Ariel Sharon's deadly gamble

While Palestinians rage at Israel's killing of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader, the prime minister sees it as a possible road to peace.


Aluf Benn
March 24, 2004 5:10AM (UTC)

The Israeli-Palestinian war of three and a half years marked a new point of escalation Monday after Israel assassinated Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founding leader of the Islamic terrorist group Hamas. Yassin had been one of Israel's fiercest enemies, who advocated the Jewish state's destruction. He created a powerful organization that opposed the Oslo peace process and gained more strength throughout the current conflict. Hamas has turned the suicide bomber into the Palestinians' main weapon against Israel, killing hundreds of Israelis in the last decade.

Israelis took the news of the Gaza operation with mixed feelings. While having zero sympathy for the killed sheik, who had been a quadriplegic since childhood and had spent years in Israeli jails, many Israelis fear the inevitable Palestinian revenge. In many Israeli homes, parents are telling their children to avoid buses and crowded public places that might be prone to Palestinian suicide attacks. True to form, Yassin's comrades pledged to retaliate fiercely. Israeli officials responded with their customary comments, predicting a mixture of short-term escalation with long-term weakening of Hamas.

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The Israeli government believes that despite raising the ante -- Yassin has been the most prominent Palestinian targeted during the war -- it will manage to avoid a full-scale escalation. Judging by past experience, such targeted killings spur a wave of revenge, followed by further Israeli reaction. On the other hand, Israeli officials believe that a previous attempt to kill Hamas leaders, last summer, led the group to beg for a cease-fire.

The Yassin assassination came as no surprise. He was targeted last September, but that attack failed to kill him. Last week, following a Hamas suicide bombing in the seaport of Ashdod, which killed 10 Israelis, the Israeli cabinet decided to renew the assassination campaign against terrorist leaders. The media mentioned Yassin as a prime candidate for killing. There was hardly any debate over the operation. Its opponents came out only after the fact.

Nevertheless, Israel's focused effort against Hamas is more than mere reprisal for a successful attack on a strategic installation. Its main goal is to show that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement plan," calling for withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, is not a victory for Palestinian terrorism and intransigence. After all, it marked a huge departure from Sharon's earlier stance of keeping the territorial status quo until the Palestinians "reform their leadership" and move to crush terrorism. Now Sharon is ready to withdraw unilaterally, without any Palestinian quid pro quo -- a move that some critics have called a capitulation to terrorism that brought Israel little in return. But Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, has warned against Hamas' effort to claim credit for "driving the Israelis out." Killing its leader, he said, was meant to "teach Hamas a lesson."

Sharon and Mofaz acted against a backdrop of growing public discontent with the war effort. At the heart of public and political debate stands a contentious question: Is Israel losing the war, given its new readiness to withdraw and remove Jewish settlements without an agreement, or anything else in return? As much as they loathe acknowledging it, Israelis are increasingly coming to acknowledge the futility of their unending, costly efforts to maintain the status quo vis-à-vis their Palestinian neighbor-rivals.

Sharon is currently finalizing his disengagement plan, which calls for the complete unilateral withdrawal of Israel's forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip (save, perhaps, a narrow strip of land along the Egyptian border), along with a token removal of several tiny West Bank settlements. Bowing to international pressure, he also agreed to amend the planned route of Israel's security barrier in the West Bank, making it more tolerable to Palestinians. In return, Sharon asks for American guarantees to recognize the new, post-withdrawal "security line" as a long-term de facto border. Next month he plans to call on President George W. Bush to finalize the deal.

Many parts are still obscure, most significantly the question of governing the evacuated Gaza Strip. Will it be the shattered Palestinian Authority, led by Yasser Arafat and his cronies? Might it be Hamas? The Islamist group is increasingly popular there, especially given its extensive social welfare programs, but few see a leader of Yassin's stature to take control in the wake of his death. Perhaps chaos and destruction will prevail? No one appears to know, and Sharon acts as if he doesn't care. Having lost trust in the Palestinians' ability to deliver and restrain terrorism, his "unilateralism" means no negotiations or coordination with them. Another problem is the timetable. Israeli ministers and officials have talked about a long implementation period, setting deadlines from early 2005 to early 2006. This long waiting is needed to ratify the plan and prepare the compensation package to evacuated settlers. However, it carries the obvious risk of escalated fighting, which may derail the plan before its implementation.

