Commentary Magazine


Does Sharon Have a Plan?

In the history of modern Palestine, “disengagement”—the name that has been given to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s momentarily stalled plan to withdraw all Israeli forces and inhabitants from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank—has more often been called “partition.” It involves drawing borders and saying, “On this side Arabs, on this side Jews.” In principle, there is nothing new about it.

Of the large number of partition plans for solving the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine, the earliest dates to 1937. This was the proposal of the Peel Commission, appointed by the British government following the outbreak of the Palestinian “Arab Revolt” of 1936, to divide Palestine west of the Jordan into two states, of which the Jewish one, located in the Galilee and Mediterranean coastal plain, would occupy 20 percent of the territory. After this plan was rejected outright by the Arabs, a second body, the 1938 Woodhead Commission, recommended scaling down even further the already small area of the Jewish state. Soon afterward, the British concluded that partition was impractical and issued their 1939 White Paper, calling for a gradual transition to a single, binational Palestinian state with no Jewish immigration and a permanent Arab majority.

Yet the logic of partition remained. In 1947, when the British Empire was breaking up, Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were clamoring for admission to Palestine, and Palestinian Arab and Jewish nationalism were at new heights of hostility, the United Nations General Assembly voted to create a Jewish state in slightly more than half of Mandate Palestine and an Arab state in the other half. Turned down again by the Arabs, this initiative too was never implemented. Instead, the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war broke out, ending with partition on the ground and 77 percent of Palestine in Jewish hands. Most of the remaining 23 percent, now known as “the West Bank” of the Jordan River, was annexed to the kingdom of Jordan, with a strip of land around Gaza under Egyptian control.

Two decades later, the Six-Day war of June 1967 put an end to this division and reunited Palestine under Israeli rule. It also spawned new partition plans. There was the Arab plan for an Israeli withdrawal to the same 1949 armistice lines that the Arabs had refused to recognize before the war. There was the Allon plan, semi-officially held by Israel’s Labor governments up until their electoral defeat in 1977, which envisaged Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley and areas around Jerusalem and the return of most of the West Bank to the Jordanians. There was the Clinton-Barak plan of the year 2000, based on territorial exchanges between post-1967 Israel and a future Palestinian state. Irrespective of their details, all of these schemes, starting with the Peel Commission’s, rested on the same premise—namely, that however strong the case for keeping Palestine one country, Arab-Jewish enmity and the radically different cultural and historical experiences of the two peoples made living together a practical impossibility.

Nevertheless, when viewed as the latest in a long series of partition plans, today’s “disengagement” has some distinctive features. One is that it would be unilateral, carried out by Israel without Palestinian agreement. Another is that, since it would involve Israeli retention of parts of the West Bank, it would leave the Jewish state with upward of 80 percent of Palestine, a higher percentage than any of its predecessor plans. Still another is that, although it too has been rejected by the Palestinians and the Arab world, this partition plan is the first to have been supported on the Jewish side by the leader of the political Right—indeed, to have been conceived and initiated by him.

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There is an obvious reason why the Zionist Right has traditionally opposed partition, even as a majority on the Zionist Left has tended historically to favor it. The former, like political right wings everywhere, has by definition been ideologically nationalistic and taken a hard line on territorial issues. Whereas, both before and after the establishment of the state of Israel, the Left has refused to make the territorial integrity of “the land of Israel” a supreme political cause, the Right has consistently done just that.

Thus, for example, although the partition plan of the Peel Commission offered frightfully little territory to the proposed Jewish state, most of the Zionist Left, as represented by its two Palestinian and Diaspora leaders (David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann), favored accepting it as a basis for negotiation. At a time when any Jewish state, no matter how small, could rescue large numbers of desperate European Jews, even a disadvantageous partition, they thought, was better than nothing. (Nor did either of them rule out the possibility of territorial expansion in the future.)

The Right, on the other hand, opposed the Peel plan as strenuously as did the Arabs. “Our right to the whole of Eretz-Israel, undivided . . . supersedes [all practical] construction,” wrote Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the head of the Revisionists, the main right-wing Zionist party of the Mandate period, in 1937. “Let not Gentile hands abuse our rights, but first and foremost, let not Jewish hands forfeit those rights which are eternal and indivisible. . . . Zion is all ours!”

