Friday, January 13, 2006

Maximum territory, minimum Arabs

By Tom Segev

Of all 11 Israel's prime ministers, none has been as admired and as hated as Ariel Sharon. Ben-Gurion was admired by many, but not hated by many. Many hated Golda Meir, and not that many admired her. Menachem Begin was admired and respected, even by people who disagreed with his positions. Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman never served as prime minister: Dayan was admired, but he aroused more fear than hate; Ezer Weizman stirred more affection than admiration. Sharon is admired and hated.

This week, everyone swallowed their hatred for Sharon - even the Gush Katif evacuees. Almost everywhere one turned, all that was heard were the voices of admirers. They described him as a good friend, a warm person abounding in humor and charm, an anxious shepherd devoted to the well-being of the sheep on his ranch. Believers went to the Western Wall to pray for his welfare, children sent him drawings and poems, journalists told about the heart-to-heart phone conversations he had with them, late into the night, how he never failed to share in their joys and sorrows, because that's the kind of guy Arik was. The words "hero" and "father" worked overtime.

On occasions like this, the media tends to fall into political kitsch, but this time it also groveled before the tendency of many Israelis to evade responsibility for what is done in their name and to leave "politics" in the hands of a strong leader who doesn't hassle them with the need to participate in decisions. Five years of terror and subjugation, of the economic crisis and the dismantling of the settlements in Gaza - have made Israel a very tired country; so tired that no one had the energy to whip up the withdrawal into a genuine national trauma.

Israelis forgave Sharon when he did the opposite of what he promised them before the elections, and streamed by the masses toward the vague and noncommittal political center that Sharon offered them, with or without Shimon Peres, with or without Dalia Itzik - who cares? Most Israelis also didn't get too worked up when the police informed the court that it had evidence allegedly indicating that Sharon accepted $3 million from an Austrian casino magnate. They wanted to rely on Sharon the way that Sharon has always relied on himself.

Sharon lives in absolute identification with the state; like many of his generation, he identified the state with the army, and identified the army with the national fate. From war to war, and as he climbed ever higher up the IDF ladder of command, Sharon convinced himself that he knows what's good for Israel and what's bad for it and is therefore worthy of leading it: without restrictions, doubts or inhibitions, without compromises and without partners.

He is an Israeli Napoleon, wrote veteran Sharon-watcher Uri Avnery, who was the editor of the weekly Haolam Hazeh. For the past 50 years, Avnery has admired Sharon, and also hated him.

'I don't hate Arabs'

His fame as a military man blossomed in the wars against Egypt, but the son of farmers from Kfar Malal didn't view the Arab armies as the main danger: The big threat was presented by the Arabs who lived in the Land of Israel. "I don't hate Arabs," he said once, "but I certainly have a deep feeling about our historic rights to the Land of Israel and this of course worsens my attitude toward the Arabs." He was referring to Israeli Arabs. They were his main enemy. Civilians or fighters - Sharon made no distinction between them. He viewed both as a threat to Israel's national identity.

In this, Sharon was no different from many others. From the day the Zionist movement began operating in the Land of Israel, it was conscious of the Arabs' resistance. From the day the first pioneers arrived, the Jews here have been arguing among themselves about the right way to live with "the Arab problem." They considered every possibility, everything from transferring the Arabs to another country to forming a binational state; they examined every possibility for dividing the land, but agreed on one fundamental principle: maximum territory, minimum Arabs.

Sharon accepted this principle, but scoffed at the impulse to self-flagellation that from the very beginning gnawed at the activity of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. "I believe with perfect faith that our survival is contingent upon a decisive insistence on our rights and, when there is a need, we must punish unyieldingly," he said. And he "punished" the Palestinians mercilessly.

The consequences of the Qibya raid that Sharon commanded in 1953 were so horrendous that at first the state tried to deny that the action had been carried out by a regular IDF force. Some 60 Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank village that was then in Jordan were killed; about half of them were women, children and the elderly. Sharon claimed that it happened as a result of a mistake and he was thereafter permitted to continue his service in the army. And the experience taught him that the state did not rule out his approach.

The suppression of the Palestinian population in Gaza in the early 1970s entailed a cruel violation of human rights; some saw it as amounting to war crimes, but again - no one stopped Sharon. He was permitted to continue in his military service and went on believing that he was doing the state a good service.