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These problems notwithstanding, Sharon has undoubtedly shaken one of the semi-sacred foundations of Israeli political belief, the idea that all settlements should remain in place until the final, eventual, permanent-status agreement with the Palestinians. Even if his motives were not altruistic and were less than visionary, and he responded to pressing survival needs when his political stance was shadowed by corruption investigations and diminishing public support, Sharon nevertheless created a political fact with possible historic proportions. The leader of the Israeli right wing, the architect of the settlements, is now calling his country to consolidate its Jewish majority on a smaller territory. This is not the Oslo deal of the early 1990s, or the Camp David proposals of 2000, praised by the left as the dawn of a "new Middle East" but rejected by the Israeli right. Rather, it is a painful, late recognition of demographic and strategic realities.

But has Israel found its own Algeria, it's own Vietnam, reaching a point of no return in the Occupied Territories in which the only real option is to pull out? Has it in effect been defeated? Like everything else in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the answer is far more complicated and nuanced than a simple win-or-lose equation.

Judging by public statements alone, the Palestinians have clearly withstood Israel's military, economic and American-aided political pressure. Despite their heavy human, financial and diplomatic losses, they stuck to their stated goal of kicking Israel out of the territories, and won a major achievement with Sharon's plan to leave Gaza and part of the West Bank without anything in return. And Israel has failed to achieve its stated goals of "zero concessions to terrorism" or "winning a decisive victory." These may have been overstated, unrealistic war aims. But for over three years, the Israeli establishment (and large parts of the public) struggled hard to attain them. Sharon could not break the Palestinian will to keep fighting.

In his long military career, Sharon has learned that winning a war is a matter of stamina: Whoever holds to his positions for the longer time prevails. Last year, following the Iraq war, it appeared that Sharon had the upper hand. Riding the tide of his initial swift victory over Saddam Hussein, Bush tried to break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock as well. His chosen tool was Mahmoud Abbas, "Abu Mazen," Arafat's longtime lieutenant-turned-rival. Abu Mazen had been disillusioned about the Palestinian intifada and doubted its usefulness. Enthroning him as the Palestinian Authority's first premier was seen as fulfillment of Bush's "vision" to replace Arafat with a more moderate face, while accepting the international "road map" toward Palestinian statehood. Sharon had approved the road map only grudgingly, but it carried a major advantage for Israel in its demand to crush Palestinian terrorism before any political reward. Alas, the Abu Mazen experiment ended quickly, a complete failure. Arafat undermined him and Sharon refused to give him sufficient assets to keep on.

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In retrospect, it was Abu Mazen's resignation last September that marked the turning of the tide in the Palestinians' favor. The Bush administration, tangled in the mess of soured victory in Iraq, lost interest in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Sharon was left in a political limbo, lacking clear direction. Ahmed Qurei, "Abu Ala," who succeeded Abu Mazen, gambled on a totally different strategy. Unlike his predecessor, he never tried to hide his subordination to Arafat, and he refused to meet Sharon. Matters were further complicated by the killing of three American security guards, on a diplomatic convoy in Gaza on Oct. 15. Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, and the failure of the Palestinian Authority to catch the perpetrators led to an American disillusionment with Abu Ala.

But he prevailed. Had he entered discussions with Sharon, as Abu Mazen did, he would have gotten very little, and certainly much less than the currently proposed Gaza evacuation. He has yet to meet Sharon (the two are old acquaintances and met many times in the past). The Israelis called off a planned meeting last Tuesday, following the Ashdod Port bombing.

In his address to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, a week ago Monday, Sharon vaguely acknowledged the changing balance. Explaining the reasons for his territorial about-face, he said: "I don't sanctify the status quo. We must change it, as it leads into a political vacuum" into which "will be drawn tens of diplomatic initiatives from all over the world ... whose common [principle] is that Israel should reach an agreement, while terror goes on. In other words, Israel would have to make far-reaching concessions, when terror enjoys legitimacy." According to Sharon, his new plan is aimed at blocking these initiatives and presenting an Israeli alternative, coordinated with Washington, at a bargain price.

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Behind Sharon's carefully crafted euphemisms hides a sober recognition: If Israel fails to withdraw voluntarily, it will face unbearable pressures to leave much more territory later. In this case, it's better to get the best deal from the struggling but friendly Bush, who craves Jewish votes in the November election. Waiting for the liberal Kerry, or for a Bush who's free from electoral pressures in a second term, may be too risky. For once, Sharon failed in his stamina test, and instead of his trademark "wait and see" approach, he rushed to save his precious West Bank positions through disposing of the less important Gaza, which has zero strategic value and a relatively small Israeli population of 6,000 to 7,000 settlers. This may be his last battle, meant to impose his old West Bank map, which leaves large territorial chunks in Israeli hands, as an interim but long-term solution.

