settler families -- an issue expected to figure soon in talks with the Bush administration.

Right-wing allies have not yet pulled out of Sharon's government, but say they will do so as soon as it becomes clear he intends to proceed with the pullbacks he has outlined. In a scene that would have been unthinkable just months ago, a crowd of Gaza settlers gathered Friday outside Sharon's sheep ranch in the Negev desert, shouting angry slogans against him.

The prime minister has also been seeking to marshal the support of the defense establishment, an arena in which he is supremely comfortable but whose leading figures were reportedly caught off guard by his proposed Gaza initiative. Hawkish Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz backs the idea, and although some high-ranking field commanders reportedly harbor reservations, they have been ordered not to air them publicly.

Military historian Meir Pail, a longtime observer of Sharon, believes that unilateral moves in the absence of a political agreement with the Palestinians are a long-term recipe for disaster. But he also says Sharon is likely to stay the course he has set for himself.

"The political question -- the lack of any agreement -- is very dangerous, and I'm talking as a military man when I say this," Pail said."But Arik Sharon is a tough guy, very thick-skinned, and he will carry through what he has set out to do.

"He's behaving very, very much like himself."


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