The jailer

Ariel Sharon is lauded for breaking with his hard-line past. But the truth is that he simply embraced a smarter way of locking up the Palestinians.

Published January 12, 2006 12:10PM (EST)

Even as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stirs fitfully from his coma, in the aftermath of a massive stroke and several operations, Gazan militants with a bad aim have fired several Qassam rockets into Israel. Israel is now, and is likely to remain for some time, a dark postmodern terrain of wealthy fortress communities besieged by hopeless unemployed militants from isolated ghettos. This archipelago of anxiety, reminiscent of the noir science fiction film "Blade Runner," is in some significant respects the creation and legacy of Sharon.

The conflict between Sharon and the Likud Party, with which he recently broke, was over two distinct far-right-wing visions of Israel. The somewhat messianic Likud is committed to completing the creeping dispossession of the Palestinians by relentlessly colonizing the West Bank and Gaza (at least), and refusing to accept any clear demarcation between Israeli territory and that of its neighbors. This 19th-century-style settler colonialism, reminiscent of the French in Algeria or the Italians in Eritrea, is so blatantly aggressive that it continually threatens to disrupt vital economic and diplomatic relations between Israel and Europe. Sharon saw that, but his rival Benjamin Netanyahu never could.

Likud is hoping that somehow along the way the indigenous population will gradually be convinced to leave for Egypt or Jordan, as the Israelis move in. (Some hard nudging is not ruled out by some elements of the party.) In the meantime, in the words of Likud leader Netanyahu, the Palestinians might have self-rule, but would not be allowed to have self-government.

In reality, it is the Palestinians, with their high population growth rates, who have the demographic advantage. Israel's ability to retain new immigrants fell during the second intifada or Palestinian uprising. As the Russian economy benefits from high petroleum prices, further major immigration by Jews from that country seems unlikely. Indeed, some of the 1 million Russians in Israel, many of them not actually Jewish, may start returning to the old country. By 2020, most projections predict that Jews will be a minority in the area comprising Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Even among Israeli citizens, Israeli government demographers predict that by 2030 the population could be a third Arab.

Sharon, unlike the Likud, understood the threat these demographic trends posed to Israel, and so saw the future as one in which Israel stopped expanding in some directions, instead accepting a fixed territory. It would become a huge gated community, surrounded by seven or eight small enclaves. Each enclave might remain a bad neighborhood, but gates, punitive raids and assassinations would keep the ghetto dwellers from storming the citadel. The "gates" include checkpoints, highways and a wall that would have made the first Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huangdi -- who built his own Great Wall -- proud. It would break up the Palestinian regions into isolated cantons and guarantee that they could never mobilize politically and would remain de facto stateless. It would also preserve the Jewish polity by keeping the Palestinians in their current limbo, prevented from claiming Israeli citizenship even as they are denied a viable state of their own.

That the scheme probably creates a permanent state of low-intensity warfare between the Israelis and Palestinians is a price Sharon was willing to pay for the permanent territorial gains and diplomatic superiority it guaranteed Israel. Indeed, this condition of staccato conflict between the wealthy Israelis behind their various gates and the dispossessed Palestinians outside is what Sharon seems to have thought of as "security" for Israel.

Both the Likud and Sharon were dedicated to forestalling the emergence of even a weak Palestinian state, of a sort implied by the Oslo peace process accepted by the late Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin. Although they said they feared that such a state would pose a military threat to Israel, that seems rather unlikely. It is more probable that they feared that it would gain diplomatic and political legitimacy in the world, gaining a voice among nations that the Palestinians currently lack. Likud and Sharon roared that Rabin had made an error of biblical proportions in agreeing to such a state. Elements of the Israeli far right agreed, and one Yigal Amir took matters into his own hands, assassinating Rabin in 1995.

Amir's bullets ended the Oslo process and sounded the death knell for a genuine Palestinian state. Even in the 1990s, the number of Israeli colonists in the West Bank had doubled, which enraged Palestinians took as a sign of bad faith, and which ultimately led to the outbreak of the second Intifada. Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest site in the Muslim world, was merely the spark that ignited the uprising. During his three years as prime minister, 1996-99, Rabin's successor and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu relentlessly derailed what was left of the Oslo process, which had called for a phased Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and movement toward a Palestinian government.

Despite the myth that at Camp David in summer 2000 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat 98 percent of what he was demanding, in fact the Israelis were not nearly so forthcoming. Barak declined to meet with Arafat privately (so that it was the Palestinians who had difficulty finding an Israeli interlocutor). And Barak insisted on keeping 10 percent of Palestinian land, rather as though the British had offered to end the Revolutionary War in 1780 if only George Washington would agree to cede Maine to them. Clayton Swisher, in his fine study "The Truth About Camp David," shows that the Israelis bear significant blame for the breakdown of the negotiations.

