The Legacy of Ariel Sharon

Ariel Sharon, in a coma since January 2006, has fallen into critical condition and likely won’t live much longer. But his impact on Israel will last much longer. For most of the world he will always be a villain, but his legacy in Israel is more complicated. He had a catalytic effect on Israeli politics at least twice: in 1973 and in 1982. His formation of Kadima as a breakaway from Likud might be considered as contributing to a third major shift in Israeli politics.

Sharon was regarded as a war hero for a long time. Like most of Israel’s early leaders, he participated in the 1947-19 War. In the early 1950s he formed the famous/infamous Unit 101, a small guerilla unit whose mission was to retaliate against attacks by Palestinian terrorists and militants. It was, like all of Sharon’s activities, an aggressive enterprise. In 1953 he led Unit 101 on a retaliatory raid into Qibya, the West Bank (at the time part of Jordan). Scores of civilians were killed, solidifying Sharon’s reputation as someone who simply did what he believed he had to do, regardless of the consequences. Unit 101 was disbanded soon after, but some have argued that it was a major step in the process leading to the 1967 War.

As a commander in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, he was daring, insubordinate, and—again—aggressive (critics would say reckless). He performed similarly in the 1973 War, engineering a crossing of the Suez Canal that many believe turned the tide of the war in Israel’s favor. All of this earned him a well-respected and even admired reputation in Israel that he later built on for his political career.

It was about the same time that Sharon played an important role in his first shifting of Israeli politics. He was instrumental in the formation of Likud in 1973, an amalgamation of several parties on the right end of the political and economic spectrums. Until then, the leftist Mapai (the forerunner of Labor) had dominated the Israeli political system, serving as the senior partner in every government since 1948. Part of the reason the right had been unable to challenge Mapai/Labor was because it was divided into many smaller parties.

But Likud’s formation changed the political equation. Pushed by a series of social, demographic, and economic changes within the Israeli population and facilitated by the capture of the West Bank in 1967 and then the 1973 War, which clinched for many Israelis the sense that Mapai/Labor had stagnated and was out of touch with contemporary Israel, Likud’s founding made the right a viable political contender. In a shock to the political system, Likud won the 1977 elections with 43 seats to Labor’s 32, inaugurating an era of rightwing prominence that—despite National Unity Governments in the 1980s and Labor wins in 1992 and 1999—continues to this day.

Likud’s victory also served as the vehicle for religious Zionists and secular nationalists to more easily pursue their dreams of Greater Israel. Sharon, of course, played a critical role in this process, too, encouraging Israelis of all ideological and political stripes to move to the West Bank and Gaza.

Sharon’s second legacy was to change the sense of Israel’s security position. Prior to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israelis widely perceived their conflicts to be wars of “no choice” (ein breira). That is, they were forced into them in order to defend their security and even survival. 1982 was different: it was the first war of choice, and as such changed the perception of the Israeli military and of Israel’s own behavior and, indeed, its very identity.

Launched ostensibly in response to an assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador to the UK, it was really an effort by Sharon as Defense Minister, Raful Eitan as IDF Chief of Staff, and perhaps a few others (questions remain about how much Prime Minister Menachem Begin knew or suspected) to reorder the Lebanese political system and elevate the Maronite Christians to unchallenged leadership in the country. The Maronites would, it was presumed, be staunch allies of Israel and thus close down part of its northern border to Arab attack.

But the messy unfolding of the war—which included a direct invasion of Beirut, Israel’s indirect responsibility for the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugees camps, and the occupation of a strip of southern Lebanon until 2000—galvanized opposition to the war. It led to the largest demonstration to that point in Israel’s history against the war. With the IDF’s actions bleeding into riot control and policing in the first intifada soon after (1987), the conceptualization of Israeli security policy was irrevocably changed.

One could add that Sharon’s third legacy was the formation of Kadima as a breakaway from Likud in November 2005, after the summer withdrawal from Gaza. Designed to be a vehicle for Sharon’s plans for partial withdrawal from the West Bank, it would be too much to say that Kadima upended the Israeli political system. But in 2006 it became the first party that wasn’t Mapai/Labor or Likud to form the government. Its electoral strength and popularity have declined sharply since then (it’s currently at two seats in the Knesset), but it might be said to have facilitated the decline of Labor and, to a lesser extent, Likud.

Much ink will be spent on analyzing Sharon’s personality and policies. He was certainly a polarizing figure, disliked and mistrusted even in Israel. But there is no denying the effect he had on Israeli politics.

Yes, Israelis Are Open to a Palestinian State

Writing in Mondoweiss, Alex Kane argues that, based on the most recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, Israelis don’t actually want a two-state solution—contrary to a slew of previous surveys—because their version of a Palestinian state is so truncated and unviable that it’s not acceptable to Palestinians. He concludes that “Israeli society is too wedded to the continuing colonization of Palestine for a Palestinian state to come into being.”

