No Israeli political leader has had a greater impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations in the past two decades than Ariel Sharon. He began to shape the nature (and the map) of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict many years earlier as the patron of the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, when he served as minister of agriculture and minister of defense in the two governments led by Menachem Begin.
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Later on, when, as minister of foreign affairs in the first government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, he returned from the Wye conference of 1998, he called on the Jewish settlers to quickly grab every hill throughout the West Bank in the wake of Netanyahu’s signing the agreement for the transfer of additional territories to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, whom Sharon despised.
However, Sharon principally influenced what would happen in the West Bank and Gaza after he became prime minister in the winter of 2001. His five dramatic years in that role encompassed both the peak and the end of the second intifada. To this very day, the critical decisions he made at that time in the war against Palestinian terrorism continue to determine reality in the West Bank. During Sharon’s premiership, 1,000 Israelis and more than 2,800 Palestinians were killed in the murderous confrontation between their two nations.
However, toward the end of his term of office as prime minister, it was clear that Israel, under Sharon, had achieved a decisive victory in the military confrontation with Palestinian terrorism, even if, on the peace process front, the situation was much more complex. Israel managed to put a stop to the suicide bombings and, although most of the credit must go to the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service, the measures used to effectively deal with Palestinian terrorism would never have been undertaken without Sharon’s leadership and guidance.
During the second intifada, Sharon made at least three critical decisions: the launching of Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002, the construction of the separation barrier that began a few months afterwards, and the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria in the West Bank in the summer of 2005. He also made other decisions that were of major significance: the adoption of the Road Map toward peace drawn up by the George W. Bush administration (marking the first recognition by a Likud prime minister of the two-state solution), the decision not to assassinate Arafat, and the full support Sharon gave to the establishment of illegal outposts by Jewish settlers, contrary to the official commitments he gave the Americans.
After he defeated incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the 2001 elections, Sharon changed one word – a critical change – in the seven clauses of the political directive issued to the IDF: Instead of reducing Palestinian terrorism, the IDF was now told to stop it. However, in practice, another year would elapse before Sharon would fully implement this new policy. Israel’s slow, step-by-step response to Palestinian terrorism at a time when hundreds of Israeli civilians were being killed in bombing attacks on buses stemmed from what Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn saw as the immense importance Sharon attached to the consolidation of two essential components: a broad-based national consensus supporting far-reaching military moves and the attainment of pivotal understandings with the United States.
It took quite a while for Prime Minister Sharon, who belonged to the generation that fought the 1948 War of Independence, and the senior officers in the IDF to see eye to eye. Sharon did not conceal his frustration with the weak-kneed approach and lack of initiative he claimed to find among the IDF’s top brass. Every time the prime minister would reminisce at length about the period when he served as commander of cross-border-attacking Unit 101, the IDF’s senior commanders would roll their eyes heavenward. “I have no idea how to operate this little gadget (he was referring to a laptop) but I did know how to fight,” he reprimanded a major general in charge of one the IDF’s three regional commands in front of the latter’s own officers. On another occasion, in a conversation with his comrades in arms from the IDF Paratroopers Brigade, he complained about the younger generation: “These aren’t the kind of paratroopers that I remember.”
He found common ground much more quickly with the Shin Bet under Avi Dichter’s directorship. It did not take Dichter long to discover Sharon’s penchant for targeted killings of Palestinian terror operatives with the help of advanced technology; in fact, Sharon would stay up until late in the evening in order to receive reports of successfully executed targeted killings. “We knocked off another mutt,” Sharon used to tell his close friends after another name had been crossed off from the list of wanted Palestinian terrorists.
On the way to Operation Defensive Shield, Sharon was forced to overcome the reservations and fears of the IDF’s top brass, as he recruited the support of the commanders of the various brigades – Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, today director of Military Intelligence; Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, today head of Northern Command; and Brig. Gen. (res.) Moshe (Chico) Tamir, a former Gaza Division commander who believed that those who sent suicide bombers on their deadly missions in Tel Aviv and Haifa must be arrested in their homes, in the
casbahs of Palestinian towns and in the refugee camps. The massacre carried out on Passover night at the Park Hotel in Netanya in March 2002 tipped the scales, and the IDF reoccupied Palestinian towns in the West Bank. There was no immediate victory. It would take another two years of nightly arrests and marathon interrogations conducted by the Shin Bet before Palestinian terror would be brought down to a “tolerable” level, and before life in Israel could return to “relatively normal.” It was a brutal, uncompromising process that had a harsh impact on Palestinian civilians, but in the end it brought the result Sharon had sought.