More than 30 years passed before he was rebuked for what happened to Palestinians on his watch. This was at the end of 1982 when the commission of inquiry investigating the massacre at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps ruled that Sharon ignored the danger of potential bloodletting when he decided to allow the Lebanese Phalangists into the camps. His responsibility for the massacre forced Sharon to give up his position as defense minister. "Whoever didn't want him as defense minister is going to get him as prime minister," his friend Uri Dan declared, which, of course, is just what happened, and further evidence that Sharon's basic approach to the Palestinians was not alien to his country.

An optimistic illusion

In addition to his war on the Palestinians, Sharon did more than perhaps any other person to build the settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. And therefore, no one did more damage to the chances of dialogue with the Palestinians. In this area, too, Sharon was not alone. After the Six-Day War, everyone agreed that Gaza would remain a part of the State of Israel; the debate over the West Bank was never settled, but still all agreed that there would be no return to the Green Line. Thus, there is no basis for portraying the settlers as "lords of the land" who imposed themselves on the government; many of them came to the territories at the behest of Ariel Sharon.

The withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of the settlements spawned the thesis that Sharon had evolved into a different person, into a "new Sharon." This was an optimistic illusion: Sharon remained the person he always was, believing solely in force, not a statesman who suddenly saw the light of peace. Sharon didn't believe in peace with the Palestinians mainly because he was never able to believe the Palestinians. He also held onto the principles of the map he liked to show visitors whom he took on tours of the territories.

The idea was to annex to Israel as much territory as possible along the Green Line and the Jordan Rift Valley and to concentrate the Palestinian population in enclaves that were either completely isolated from one another or connected only by narrow strips of land. Gaza was the first enclave that he created. The main change in his position wasn't in any recognition that the Land of Israel must be divided, but in his readiness to call the Palestinian enclaves a "state." This was the price he had to pay in return for broad, almost unreserved support from President Bush.

The permanent borders that Sharon wanted to establish would require the dismantling of some settlements that were built over the years in the West Bank, including some that contradict the goals of his map. The map didn't require the dismantling of the settlements in Gaza and therefore it wasn't Sharon the statesman who gave the order for them to be dismantled, but Sharon the army man, who reckoned that the price of the war on terror wasn't worth it. His removal of the settlers was a reflection of David Ben-Gurion's basic axiom: Man is nothing, the state is everything.

'A legend in uniform'

All of our prime ministers, including David Ben-Gurion, left behind documentary material that is not yet open to public scrutiny. Sharon kept notes, perhaps even a diary, and in the coming years, there will undoubtedly be many revelations about his actions and failures, everywhere from Dimona to Ramallah.

It's not easy to say what makes a person choose a military career; most Israelis have served in the army, but didn't choose to make the army their career. Those who did are therefore different somehow from the rest, in their psychological makeup, for one thing; often, army service is the fulfillment of a passion. Sharon once talked about how he felt during one of the military operations he took part in as a young man: "It was a moonlit night and I looked back and saw this huge column marching behind me. It gives a great feeling of power, of strength." The strength that Sharon radiated engendered both admiration and hatred.

Sharon fought in the country's War of Independence; he was wounded at Latrun. This week, an old man who saved Sharon's life all those years ago came to Hadassah Hospital and, naturally, his visit was followed by the cameras. He was permitted to go up to the seventh floor and when he returned, he reported happily that he'd seen Gilad.

The direct human connection to the state's beginnings contains, in itself, a certain enchantment. Sharon earned admiration not only because of the heroism attributed to him, but also because of the continuity that he conveys by virtue of the fact that he was there when the state was born; his roots are planted in the place where David Ben-Gurion stood. This bolstered his image as the last of the legendary giants.

As a paratroop commander, Sharon epitomized the invincible youthful masculinity that so many Israelis wished to claim for themselves or instill in their sons, the erect bearing and rootedness they sought to cultivate in place of the weakness and detachment they saw in Diaspora Jewry. "If a paratrooper knew that he was still alive as the result of an escape or a retreat, he would have only contempt for himself. He would see his life as worthless," wrote one journalist in the late 1960s.