A similar debate took place in 1947, when the Left, which controlled the political institutions of Jewish Palestine, accepted the UN partition plan while the Right, led by Menachem Begin and the paramilitary Irgun, fought it bitterly; between 1967 and 1977, when the governments of Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin pursued a policy, attacked by an opposition led by Begin, of “land for peace”; in 1978-79, when Begin, now in power as head of the Likud party, refused to surrender Israeli claims to the West Bank and Gaza in peace negotiations with Egypt at Camp David (he agreed to withdraw from all of Sinai only because Sinai was never considered part of Palestine); and in 1993-96 and 1998-2001, when Likud, out of power once more, denounced first the Oslo agreement and then the Camp David and Taba negotiations for their territorial concessions.

In a sense, indeed, the Left-Right debate over partition goes even farther back, to the period of Ottoman rule before World War I. Then, the issue was not territorial but economic. The Left, composed of socialist-Zionist immigrants who had arrived in Palestine in the early years of the 20th century, demanded a separate all-Jewish economy, with its own proletariat and class structure, from which Arab labor and joint Arab-Jewish capital would be excluded. The Right, whose main backers were the private farmers of the first Zionist agricultural settlements established in the late 19th century, favored economic integration, in part because these farmers employed Arab workers who were cheaper and more reliable than Jewish ones.

This difference remained significant in Left-Right politics until 1948, and in some ways even after 1967. In the years immediately following the Six-Day war, it was the right wing of the Labor party led by Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, that supported the building of settlements in all of the occupied territories, arguing that a “functional solution” would enable Arabs and Jews to share power there by virtue of their common economic interests. The party’s left wing dismissed this as unrealistic.

The paradox, then, is this: the mainstream Zionist Left, though it spoke the language of human brotherhood, traditionally saw no room for large numbers of Arabs in a Jewish state. By contrast, the nationalistic Right believed a large Arab minority could be accommodated by the practical incentives that coexistence would provide. This was why, in the 1930′s, when the Zionist Left toyed with the notion of a “transfer” of Palestine’s Arabs to other Arab countries, one of the most vigorous opponents of the idea was Jabotinsky who declared that a Jewish state would always have a large Arab population, “and that is good enough for me, provided the Jews have the majority.”

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Historically, therefore, Sharon’s disengagement plan was momentous, even if it was rejected by a resounding vote on May 2 in an internal Likud referendum that the prime minister and his advisers initially had hoped to win by a large margin. Although Likud’s political history is complex—the party was founded after the 1973 Yom Kippur war by a merger (behind which Sharon was the driving force) of several right-of-center parties, and right-wing splinter groups have continued to drift in and out of it—at bottom it remains the direct descendant of the Revisionists. Its Tel Aviv headquarters are named for Jabotinsky, and a large portrait of him adorns party functions. Disengagement represents the abandonment of 75 years of Jabotinsky’s policies on Palestine, and Likud voters have declared, at least for the moment, that they are not ready to follow Sharon in breaking with them.

Sharon was under no obligation to conduct a party referendum—or, for that matter, any referendum at all—before presenting his plan for approval to Israel’s Knesset. Nor was a Likud ballot his first choice. He would have preferred a nationwide plebiscite, in which pro-disengagement sentiment would have been proportionally far stronger. He rejected that route only because, Israel having no precedent for such a procedure, it would have met with lengthy legal and parliamentary impediments.

Two considerations made Sharon want a popular vote of some kind. One was the strong opposition to disengagement within Likud’s Knesset faction and central committee, which he hoped to squelch by a show of rank-and-file support. The other was the fate of Yitzhak Rabin and the Labor party following the 1993 Oslo accord. By trying to lead an evenly divided country into a fateful political process, Rabin had turned Israel against itself at a horrendous cost, not least of all to himself. Sharon was determined to avoid this mistake and to demonstrate, on a level more binding than that of public-opinion polls, that he had behind him a clear majority of Israelis, or—what would amount to the same thing—a narrower edge in his own traditionally anti-partition party.

His defeat in the Likud referendum was immediately attributed to various factors. They included, on the day of the balloting, the murder by Gaza Strip terrorists of a Jewish mother and her four daughters, which caused a hard-line reaction in many Likud voters; the overconfidence of supporters of the disengagement plan, which led to poor organization in the field; the refusal by senior Likud cabinet ministers to pitch in on Sharon’s behalf, or do more than pay lip service to a plan they preferred not to be actively associated with; and the mobilization of a disciplined and well-financed settler movement, which, though most of its members vote for right-wing parties other than Likud, campaigned massively on behalf of a “No” vote.