The conflict between Sharon and his own Likud Party over his withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 reflected the two differing visions of the Israeli right. For Sharon, Gaza itself could be configured as an enormous slum. The withdrawal of the Israeli colonists from Gaza was simply a way of moving them into the gated community, so as to keep them safe more cheaply than military patrols and reprisals could hope to. (Gaza had not been notably rundown in the 1940s, but the rise of Israel and the isolation of the Strip from its natural markets, especially after 1967, gradually turned it into a huge penitentiary.)

Moreover, the Gaza maneuver took pressure off Israel to move in a deliberate way toward withdrawal from the West Bank. Sharon's advisor Dov Weisglass notoriously explained the Gaza withdrawal to Haaretz in October 2004:

"I found a device, in cooperation with the management of the world, to ensure that there will be no stopwatch here. That there will be no timetable to implement the settlers' nightmare. I have postponed that nightmare indefinitely. Because what I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns. That is the significance of what we did. The significance is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely. And all this with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress. What more could have been anticipated? What more could have been given to the settlers?"

Weisglass, who later repudiated his interview, actually called the Gaza withdrawal a sort of "formaldehyde" for the negotiations into which Israel had been pressured by the United States and the European Union, for all the world as though he were a diplomatic kidnapper. The unilateral Gaza withdrawal would involve no negotiations with the Palestinians, since Sharon had decided that there was no one to talk to. This allegation, of there being no Palestinian interlocutors, is an updated version of the old (monstrous) Zionist myth, most famously articulated by former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, that there are no Palestinians at all.

Supporters of the Likud demonstrated in the tens of thousands against the Gaza withdrawal in summer of 2005. They did not accept Sharon's theory of enclaves and a fixed gated community. They saw Israel as an ever-expanding, territorially dynamic political reality. Sharon could see that an expanding Israel might well eventually be saddled with new Palestinian citizens of Israel, since the world community would not forever accept their demotion to statelessness even in their own homes. Spinning off the enclaves, and building an apartheid wall, would forestall this scenario.

The fiction that the Palestinians would ultimately get their state could be maintained to the sour Europeans and naive Americans until the point at which it was obvious it would never happen, a decade or more hence ("until the Palestinians become Finns"). The Palestinian Authority, or whatever entity survived, could then claim authority over the congeries of Palestinian ghettos, and could call them a state if it liked, but it would never actually have the sort of territory or authority or sovereignty associated with states. Observers have long drawn a parallel between Sharon's policy of ghettoizing the Palestinians, and the way the South African whites spun off small Bantustans to relieve themselves of unwanted potential black citizens.

The Israeli prime minister appears to have believed that he could destroy the militant fundamentalist movement Hamas, which launched large numbers of deadly terrorist operations against Israel, by murdering enough of its leaders. (I use the word "murder" to describe extra-judicial killings. That the victims were leaders of a terrorist movement was something for which they could have been arrested and convicted instead, and is irrelevant to whether they were murdered.) Israeli security officials adopted a political science theory that you can cause an organization to collapse if you neutralize even a fourth of its leadership.

Sharon's systematic execution of the civilian Hamas leadership even extended to firing a rocket at a nearly blind old man in a wheelchair, Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who could surely have been arrested if Israeli authorities had evidence he had committed a crime. Yassin, ironically, had after years of militancy begun urging a "hundred years truce" with the Israelis, and his voice may have restrained some impatient Palestinian youth activists. That voice went silent as Yassin was wheeled out of a mosque on March 22, 2004. Six others were killed by the rocket, and a dozen wounded. Soon thereafter militants in Fallujah, Iraq, killed four Western security agents, claiming to have done so in the memory of Yassin, setting the stage for the destabilization of western Iraq.

Far from wiping out Hamas, Sharon watered its saplings with the blood of martyrs. It has done unprecedentedly well in recent Palestinian elections, even on the West Bank, where it had earlier been weak. The moderate, secular president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, was reported in the Jordanian press on Monday to be privately considering resigning if Hamas wins the forthcoming legislative elections.

Sharon's formaldehyde was powerful, and it did indeed put the world to sleep on the pressing issue of continued Israeli dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians. Still, he dealt a permanent, if partial, setback to the expansionist and aggressive Likud Party. It is hard to imagine that even if it returned to power, the party could realistically hope to put colonists back into Gaza. Instead, the Hamas Party, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, will almost certainly rule the strip.

The old general with so much blood on his hands was given the equivalent of formaldehyde by his physicians over the weekend, to induce a coma. Induced sleep is never more than a stopgap measure, however, since the patient must eventually awake to face the real world. The dark vision of Ariel Sharon, of Israel as walled fortress, with hordes of leaderless, hopeless, violent Palestinian plebeians trapped in serial enclaves outside the marble walls, virtually guarantees a Hundred Years War in the Mideast. It enrages the Arab and Muslim world and is a leading cause of its hatred of Israel's patron, America. It hardly creates a situation that would attract Jewish immigration, or help retain Jews already in Israel. It erases the Palestinians as persons, reducing them only to the occasional violence in which some of them engage. Sharon himself never understood, and now perhaps never will understand, that only war can be waged unilaterally. Peace requires negotiations and partners.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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