Not the Prince of Peace

Ariel Sharon is being hailed as the man who created the best chance for restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In fact, he made it unlikely that a real peace process will ever happen.

Technically, Ariel Sharon still lives. But in his slow-motion departure, he is already acquiring an aura that will affect, and perhaps distort, Israeli politics for years to come. It is Sharon the warrior-turned-peacemaker who faltered, tragically, just shy of his goal. Yet Sharons path would not have led to a lasting peace. Although his supporters hail him as the man who broke the taboo on dismantling settlements and ceding occupied Palestinian land, his more fundamental legacy was to show that there is a way for Israel to move forward without negotiating with the Palestinians. He also made it less likely for there to be anyone Israel is willing to negotiate with. His actions arguably contributed to Hamass victory in the Palestinian election on January 25. Sharon thus set in motion a process that may bring about a Palestinian state of sorts, but not an end to the conflict.

When Sharon came to power in 2001, the Oslo peace process was stuck. Most Israelis blamed its violent collapse in 2000 squarely, if a bit unfairly, on Yasir Arafat. Oslos successor, the road map peace plan, was conceived in 2002 but foundered almost immediately. (Its timetable ran out at the end of last year.) No Israeli politician willing to bargain land away for an empty Palestinian promise of peace was electable. And so Sharon offered an alternative: give up land without waiting for a promise. Last June, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Sharons Gaza disengagement plan our best chance to reenergize the road map. His supporters agree. Say what you like about Sharon's bloody past and speculate all you want about his future plans, they argue,at least he set the vital precedent for territorial withdrawal.

Yet, as Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations argues, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza set a precedent not just for withdrawals but also for unilateralism. Sharon said he would return to the road map and its promise of eventual bilateral talks, but his actions spoke otherwise. He blatantly ignored Israels road-map commitment to stop building in the settlements, thus destroying faith in the plan. And he undermined the attempts of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, to assert his authority. When terrorists struck, Israels response often seemed calculated not to punish the guilty but to infuriate the innocent. Sharon employed clampdowns on movement within the West Bank, shelling in Gaza, and other poorly targeted, temporary, ineffective measures that did nothing for Israels security and much to increase Palestinian support for Abbass extremist opponents. Hamas, the Islamist opposition, which does not recognize Israel, scooped a majority of the legislature on January 25, partly because of Israels various attempts to prevent it from taking part. Even with Sharons help, Abbas might still have failed, but if Sharon had believed in bilateralism, he would have done more to prop up the most moderate leader the Palestinians have.

Technically, Ariel Sharon still lives. But in his slow-motion departure, he is already acquiring an aura that will affect, and perhaps distort, Israeli politics for years to come. It is Sharon the warrior-turned-peacemaker who faltered, tragically, just shy of his goal. Yet Sharons path would not have led to a lasting peace. Although his supporters hail him as the man who broke the taboo on dismantling settlements and ceding occupied Palestinian land, his more fundamental legacy was to show that there is a way for Israel to move forward without negotiating with the Palestinians. He also made it less likely for there to be anyone Israel is willing to negotiate with. His actions arguably contributed to Hamass victory in the Palestinian election on January 25. Sharon thus set in motion a process that may bring about a Palestinian state of sorts, but not an end to the conflict.

When Sharon came to power in 2001, the Oslo peace process was stuck. Most Israelis blamed its violent collapse in 2000 squarely, if a bit unfairly, on Yasir Arafat. Oslos successor, the road map peace plan, was conceived in 2002 but foundered almost immediately. (Its timetable ran out at the end of last year.) No Israeli politician willing to bargain land away for an empty Palestinian promise of peace was electable. And so Sharon offered an alternative: give up land without waiting for a promise. Last June, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Sharons Gaza disengagement plan our best chance to reenergize the road map. His supporters agree. Say what you like about Sharon’s bloody past and speculate all you want about his future plans, they argue,at least he set the vital precedent for territorial withdrawal.

Yet, as Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations argues, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza set a precedent not just for withdrawals but also for unilateralism. Sharon said he would return to the road map and its promise of eventual bilateral talks, but his actions spoke otherwise. He blatantly ignored Israels road-map commitment to stop building in the settlements, thus destroying faith in the plan. And he undermined the attempts of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, to assert his authority. When terrorists struck, Israels response often seemed calculated not to punish the guilty but to infuriate the innocent. Sharon employed clampdowns on movement within the West Bank, shelling in Gaza, and other poorly targeted, temporary, ineffective measures that did nothing for Israels security and much to increase Palestinian support for Abbass extremist opponents. Hamas, the Islamist opposition, which does not recognize Israel, scooped a majority of the legislature on January 25, partly because of Israels various attempts to prevent it from taking part. Even with Sharons help, Abbas might still have failed, but if Sharon had believed in bilateralism, he would have done more to prop up the most moderate leader the Palestinians have.

That he chose unilateralism supports the conclusion that Sharon was a tactician, rather than a strategist. It showed in his most storied military exploits, where he had a tendency to go further than his superiors wanted, putting immediate tactical advantage before strategic goals. Tactically speaking, unilateral pullouts and the undermining of Abbas make sense: They put Israel in charge of the day-to-day agenda. The construction that continues apace in the West Banknot just in the big settlements to the west of the security barrier, which everyone assumes will end up as part of Israel, but also in the more isolated Jordan Valley settlementsmakes tactical sense, too. Some see the construction as a sign that Sharon had no intention of ever giving up the West Bank, but it could have been a bargaining chip. After all, the more settlements there were, the more leverage he had. Perhaps there was no grand vision, merely the method that had served him all his life, that is, to keep the upper hand and the enemy on the wrong foot at all times.

To be sure, Sharon realized that the continued occupation of the Palestinians, who would soon outnumber Israelis, was turning his country into a pariah. It was also costly. Israel had to withdraw to borders more easily defensible both militarily and morally. But that alone was what mattered. Yes, a Palestinian state would arise, but as an eventual byproduct rather than a central goal of the process.

And largely thanks to Sharon, that state will have big settlement blocs cutting into it and hampering internal movement. It will have limited, if any, passage between the West Bank and Gaza. Jerusalem, the West Banks cultural and economic core city (as well as Israels administrative capital), will be inaccessible to most Palestinians. At worst, its external borders might remain under Israeli control. This stunted creation will not be stable or peaceful. Rockets over the border and tunnels beneath it will still allow terrorists to launch attacks on Israel, which, with its settlements gone, will be free to respond as harshly as any state does against a hostile neighbor. And so the conflict could grind on.

That, then, is Sharons dangerous legacy. He abandoned the win-win philosophy of bilateral peace talks for a win-lose approach of unilateral moves designed to keep Israel in charge of the process. The strategy was less risky for Israel in the short term, but damaging to both sides in the long run. And since low-risk short-termism is how governmentsparticularly Israeli coalition governmentstend to operate, it will be extremely hard for future prime ministers to reverse the trend that Sharon set.

Gideon Lichfield is deputy editor of The Economist online and was previously its Jerusalem correspondent.

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