Kane raises a fair point—that Israelis aren’t clamoring to leave the entire West Bank in return for a Palestinian state on the entire territory—but his argument rests on several presumptions that I don’t think can be taken as indicative of Israelis’ or Israel’s final position on a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

First, Kane assumes that public opinion polls determine outcomes. The general findings are that, in democracies, public opinion sets parameters rather than makes specific government policies, particularly in foreign affairs. This isn’t to say that governments can’t ever make policy with which the public disagrees; or that public opinion can’t constrain governments. But this general historical pattern, and indeed the specific historical pattern in Israel, indicates that if the Israeli public broadly and consistently supports peace with the Palestinians, which I think even Kane agrees is demonstrated in polling, then the government has the space to move forward on the peace process.

Kane draws a straight line from public opinion surveys to the specifics of a deal. But that’s not what public opinion is used for, nor how it’s properly understood. In some areas, for example, surveys on how people will likely vote, public opinion polls can be fairly accurate. But this is less so on critical foreign policy issues. It’s not the Israeli public that will determine the specifics of a deal. No-one has ever said getting to a final agreement would be simple, but we have plenty of previous official negotiations and track two efforts that show what Kane is concerned about may not be unbreachable obstacles when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators get close to the endgame. There’s nothing to support the conclusion that the Israelis will get everything they want, as expressed in the recent Israel Democracy Institute poll that Kane builds his case on; the negotiators themselves have said that “all issues” are on the table.

Second, Kane specifically mentions Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim as stumbling blocks, because most polls indicate Israelis want to keep them. They will probably prove to be two of the settlements over which negotiators will fight most. But that doesn’t translate into an inevitable inability to resolve the issue. If Israel keeps them, it might well be that Palestinians will be compensated for them through land swaps and a complex arrangement of corridors and alternate routes to Jerusalem and around the West Bank.

Third, Kane mentions the demilitarized nature of a Palestinian state as something likely to block an agreement. I’m not sure why this should be considered more of sticking point than Jerusalem or the right of return, but there isn’t anything to suggest that “demilitarized” can’t be finessed in talks. It might be a temporary Israeli or international military presence in the Jordan Valley; it might mean a defense treaty between Israel and Palestine giving the former the right to send soldiers through the latter’s territory to fend off a threat from the east; it might be a well-armed Palestinian police force but no military. It could mean many things—especially because there is a growing understanding in Israel that the Jordan Valley isn’t as necessary for Israel’s security as it once was. But being demilitarized isn’t something that will make or break a final agreement, nor is it the sin qua non for Palestinian statehood.

Fourth, the details of each poll that Kane references are important. At +972 Dahlia Scheindlin has a sharp and careful analysis of Israeli polls on peace talks. She points out there are real differences in the types of questions asked, and therefore the specific conclusions that commentators can draw from a single poll or question. Given these differences, it’s clear that there is considerable room to maneuver in negotiations, which gets back to my first point above. I highly recommend reading her piece in full.

Finally, Kane switches arguments to contend that Benjamin Netanyahu is not the leader to bring Israel into a final agreement. That’s probably where I agree most closely with him. I’ve argued that I’m skeptical Bibi will be the one to sign a final agreement. Maybe he will, but even if he doesn’t, a genuine process under Bibi will help maintain a positive atmosphere for continued negotiations under his successor. (I’m not suggesting the process continue for its own sake; I’m speaking of a serious set of talks.)

Even more importantly, the historical pattern favors Bibi. All of Israel’s prime ministers who engaged in talks with the Palestinians were hawks, all hardline in their own way. In his first term as prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin refused to consider the PLO a serious negotiating partner; as late as January 1993 he rejected direct talks with the organization. Yet he signed the Declaration of Principles and accepted in private the likelihood of a Palestinian state run by the PLO. Ehud Barak as Chief of Staff expressed considerable reservations about the Oslo Accords and as a politician abstained from the Knesset vote on Oslo II; yet at Camp David and Taba he broke longstanding Israeli taboos on final status issues. Ariel Sharon once said that “the fate of Netzarim [in Gaza] will be the fate of Tel Aviv”; in summer 2005 he withdrew all Israeli civilians and soldiers from the Strip. And Ehud Olmert was once considered a hardline rightist opposed to a Palestinian state; he now regularly talks about the coming division of Jerusalem.

What I’m saying is that the public declaration of leaders are important and need to be accounted for, but they aren’t necessarily the final determinant of their actual policies. The four prime ministers before Netanyahu are proof of this, while Bibi himself has been softening his own position on a Palestinian state. This is not to say that these Israeli leaders suddenly began to read from Mahmoud Abbas’s script; and clearly there were still gaps between their opening positions in negotiations and a fair, just solution for both peoples. But the difference between their previous statements and their later positions also cannot be ignored; it’s for sustained negotiation to bridge that gap.

If we want to look at Israeli public opinion and historical patterns, as Kane does, then they are at worst ambivalent about outcomes and dependent on conditions, and at best give concrete reasons why we can remain optimistic and hopeful for real change.