Letter from Jerusalem: The Bulldozer Peacemaker
Ariel Sharon has always aroused passions. A decisive strategist, his latest political moves have put supporters and opponents on unfamiliar sides of the fence
In an Israeli political lexicon, the picture next to the word “bulldozer” would be Ariel Sharon’s. It’s not just that the prime minister is a forceful man. His political icon is arguably his own choice, his personal symbol for the man in charge.
“Behind every commander’s jeep, I wanted to see a bulldozer,” Sharon declares in his autobiography, Warrior (Simon & Schuster). The line comes from his description of his campaign, as head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command in 1971, to stamp out a Palestinian insurgency in the Gaza Strip. Bulldozers, Sharon says, were a key weapon. They were used to unearth bunkers, rip down hedges around orchards where militants took cover and to demolish houses in refugee camps and to widen alleys into roads that soldiers could patrol. Maj. Gen. Sharon’s methods aroused debate, but there was no debate about his reasserting Israeli control of the strip.
Today, it seems ironic to recall that piece of Sharon’s curriculum vitae. For if he can survive the political vicissitudes of the coming months, he is determined to end the Israeli presence in Gaza.
To residents of the area’s settlements and their supporters, it seems that the bulldozer has done a U-turn. For Israelis in general, and for diplomats and leaders abroad, trying to guess what drives the prime minister and where he’s headed has become an obsession.
After a career as a hard-liner, is he determined to go down in history as a peacemaker? Is Gaza Sharon’s first concession—or last? Whither the bulldozer?
Even if there are no certain answers, Sharon’s past—read against the backdrop of Israel’s history—provides grounds for a reasonable estimation. The prime minister has not utterly reinvented himself. Rather, he remains on the hawkish side of the Israeli pragmatic mainstream. His plan to pull out of Gaza can best be read as a tactical shift, not a reversal. However, even as prime minister, Sharon does not have total control. The real question is whether he, like leaders before him, will find that the road he has chosen leads to a destination that is different from the one he expected.
To understand Sharon, go back to that 1971 campaign. At the time, the common view across the Israeli political spectrum was that Israel would keep the Gaza Strip. The position was officially formulated just a week and a half after the June 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel’s national unity government secretly offered to pull back nearly to the old international boundaries of Mandatory Palestine in return for full peace with Syria and Egypt. The government’s decision stated explicitly: “According to the international border, the Gaza Strip is within the territory of the State of Israel.” For some politicians, such as Menahem Begin, the reasoning was historical—Gaza was part of the Land of Israel. For others, it was primarily pragmatic: They feared a return of the Egyptian forces to the strip, giving them a head start on the invasion route toward Israel’s cities. Both sides hoped Gaza’s large population of Palestinian refugees could be resettled elsewhere.
Sharon’s bulldozer campaign fit national policy, even if his methods were harder hitting than others would have chosen. The same could be said of his support back then for settling in Gaza. During Sharon’s time at the Southern Command, the first two Israeli settlements—Kfar Darom and Netzarim—were established in the strip under Army auspices. Not only Sharon but then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan pushed for them. The aim, stated in top-level meetings, was to show Gaza’s Palestinians that Israel intended to keep the strip, and thus convince them the insurgency was pointless.
Sharon’s goals went further, however. He wanted “fingers” of Jewish settlement pushing through the Gaza Strip, separating its cities, dividing the region in four. Another finger would lie just outside of Gaza, thrusting through the edge of the Sinai. To create that finger, Sharon ordered the eviction of thousands of Bedouin from the area. He was reprimanded for exceeding authority, but settlements, including the town of Yamit, were built on the land.
Yet a decade later, as Menahem Begin’s defense minister, Sharon oversaw the evacuation and destruction of Yamit. It was the first major split between the mainstream right and hard-line settlers, and Sharon sided with the former.
Begin’s agreement to give up Sinai can best be understood as a pragmatic move, sacrificing a secondary goal for a primary one: a peace with Egypt that would allow Israel to deepen its control of the West Bank and Gaza.
As an architect of West Bank settlement for Likud governments, Sharon followed the same logic as he had in Gaza: using settlement to divide Palestinian communities. In a conversation with strategic analyst Yossi Alpher, Sharon once explained his reasoning by taking out a map and pointing to the southern West Bank. In one wadi there was a Bedouin tribe, he said, and in the next wadi there was another. So Sharon said, “I plant an Israeli settlement on the hilltop between them” to keep them from uniting.
To avoid granting citizenship to West Bank Palestinians, Sharon long advocated the “enclave” approach: Israel would annex fingers of land while granting limited self-rule to the Arab residents of the remaining, broken-up territory.
By the time Sharon became prime minister in 2001, Israeli public opinion had shifted. The first intifada, followed by the Olso process, made a Palestinian state a widely accepted idea. Sharon surprised the public by endorsing that concept. But he spoke of a state in less than half the West Bank—resembling his earlier concept of enclaves.
As prime minister, Sharon has made two other shifts. First, he dropped his initial objections and endorsed a security fence separating Israel from the Palestinians of the West Bank. He took a central role in planning the fence route: It was to loop into the West Bank so that many settlements would fall on the Israeli side, creating fingers that divided Palestinian territory.
Second, Sharon stunned everyone by announcing the disengagement from Gaza and a bit of the northern West Bank. Again, notice the change in public opinion: Since Sharon’s Gaza campaign three decades ago, Israeli majority views on Gaza have reversed, for tangible reasons. The refugees have not left and their population has ballooned. And after a quarter-century of peace with Egypt, guarded cooperation has replaced absolute fear of that country. Now Israel wants Egypt to help guard the Sinai-Gaza border to prevent arms smuggling after disengagement. In addition, Sharon has learned the importance of American support and he knows it requires some recognition of Palestinian demands.
Sharon’s Gaza pullback, therefore, looks like a repeat of the Yamit maneuver: a concession aimed at achieving his primary goals in the West Bank. Offering to give a little but not a lot to the Palestinians again put him on the right side of the mainstream. It also improved his standing, and Israel’s, internationally. Though that approach has divided his own Likud Party and destabilized his coalition, it wins support from a significant part of the public.
Meanwhile, though, he hoped to retain so-called “large settlement blocs” in the West Bank, in line with his long-standing vision. Palestinians would be offered a state in what’s left. Whether they would agree is another question.
But does Sharon control the process he has set in motion? Or does he resemble, say, former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who set out to save Communism and ended up dismantling it?
Take the security fence: An Israeli Supreme Court decision in June 2004 disqualified the original route as ignoring Palestinian humanitarian needs. A revised route, recently approved by the Cabinet, still takes in some major settlements, such as the Etzion bloc. But it places many settlements outside. If the fence represents Israel’s de facto proposal for a border, as many believe, Sharon has already significantly shifted his position.
When Sharon proposed disengagement, he intended it as unilateral withdrawal. Yasser Arafat, he argued, was no partner for negotiations. But Arafat is gone, replaced by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), arguably the Palestinian Anwar Sadat—except that Abbas has won a democratic election. Now the “partner” argument has been reversed. At least for the record, the United States administration is talking of a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity, which steps on Sharon’s “fingers.” If Sharon succeeds in carrying out the disengagement, he may find himself under strong international pressure to negotiate a much larger withdrawal, exactly what he sought to avoid.
Sharon’s loyalists believe he can deflect the pressure and that his tactical retreat from Gaza will save most West Bank settlements and his strategic vision. Disengagement foes argue that Sharon’s first concession will only open up the way to more. Their protests, it seems, have only increased his determination to press ahead. Now it’s the right that attacks his methods.