All of these things played a role. And yet there was something else that was at least as crucial as any of them but that attracted much less comment—namely, the fact that the disengagement plan, as publicly outlined by the prime minister, did not make a great deal of sense.

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On the face of it, indeed, Sharon’s plan seemed highly illogical. In the first place, there was no congruence between it and the West Bank security fence that Israel is now building at enormous expense and under heavy international criticism.

True, in addition to the evacuation of nineteen settlements from the Gaza Strip, which has been surrounded by its own fence for years, Sharon spoke of evacuating four more small settlements in the northern West Bank. But once the West Bank fence is finished next year, dozens of other Jewish settlements, with tens of thousands of inhabitants, will be left on its eastern, Palestinian side. If these are allowed to remain there, they will need an army to defend them and Israel will go on straddling both sides of the fence, which will then serve only as an anti-terrorist barrier and not as the political and military border of a repartitioned Palestine. What, then, will disengagement have disengaged from? And why evacuate all settlements from Gaza when they too could be left on the other side of a fence until a solution were found for them and the West Bank settlements together?

Moreover, even while arguing for disengagement, Sharon went on declaring his support for the Bush administration’s “road map,” which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But under disengagement, even if the eventual borders were to be congruent with the West Bank security fence, Israel would end up with all of Palestinian Jerusalem and additional chunks of the West Bank. How would a Palestinian state, split between Gaza and the West Bank on less than 20 percent of the land area of the British Mandate, and deprived of its main commercial, cultural, and geographical hub, be viable? And how could an American government committed to such a state sincerely back disengagement, as it purported to do during Sharon’s April visit to Washington, the claimed success of which was emphasized by Likud’s pro-disengagement forces in appealing for a “Yes” vote?

These questions could not have escaped the nearly 100,0000 Likud members who went to the polls on May 2, many of whom voted “No” at least in part because they could not find the answers to them. They did not have to be territorial maximalists to be affected by the arguments against disengagement—its uprooting from Gaza of thousands of Jewish settlers, for example, many with children and grandchildren born there; or its inevitably being viewed as a triumph for Palestinian terror, whose perpetrators would take full credit for it; or its unilateral nature, which would permit the Palestinian forces in Gaza to go on fighting Israel by other means, switching from close-quarter attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlements to rocket and mortar bombardments on towns and villages in Israel proper. If, in addition to all this, disengagement was self-contradictory even on its own terms, how could one possibly vote for it?

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What the average Likud voter understood, Ariel Sharon can be assumed to have understood as well. What then made him stake his political prestige, and possibly his political future, on something as nebulous and full of holes as disengagement?

One can dismiss as unsatisfactory some of the more Machiavellian explanations that have been given. It has been said, for instance, that disengagement was a ploy to make Sharon historically indispensable at a time when he was facing possible indictment for financial regularities, thus scaring away potential prosecutors from his case. Or that he himself had no clear sense of what his plan was meant to accomplish but was seeking to create an illusion of political momentum so as to reverse his slipping popularity in the polls. Or that, on the contrary, he had a very clear sense, which was to give up Gaza with its over one million Palestinians, thus lessening the diplomatic and demographic pressure on Israel, while retaining all of the West Bank. Or even that he was hoping all along that the plan would be rejected, having never meant it seriously in the first place.

Such theories are unworthy, less because of their cynicism (which Sharon, a politician who regularly practices tactical deception, has inspired a great deal of) than because they do not square with the facts—neither the facts of his long military and political career, in which he has consistently preferred bold if sometimes simplistic strategic conceptions to temporizing or muddling through, nor the facts of his present term of office. Thus, already a year ago, when his legal situation seemed less threatening and his popularity in the polls was still high, Sharon declared in the Knesset, in language never used before by a Likud leader, that Israel must cease ruling over millions of Palestinians and that the “occupation”—a word traditionally anathema to the Israeli Right when applied to the West Bank and Gaza Strip-had to stop. Disengagement, it would appear, was on his mind at least as far back as then.

