One of Ariel Sharon’s least-understood strengths as a leader is his mastery of the art of ambiguity. Despite his popular image of bulldog stubbornness, Sharon has managed throughout his career to be many things to many different people around him, maneuvering nimbly from one crisis to the next, keeping friend and foe alike forever guessing, and always landing on his feet. That, more than anything, is the secret to the amazing stability of his tenure as prime minister during three of the most difficult years in Israel’s history.
Perhaps that is the reason that his plan for Israeli disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, which he dropped like a bombshell on the Israeli political scene last week, has been greeted around the world with more puzzlement than cheers — or jeers, for that matter. Sharon’s fans and detractors alike find it hard to believe that the man most identified with the West Bank and Gaza settlement enterprise is now proposing to begin dismantling his life’s work. Advocates on both sides are certain he’s up to another one of his tricks. Besides, the man arouses such visceral emotions among his fellow Israelis that those who like his plan find it hard to praise him for it, and those who hate it can’t find it in themselves to break with their hero over it.
Responses outside Israel are just as confused. To much of the world, the solution to the continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence seems simple: Let Israel withdraw to its 1967 borders and allow the creation of a Palestinian state on the other side; as for messy details like how the borders are policed and what becomes of the refugees, reasonable people ought to be able to work those out. For those who view the conflict this way, Sharon’s plan just doesn’t go far enough to be meaningful. It appears to them as a mere stalling tactic, offering aspirin to cure a cancer.
Tellingly, the most forceful responses so far have come precisely from those with the most direct stake in the outcome of the current crisis. The Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, and the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, have both hailed Sharon’s initiative as a promising first step that could open the door to broader compromise and, just possibly, an eventual peace agreement. Leaders of the West Bank settler movement have declared war on the plan for precisely the same reason. After standing their ground through years of empty talk and dozens of grand-sounding peace plans that all came to naught, the settlers see Sharon offering the first concrete answer to the question of how you start moving Israelis from here to there. And they are terrified of where it will lead.
Whether Sharon’s plan actually leads to a broader peace depends on many factors, most of them beyond his control. He could be indicted and be forced to step down in the coming months, leaving the job undone. He could, as many critics charge, implement a limited withdrawal that leaves the Palestinians behind a series of walls and fences, angrier than ever and more determined to wreak vengeance — though far less able to reach Israel’s cities and wreak their mayhem. Or he could, given a sensible response on the Palestinian side, move on to another stage of withdrawal and then another. That could eventually lead, as one of Sharon’s top aides reportedly told a group of visitors last week, toward something resembling Yossi Beilin’s sweeping Geneva proposal for full withdrawal and full peace. If the Palestinians will it, it need not be a dream.
If the Palestinians show a willingness to start behaving responsibly and restraining their terrorists, the Sharon aide reportedly said, anything is possible. In any event, the Palestinians and their allies will no longer be able to say, as they have until now, that the problem in the region is Israel’s supposed lust for land and refusal to give up settlements. If Sharon does what he says he will, Israel’s intentions need no longer be the issue.