On the eve of the Six-Day War, the country was in the grip of a terrible anxiety; the Holocaust was on the minds of many. The victory was perceived as a salvation from destruction and won Sharon much glory. "A legend in uniform," Geula Cohen called him in 1967. "He gives you the feeling that he is each and every one of the people, bigger and smarter and more handsome." Cohen was in awe of his silvery head, his solid shoulders, his strong chest, his eyes and his smile. The Yom Kippur War abruptly shattered the excessive self-confidence imparted by the Six-Day War and Sharon again emerged as a hero and savior. The bandage wrapped around his forehead because of his war injury became his symbol for a while, almost like the black patch that was the emblem of Moshe Dayan.

This week, one of the television networks in Europe offered the theory that the end of Sharon's career marks the end of the era of generals in Israeli politics. This is not so. It's true, though, that Sharon was one of the most political military officers and one of the most military politicians Israel has ever known. When he was still in the army, he used to maintain direct contact with politicians, including Ben-Gurion, who saw him as the embodiment of the new, secular Hebrew hero: "Much is yet in store for you," Ben-Gurion wrote to him, though he also noted in his diary that Sharon had a habit of lying to him.

As the Six-Day War grew more imminent, Sharon frequently meddled in politics in order to hasten the start of the war, and when he lost patience, he suggest that Rabin lock the whole government in one room and launch the war without awaiting their decision. After the Yom Kippur War, he immersed himself in the war of the generals, which was very political, and by the time of the Lebanon War, Sharon was already more of a politician than a military leader.

But Sharon isn't ending the "era of the generals" in Israeli politics because there never was such an era. In the decades since the days of Ben-Gurion, Israeli has had a number of prime ministers who were professional, life-size politicians, such as Moshe Sharett and Benjamin Netanyahu, and Sharon's potential successors are similar in that way: Not one of them has come into politics from the army.

The most prominent military man in Israeli politics was Dayan, but he was an exception: Many military people have tried their hand at politics, but only a few managed to leave their mark. Most didn't get far in politics. Many failed at it and were subsequently all but forgotten: Chiefs of Staff Yigael Yadin, Haim Bar-Lev, Mordechai Gur, Rafael Eitan and Amnon Shahak; Generals Aharon Yariv, Mati Peled, Rehavam Ze'evi, Yitzhak Mordechai, Ori Orr, Amram Mitzna - and countless others.

In recent years, the defense establishment has sent some new people into politics, people like Shaul Mofaz, Ami Ayalon, Uzi Dayan and Avi Dichter: Not one of them comes across as a particularly impressive leader.

Of Israel's 11 prime ministers, only three entered politics after a military career - Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. Rabin and Barak integrated into the apparatus of the parliamentary administration as civilian politicians; Sharon remained an army man his whole life. Somehow he managed to stay above party politics in the public consciousness: Many Israelis identified him with the state itself.

Sharon's first foray into politics was a failure. His Shlomzion experience showed him the swampy nature of the party system. He scoffed at the limitations of democracy and then resigned from the Likud. Kadima pledged, among other things, "to change the regime" in Israel, that is, to introduce a regime of one man, Sharon himself. He leaves behind a state that could arrive at elections consumed by one of the biggest dangers to democracy: boredom.

Between Paris and Jerusalem

Sharon's hospitalization has prompted the media to pore over its very favorite topic: itself. A few weeks ago, the newspapers criticized the Prime Minister's Office for releasing information regarding the prime minister's condition that was too partial and too late. Now the newspapers are asking if they didn't go overboard in their reporting. Between that peculiar French general with the funny hat and the scratchy voice who came out to the media once a day to say he had nothing to say about the condition of Yasser Arafat '(who was already dead, apparently') and Professor Shlomo Mor-Yosef who is so credible and matter-of-fact, I think I actually prefer Motti Ravid of Channel 10, who is capable of explaining the information given by the hospital and, most important, is also sometimes capable of saying that he doesn't know any more than what Sharon's doctors say.

For the past week, Israel's citizens have been like the patient's relatives sitting in the waiting room, waiting to hear what his doctors say. They want to know everything and have a right to know everything. They also need to know if the doctors caring for their relative erred in the diagnosis or treatment. At the same time, they don't need gossip from doctors unassociated with the case, whose names aren't even known. Not at all.


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