In 1994 I sat with Ariel Sharon for two hours in an attempt, one-on-one, to understand his views on settlements, Palestinians and the territories. At the time he was a mere member of the opposition in the Knesset, busy criticizing Yitzhak Rabin’s government, Oslo, even peace with Jordan.
Sharon unfolded a detailed map of the West Bank and Gaza. He knew the terrain better than anyone. “You see this wadi ?” he asked, pointing to a speck of brown denoting a gulch in the wilderness of southern Judea. “A Bedouin tribe lives there. You see the next wadi over? A cousin tribe lives there.”
“Now, you see the jebel that separates them?” he asked me, pointing to a hill marked on the map. “I put a settlement there to fragment the Arab presence. And that, in essence, is my approach.”
He went on to apply his approach to the entire West Bank and Gaza, illustrating how he used settlements to separate Palestinian urban concentrations and secure Israeli control over the main roads. The west-east roads from the narrow waist of Israel across the West Bank to the Jordan Valley particularly preoccupied him.
Israel, he believed, had to control those roads and the Jordan Valley in any final settlement with the Palestinians in order to remain secure, lest it encounter his worst case contingency: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq infiltrates Jordan from the east, King Hussein waffles and fudges, the United States prevaricates and asks for time, and Israel’s efforts to reinforce its Jordan Valley security strip over land are thwarted by Palestinians wielding Molotov cocktails and building stone roadblocks, until 40 Arab divisions confront it across the river. “So we need the roads, too,” he concluded.
Sharon believed in aggressive, mobile, proactive defense. He rejected static defensive lines and barricades; his reservations about the Bar Lev line in Sinai prior to the Yom Kippur War of 1973 turned out to be justified.
I published a map of the “Sharon plan” in the appendix to a study on Israeli-Palestinian final status arrangements in which I recommended settlement removal and border adjustments. Sharon phoned me, both to praise and to protest: The map of amoeba-like Palestinian enclaves surrounded by settlements and Israeli-controlled roads in the West Bank that I attributed to him was accurate. But the map had left the Gaza Strip blank! Didn’t I pay attention when he illustrated how Netzarim, Kfar Darom and the Gush Katif settlement bloc were deployed precisely in order to fragment the Gazan Palestinian population like in the West Bank, and to divide the strip into three controllable enclaves?
Now, nearly 12 years later, he has departed the political scene after evacuating Gaza, leaving it once again “blank” on the map, and building a static security fence to keep the West Bank Palestinians out. What had changed during the interim in his attitude toward the Palestinians, the territories, the settlements and Israel’s defense needs? What is his political legacy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Sharon never stopped mistrusting Israel’s Arab neighbors, and never signed on to the peace camp. His rhetorical embrace of the roadmap, which is supposed to lead to peace, was tactical at best, even cynical. His plans for the West Bank still focused on ways to neutralize, through geography, any future Palestinian military option and any Arab military plans to attack from the east. He was still inclined to think like a battalion commander about the advantages of holding onto this hilltop, that strategic junction. His mission remained the security of Israel, as he understood it.
But at some point, a couple of years ago, after his repeated declarations of victory over the intifada went up in the smoke of new suicide bombings, after contemplating the “soft security” aspects of Israel’s plight — international isolation, growing crime and poverty, the demographic threat to the country’s long-term Jewish character — from the Olympus of the premiership, he began to expand his concept of strategic security.
The occupation had to end; not all the settlements could remain; the Palestinians needed a state alongside Israel. Though he never developed a realistic strategy for peace, Sharon seemed to have recognized the limitations of force.
There was nothing altruistic about his new approach to the Palestinians; they still could not be trusted and real peace was not an option. Sharon had no compunctions about decimating the security structure that represented Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s only hope for a negotiating partner, thereby encouraging the rise of Hamas. He poured disdain on the emerging leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, the first mainstream Palestinian leader to reject violence.
Nor was there anything revolutionary in Sharon’s new thinking about the territories: Fully 70% of the Israeli citizenry preceded him in demanding disengagement, a fence, neutralizing the settlers’ veto over political decisions, “separation” even in the absence of peace. The Israeli center had matured, and Sharon would survive and prosper by leading it.
Moderate Palestinians, contemplating this remarkable twist in the thinking of the man who had spearheaded the settlement movement, remain suspicious to this day. Sharon’s squat, bulky profile stands in their eyes for callous Israeli aggressiveness — at Kibya in 1953, Sabra and Shatila in 1982 and on the Temple Mount in September 2000.
Rather than encouraging more unilateral disengagement, the Palestinian moderates call for negotiations, even as the P.A. disintegrates around them and day by day radical Islamists enhance their grip on the public. They blame Sharon and the occupation for their plight — justifiably up to a point — while ignoring their own huge mistakes and disdaining the opportunity Sharon gave both sides to begin to crawl out of the mess.
History will judge Ariel Sharon as a man whose powerful, often destructive personality was, in the end, channeled by events in a relatively creative direction with regard to Israeli security and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: We had to separate ourselves from these people, even at a territorial price, rather than sticking settlements in their midst.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.