It may have been there long before that. It is impossible to say just when Ariel Sharon began considering a unilateral withdrawal to lines of Israel’s own choosing as a way of breaking out of the impasse with the Palestinians, an idea first seriously floated on the Israeli Left after the failure of the Taba talks of December 2000. He has never chosen to reveal when or how he made this decision. Most political analysts have attributed it to his conclusion, even after the massive Israeli anti-terror offensive of the spring of 2002, that Palestinian violence could not be quelled by force or diplomacy. But its origins may have been earlier. Soon after the outbreak of the current wave of Palestinian violence in September 2000, for example, he spoke—again uncharacteristically for a Likud leader—of the need for a “painful” solution involving “very large-scale compromises,” a formula subsequently shortened by him to “painful compromises” and repeated with mantra-like frequency. Since he was then attacking as too large-scale the concessions that Ehud Barak was ready to make to the PLO, what compromises could he have been thinking of other than those that Israel would make unilaterally, with itself?

Even if the die, therefore, was cast only last autumn, when Sharon first announced his disengagement plan, he seems to have been seriously thinking about it for a long time. Since he is not known to be a careless planner, one is compelled to assume that there is more to disengagement than the inconsistencies that meet the eye. Everything we know about Ariel Sharon leads to the assumption that his own conception of disengagement must bear an internal logic that his outward presentation has lacked.

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In practice, this can mean only one thing. Sharon’s ultimate intention must be to withdraw not only from the Gaza Strip but also, once construction of its security fence is finished sometime next year, from most of the West Bank; to evacuate all Jewish settlements beyond the fence; and to turn both it and the fence around Gaza into permanent military and political borders that will be relatively impermeable to suicide bombs and other terrorist attacks. Only such an intention, indeed, can explain the agonizingly long debates that have gone and continue to go into determining where the fence should run, months sometimes being consumed in deciding whether it should be moved this way or that so as to take in some settlement or strategic hilltop or exclude a Palestinian village or its fields. Nothing short of a permanent border could justify such painstaking deliberation.

There are two reasons why Sharon would have refrained so far from stating that this has been his plan. Since it could not in any case be fully implemented before the fence’s completion, he would have wanted to use the time available to prepare the Israeli public for it gradually, and especially his own political camp—which, as last month’s referendum demonstrated, cannot easily digest even a withdrawal from Gaza, let alone one from most of the West Bank. This may be why, in addition to the settlements in Gaza, he slated four small Jewish villages in Samaria for evacuation.

Of no importance in themselves, these villages had great symbolic value. Their function was to accustom Israelis, especially on the political Right, to the idea that West Bank settlements could be removed too. Once this was accepted, Sharon seems to have believed, it would be possible to proceed to a far more sweeping and far more controversial withdrawal that, had it been bared in advance, might have caused a premature public furor and a full-fledged revolt in Likud. Why insist on crossing bridges prematurely?

Sharon had Washington to take into consideration, too. Although there is no knowing what explicit or tacit understanding he reached there in April, it is hard to believe that President Bush and his staff were unaware of what Sharon’s thinking was, or that at bottom it was incompatible with Palestinian statehood. Not just domestic Israeli politics but the administration’s public commitment to that statehood, as well as to a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement based on it, required the fiction that the West Bank fence was solely for security purposes. While sooner or later the fiction would have to be discarded by both sides, it was convenient to maintain it for as long as possible. Even if Sharon had wished to tell Israelis the truth now, his obligations to the United States would have ruled out doing so.

Disengagement was thus ridden with subterfuge. Politically and diplomatically, this was perhaps unavoidable. Yet for Likud members debating whether to support the plan in their referendum, it was confusing. And for the plan’s opponents, ironically, the consequences of this subterfuge were to assist the airing of other charges of subterfuge that had nothing to do with the subterfuge actually taking place. K’godel ha-hakirah, godel ha-akirah, “The more investigations [of Sharon's finances], the more evacuations [of settlements],” went a popular anti-disengagement slogan in the run-up to the Likud vote. Accused of the wrong deceptions, Sharon could not defend himself by confessing to the right one.

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Is disengagement, nevertheless, a proper policy for Israel to be pursuing? The answer is yes. Disengagement is proper because a unilateral partitioning of Palestine along the lines of the Gaza and West Bank security fences is Israel’s best option for the future. Israel cannot swallow the Palestinians. It cannot drive them out. It cannot arrive at a peaceful settlement with them. All it can do is disengage itself from them.