Sharon's disengagement plan met predictable opposition from the political right, and divided his cabinet. To pull it through, Sharon will have to replace two right-wing parties with Labor, headed by his old friend and sometime political collaborator Shimon Peres. Before the coalition switch, he needs to win a majority in his Likud Party-dominated cabinet. Treasury minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Sharon's chief rival and heir apparent, is the key vote. At a Likud ministers' meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu had carefully criticized Sharon's plan, but said he will support it if several conditions are met, including the completion of the fence around the settlement "blocks."

A different, but potentially more troubling, opposition came from the military. The IDF command still feels scarred by its humiliating withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000. In the military's eyes, the Lebanon defeat to several hundred gunmen of Hizbollah was the precursor of the Palestinian intifada, which erupted four months later. The army overlooks the obvious gains from the Lebanon evacuation -- relative stability on Israel's northern front, and the legitimacy of an internationally recognized border.

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So when Sharon spread out his unilateral disengagement, the military command was less than enthusiastic. The chief of staff, general Moshe ("Bogy") Ya'alon, hinted that Sharon's plan encourages Hamas to escalate its attacks in order to imitate Hizbollah. Ya'alon has repeatedly warned against unilateral withdrawal under fire, which may reward terrorism and motivate it. Sharon leaked a public reprimand to "Bogy," and called the generals to order.

The military made clear that it refuses to serve as the politicians' scapegoat for a second time. In a much-quoted phrase, the outgoing commander of the Israeli forces in Gaza, Gen. Gadi Shamni, told an interviewer on March 8: "We are winning this conflict in the military arena, several times a day." His remarks, published around an Israeli attack that left 15 dead Palestinians, could be interpreted as veiled criticism of the political leadership, given the distinction he made of the military front. The Yassin killing, strongly advocated by the military, could help Sharon to quell its opposition.

If and when Sharon implements his disengagement, Israel would probably undergo a soul-searching process, debating the lessons of the war. Or maybe not: There was only minuscule domestic protest throughout the intifada. Opinion polls show growing disillusionment with Sharon's leadership, but wide support for his policies. This contradiction, together with the lack of attractive alternatives, indicates there'll be no serious political threat to Sharon, despite his troubles.

All these calculations suffer from one major weakness. They focus on the theoretical level of policy statements and diplomacy, and less on reality. Until now, Sharon tended to compensate little deeds with high words. As a foreign ambassador in Israel once said: "With Sharon, there is a huge gap between what the ear hears and what the eye sees." Despite repeated pledges to Bush that he would evacuate illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank and ease humanitarian conditions for the Palestinians, nothing has happened yet. Sharon appears more determined now, and unlike the past, he doesn't condition his actions on Palestinian moves. However, there is still room for doubt.

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Moreover, despite their current political edge, the Palestinians are devastated. Sharon has shattered their quasi-state and put their leader, Arafat, under house arrest and diplomatic isolation in Ramallah. The Palestinian Authority leadership has so far failed to take credit for the Israeli-proposed disengagement, fearing a post-evacuation "vacuum," which would further expose its weakness and incompetence and may bring Hamas or other groups to power. Yassin's death weakens whatever motivation the Palestinian Authority may have had to fight Hamas, lest it will be seen as Israel's collaborator. Arafat may also fear becoming the next assassination target, perhaps following a mega-attack with many Israeli casualties.

In conclusion, three scenarios appear as possible outcomes of Sharon's plan. One is inaction, namely, that in view of political opposition and growing violence, the plan will be shelved like its predecessors. The other is the Palestinians' nightmare option: Israel will leave Gaza, and the United States and the rest of the international community will then leave Israel alone and accept its long-term presence in the West Bank. "Gaza first" will then become also "Gaza last."

The third, most daring scenario predicts a domino effect. Israel will leave Gaza, terror will stop, and the ensuing quiet will encourage the international community to press for a successful follow-up withdrawal in the West Bank. When Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security advisor, sold Sharon's plan to European Union ministers, she used the Berlin Wall metaphor, as if Sharon's first step will be an opener for a quick unraveling of the conflict and occupation.

But disengagement is still far down the line, and, as the recent days' events have shown, mutual hatred, fighting and violence go on unimpeded.

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Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.

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