Sharon: Pathetic, Heroic, Villainous

By Leonard Fein

Published September 10, 2004, issue of September 10, 2004.
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ill the real Ariel Sharon please stand up?

Probably not. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that Sharon does not know which of his personae is the “real” one. There’s the pathetic Sharon, and the heroic Sharon, and the villainous Sharon — and just now, they seem to be in terminal competition with one another.

The pathetic Sharon: Currently, Sharon is nominally supported by 58 of the 120 Knesset members — but the largest single bloc among them is, of course, Likud, and many Likud parliamentarians do not support him on disengagement from Gaza. He cannot long survive as prime minister of a government that does not command a majority in the Knesset, let alone as leader of a minority government.

Nor does he want to have to depend on the tacit support of Labor. Even though Labor would provide a cushion on the disengagement question, it would exact an ongoing high price for cooperation on internal domestic issues. He cannot count on the threat of bringing Labor into the governing coalition as a club with which to beat his rebellious Likudniks into compliance; Labor is itself split, and most of its leaders reject such a role.

Nor will Labor agree to enter into a governing coalition with a Sharon who cannot control his own people. Secular Shinui, his current coalition partner, will not accept a broadening of the coalition by its inclusion of the fervently Orthodox parties, since Shinui would insist on conditions, such as allowing civil marriages and a military draft for yeshiva students, unacceptable to those parties. It is exceedingly doubtful that Sharon, together with Labor’s Shimon Peres and Shinui’s Tommy Lapid, could put together a new centrist party — or that such a party would, if somehow brought into being, prevail in new elections.

Turn this way, turn that — no ready solution. Pathetic.

You may be more inclined to sympathize with Sharon’s plight if you are among those who see him a la Nixon in China, as the intrepid stalwart who has come to new understandings late in his career and has the moral and intellectual courage to deal with them rather than end-run them. Now, moral and intellectual courage have not been exactly Sharon’s calling cards during the nearly 60 years of his public career.

Enter the heroic Sharon. More than a year ago now, he had the fortitude to call a spade a spade — more precisely, to call Israel’s presence in the West Bank an “occupation.” The point was merely an entering wedge; now Israel’s attorney general has walked tall right through that wedge, indicating that Israel must accept the constraints that the Geneva Accords impose on “occupying powers.”

Sharon has spoken of “painful compromises” and of a “two-state solution.” He has recognized the “demographic problem,” the immutable fact that unless Israel disgorges the West Bank, it will find itself sovereign over a population that is in its majority Palestinian, and will thereby be required either to give up its claim to being a Jewish state or to move frankly, and fatally, into being an apartheid state.

And he has given very substantial running room to Israel Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has sought to become the voice of the sensible center. Sharon now has been rebuffed by Likud not once but twice — and yet he remains, as far as one can tell, utterly devoted to a Gaza disengagement.

All this from a man whose whole commitment has been seen until now as energetically pro-settlement and anti-Palestinian. Hero?

Enter the villainous Sharon. The real challenge to Israel as a Jewish state arises not in Gaza, where Israel’s 8,000 settlers in a sea of Palestinians evoke relatively little sympathy from the Israeli public. The real challenge is in the West Bank, home these days, without even counting the Jerusalem suburbs, to more than 200,000 Israelis.

Once Menachem Begin withdrew from all of Sinai largely in order to be left a free hand in the West Bank. Is this not what Sharon is hoping for today?

Ma’aleh Adumim is all of four miles to Jerusalem’s east. It is home to 31,000 Israelis, and no one in Israel is prepared to think of them as “expatriates.” The current Israeli plan is to fill in those four miles with Jewish settlement. So doing would isolate East Jerusalem from its Palestinian hinterland, effectively cut the West Bank into two cantons with an Israeli barrier between them. Washington’s opposition to such a development appears to have been shelved for the time being, political exigencies here in the United States being what they are.

More: Bear in mind Israel’s repeated assertions that the security fence is just that — not meant to mark a permanent political boundary, but “merely” to inhibit terrorist assaults. But unless the fence hugs Israeli housing, which is quite unlikely, one can readily imagine that such housing will soon be built right up to the edge of the fence, rendering it exceedingly difficult to then alter its route, to bring it closer to the Green Line.

Ariel Sharon has spent a lifetime doing end runs around his opponents; he is master of the devious move. Might the Gaza disengagement not be more of the same? Until he tackles the issue of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, we cannot know. But until there is a Palestinian leadership that can deliver on the security issue, the status of those settlements will continue to dangle, untackled. And between now and then, who knows what impossible facts on the ground will have been created, whether consciously or inadvertently?

Pathetic, heroic, villainous. Who knows?

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

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