It is not an ideal solution. A better one would have been a negotiated partition in which Israelis and Palestinians would live in two separate but friendly states within the geographical framework of one, mutually accessible country. But such an arrangement, if it was ever feasible, is so no longer. Four years of Palestinian terrorism, and the lawlessness of a Palestinian society that has come to be dominated by fanatically Israel-hating gunmen and religious groups, make it evident that a Palestinian state friendly to Israel is an impossibility in our time. And since Israelis have no particular interest in an unfriendly Palestinian state, it is enough for them to concentrate on being a Jewish state with militarily and demographically defensible borders while letting the Palestinians fend for themselves.

What the Palestinians will then do politically is an open question. But it is, indeed, time to reexamine the commonplace that the Palestinians need to have their own state, which has become such a shibboleth of contemporary intellectual and diplomatic discourse that even politicians and Middle East specialists sympathetic to Israel mouth it as an axiom. But why should it be axiomatic? Because all national and ethnic groups that want their own states and have struggled for them must get them, in the name of self-determination? If so, why is it not a commonplace that there should be a state of Tibet, a state of Southern Sudan, a Tamil state in Sri Lanka?

And why is it an axiom in today’s world that the Kurds should not have a state? Why of all the peoples on earth who have not yet been granted the sovereignty they have fought for—the Chechnyans, the Uighurs of China, the Karens of Burma, the Mizos and Nagas of northeast India, the Ibo of Nigeria, the Western Saharans of Morocco, the Acehans of Indonesia, to name but a few—should the Palestinians alone be universally acknowledged as deserving of it? Is it perhaps because, having attained a degree of political independence that few other nonsovereign peoples have achieved, they have systematically wasted the opportunity by creating an authoritarian, corrupt, and anarchically violent political structure that has brought them and others nothing but misery?

If anything, there are far less compelling reasons for a Palestinian state than there are in the case of other peoples. Apart from the competence to manage one’s own affairs, of which the Palestinians have so far demonstrated little, one important criterion for statehood must surely be the degree to which a people is different from its neighbors and needs the framework of sovereignty to protect that uniqueness. The Tibetans, for example, have their own special culture, language, and religion, which they will lose if they continue to be ruled by the Chinese; the Kurds have a culture and language unlike that of the Arabs; the Karens a language and religion different from that of the Burmese.

But the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza have none of these things. They are Muslims just like the Arabs of Jordan and Syria. They speak the same dialect of Arabic that is spoken in Jordan and Syria. They have the same family structure, customs, dress, foods, music, and social values that are found in Jordan and Syria. And they live in an environment whose physical landscape, flora, fauna, and climate are indistinguishable from much of Jordan and Syria. Moreover, they share a common border with the Arabs of Jordan and have strong kinship ties with them, there being hardly a West Bank family that does not have relatives there. If the international community expects the Tibetans to get along as part of China, the Kurds as part of Iraq, and the Karens as part of Burma, why, apart from kowtowing to Arab pressure, should the Palestinians not be expected to get along as part of Jordan?

After four years of being the target of unremitting Palestinian terror, Israel does not owe the Palestinians anything except the obligation to let them live their own lives, free of Israeli domination and control—or, conversely, to extend full citizenship and civil rights to the small number of them ending up on the Israeli side of a unilaterally determined border. Those on the other side can reunite with Jordan, to which the West Bank belonged from 1949 to 1967. (The Gaza Strip, too, could be linked to Jordan by means of a corridor.) They would certainly enjoy a more stable and prosperous life under the Jordanian government than they did under the PLO.

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Nearly 70 years after the Peel Commission’s proposal, its premises remain valid: the Jews and Arabs of Palestine cannot live together and must split the country between them. There is no “fair” way of doing this. In 1937 it was the Arabs who had a chance to take four-fifths and refused. Now it is the Jews who have it. One could say that the Likud party, true to the heritage of Jabotinsky has refused, too, were it not that it quite literally did not know what it was doing.

At the moment, the future of both Ariel Sharon and his disengagement plan remains unclear. Sharon gambled on Likud and lost badly, and the choices now facing him are difficult. But whichever way he moves, and even if he himself does not survive politically, disengagement will not only remain on the Israeli agenda, it will shed the cloak of concealment that has so far prevented an intelligent public discussion of it and be debated on its real merits. Once the West Bank security fence is in place, these will cry out in all their obviousness for the plan’s adoption. If Ariel Sharon is not the man to see it through, someone else surely will.

May 5, 2004

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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