The media regarded the frequent reports of arrests of the heads of the military divisions of terrorist organizations, their successors and the successors of their successors with a large measure of ridicule. In practice, most of the senior terrorists were arrested or killed and their successors lacked the knowhow and experience to carry out further suicide bombings. Someone whom Sharon did not particularly like, then-IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, who is today defense minister, succinctly described what happened to the terrorist organizations: When the Palestinians realized that the price they themselves were paying for terrorist activities was greater than the price they were exacting from the Israeli public, the second intifada ground to a halt.
Building separation barrier
However, until the intifada finally ended, Sharon was forced to do something that went against his own security instincts – namely, to initiate the construction of the separation barrier. Sharon was not especially in favor of this project because he preferred taking the offensive in dealing with the terrorist problem, and because he feared that the barrier would establish borders for Israeli expansion into the West Bank. However, the continual stream of terror attacks, the pressure being applied by the Israeli general public and the Shin Bet’s unequivocal recommendation of such a measure forced his hand, and, two months after the end of Operation Defensive Shield, he made the decision to begin constructing the separation barrier. Here again, he tried – in typical Sharon style – to bite off more than he could chew. The intrusive route of the separation barrier led to harsh international criticism and a series of decisions by the High Court of Justice that led to the shifting of segments of the barrier westward. The separation barrier had a twofold effect: It helped thwart the attempts of suicide bombers to reach Israeli population centers, and it established a boundary line. From now on, any discussion of the future of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank would focus only on the area to the west of that boundary line.
A year and a half later, Sharon authorized the plan for Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the concomitant evacuation of all the Jewish settlements in the Gush Katif bloc. As
with the separation barrier, here too Sharon operated contrary to his original political position. Although he declared in 2002 that “the fate of Netzarim (a Gush Katif settlement evacuated during the disengagement) is the same as the fate of Tel Aviv,” the continuation of the second intifada led him to change his opinion in late 2003. There was a widespread feeling in the general Israeli public of utter disgust in the face of the wave of terrorist acts, and reservist members of prestigious IDF units, including Israel Air Force pilots and former members of the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit, signed petitions saying they would refuse to participate in certain military operations. In addition, cracks were being created in Israel’s international standing. Europe’s criticism of the conduct of Israeli military personnel in the West Bank and Gaza became much more strident, and the Israeli economy was witnessing the desertion of foreign investors. It is even perhaps possible that the criminal investigations that were beginning to be launched against Sharon and his sons during that period led him to conclude that a drastic step was necessary to change the country’s mood.
The decision to give up the Gush Katif settlement bloc and remove IDF soldiers from Gaza’s interior was also intended to save a project dear to Sharon’s heart: the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip granted Sharon, at age 77, unprecedented popularity in the international community. Today many Israelis do not regard the disengagement from the Gaza Strip as much of a success story: Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip and the rockets it has obtained since then threaten a wide range of Israeli communities, including even Tel Aviv. However, the Israeli withdrawal did demonstrate one important fact: A strong Israeli government is capable of making serious concessions and thus the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not have to be seen as absolutely insoluble. Four months after the last Jewish settlements in Gush Katif were evacuated, Sharon suffered his first stroke. The rabbis of the extreme right naturally saw it as heaven’s retribution for the disengagement plan.
Legacy of Lebanon
During his premiership, Sharon’s greatest mistake continued to hover in the background: The First Lebanon War of 1982, in whose wake he was ousted from his post as defense minister. Regarding Lebanon, Sharon maintained the consistently cautious approach, bordering on conciliation, that his predecessor in the prime minister’s office, Ehud Barak, followed after the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in May 2000. During Sharon’s premiership, the illusion of the rusting rockets was nurtured and Israel was very wary of responding with massive force to Hezbollah’s periodic provocations.
When Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah ordered an attack on an IDF patrol on the Israeli side of the border in July 2006, Sharon was already in a coma, to which he had succumbed more than six months earlier. His successor, Ehud Olmert, responded to Hezbollah’s challenge in a hasty move that was not backed by sufficient planning. The Second Lebanon War was conducted poorly – by both the politicians and the brigades involved in the combat – although it ultimately produced mixed strategic results. In the midst of this depressing war, the satirical program “Eretz Nehederet” Israel’s equivalent of “Saturday Night Live,” returned to the television screen with a special in which the first skit showed an unconscious Sharon in a hospital bed. The flow of news broadcasts on the fighting in Lebanon arouses him from his coma and he begins looking for former IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan (who had already died in November 2004) to resume command of Israeli troops.
The skit expressed the prevailing Israeli sentiment during this period that Sharon would have responded with greater patience and caution to Hezbollah’s challenge and would have waited for the right moment to strike back. The First Lebanon War was Sharon’s horrible – and unforgivable – failure. However, when the IDF once more became mired in Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War, it seemed many Israelis were willing for the moment to forget his previous sins - if he could only once more steer the helm of the country’s ship with a more confident hand than that of his successor, who marched into the Lebanese trap with arrogance and eyes wide open.