Many critics of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon depict him as an adroit tactician who has a ready answer for every immediate problem, but entirely lacks a long-term strategy. Ari Shavit, a columnist for the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, recently characterized the present Sharon government as having “no principles, inspiration or vision…no comprehensive, coherent concept.” Of course, Shavit’s comment referred above all to the prime minister himself.

On the eve of Sharon’s April 13-14 visit to the United States, where he seeks George W. Bush’s license for a unilateral Israeli “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip, many speculated that this scheme, too, is only a tactic. Sharon is infamous for having spoken against every peace agreement that required Israel to withdraw from territory. Why would he now advocate a withdrawal, however limited in scope? Especially in the decades before he became prime minister, Sharon owed his political prominence to his role as informal spokesman for the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. Why would he now stake his office on a plan that would require some of those settlers—most of them intensely ideological—to “abandon” their dwellings and move elsewhere? As the prime minister prepared to fly westward on the evening of April 12, hundreds of right-wing demonstrators reportedly processed from Jerusalem toward Ben Gurion International Airport, demanding that the “disengagement” plan be dropped or that far-right parties bolt from Sharon’s coalition in protest.

Before leaving Israel, however, Sharon attempted to reassure this constituency. Speaking in Maale Adumim, a large settlement east of Jerusalem, the premier named it, along with Ariel, the Gush Etzion bloc and Givat Zeev, as West Bank settlements that “will remain in Israeli hands and will continue to develop” if the planned withdrawal of settlers and soldiers from Gaza goes forward. According to a transcript posted online by Haaretz, Sharon also said that “Hebron and Kiryat Arba will be strong,” a reference to four tiny settler enclaves in a southern West Bank town and another settlement outside of Hebron. Sharon defended his proposed unilateral steps as necessary for achieving Israel’s strategic goals: “Only an Israeli initiative will ensure the essential interests of Israel; only an Israeli initiative will halt the Palestinian dream of returning to the 1967 borders and flooding Israel with refugees.”

Zigzags and U-Turns

Commentators who share Shavit’s view of the prime minister as a myopic master tactician tend to support their hypothesis by citing the well-known zigzags during his career as an actor in Israeli politics. They offer the notable example of the 1978 Camp David talks—between then Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, with President Jimmy Carter as mediator—that eventually resulted in an Israeli peace deal with Egypt. Having energetically fostered the Jewish settlement blocs of Yamit in the Sinai, which had been occupied by Israel since 1967, Sharon did an apparently total about-face and backed Begin’s decision to return the peninsula to Egypt. Sharon himself, in his capacity as minister of defense, ordered and executed the evacuation of the very settlements whose construction he had championed. He seemed oblivious to the howls of outrage from his erstwhile settler protégés as the buildings of Yamit were bulldozed into rubble.

Another example of Sharon’s apparent inconsistency is more recent. Initially a vigorous opponent of the so-called “security fence” first proposed by Labor Party leaders in 2001 as an ostensible means of keeping Palestinian suicide bombers away from Israeli population centers, he has gone on to supervise its construction and embrace its spirit. Turning a deaf ear to protests from right and left, the prime minister has approved building the wall-and-fence complex in a vigorous drive to turn Palestinian population centers into a series of fenced-off enclosures, in effect a vast prison camp. The minor adjustments made to the barrier’s route after complaints from settlers or US officials do not alter the finality of Sharon’s seeming reversal on the question of whether to erect the wall at all.

Sharon’s alleged U-turns extend to his use of language. Long scornful of Israeli liberals and other domestic opponents of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, in 2003 Sharon adopted their “leftist” catch phrases, pointing to the undesirability of Israel ruling over three and a half million Palestinians and cheerfully advocating “two states for two peoples.” For uttering the latter slogan, Israeli peace activists had often suffered physical violence at the hands of Sharon’s followers.

The Long View

Is “Arik”—as he is affectionately nicknamed by his loyalists on the settler right—then an incurable opportunist, constantly veering to meet changing circumstances or political convenience? Is he nothing more than a “talented manipulator,” as another Haaretz columnist, Gideon Samet, portrayed him recently? A closer study suggests that Samet and Sharon’s other adversaries do him an injustice. In fact, his tactical twists and turns are more of a modus operandi, the ingrained habit of a seasoned field commander skilled in catching his enemies off balance. But there is more to it than mere maneuver. However he may change his approach to any particular issue, it is far more accurate to depict Sharon as a man with a clear view of his long-term objective, which, however, he may elect to approach from unexpected directions.

A striking illustration of Sharon’s consistency of purpose arises from the following episode during his military career. During the “Black September” of 1970, when Jordan’s King Hussein launched a vigorous onslaught on the Palestinian militias and their power base in the refugee camps around the Jordanian capital of Amman, elements of the “Palestine Liberation Army” (PLA) stationed in Syria responded to the appeals of their embattled brethren and began moving south toward Jordan. According to some sources, some fighters in these PLA units (as well as Syrian tank columns) did intervene in the battles. Detecting the approach of these units, the Israeli authorities conveyed an ultimatum to the Syrians, warning that if the PLA did not return to base forthwith, they would be attacked by the Israeli air force. In view of Israel’s close relations with Jordan’s Hashemite regime, the threat appeared to be in keeping with overall policy, and gained general acceptance in the general staff of the Israel Defense Forces. The only dissenting voice came from Gen. Ariel Sharon, who did his best to persuade his colleagues and their political masters that it would be in Israel’s strategic interest to grant the Palestinians a chance to overthrow the Hashemites and take control of Jordan. Sharon’s unorthodox objections were brushed aside, the ultimatum was delivered, the PLA units halted their participation and Hussein went on to crush the Palestinian uprising.

But for almost three decades after that episode, Sharon—now a civilian politician—adhered unswervingly to his view, making a great show of the slogan that “Jordan is Palestine” and expressing the conviction that Israel should encourage the Palestinians to achieve self-determination to the east of the Jordan river. His thinking was clear: if it were accepted in world opinion that Jordan was in effect the long-awaited “Palestinian state,” Palestinian claims to independence in the West Bank and Gaza would forfeit much of their international validity, granting Israel a free hand to take over these territories. Only recently did Sharon abandon this strategy in favor of an apparent acceptance of the inevitability of a Palestinian “entity” ultimately emerging to the west of the Jordan river.

Calculated About-Face

If Sharon does indeed keep his eye on the long term with such persistence, how is one to explain his about-face in relation to the Sinai settlements? The reason is not difficult to discover. During the Camp David talks with Carter and Sadat, Begin is known to have held a lengthy telephone consultation with Sharon. Their conversation ended with Sharon giving Begin the green light to go through with the proposed “land for peace” deal whereby Sinai would revert to Egypt—a step which inevitably entailed surrender of the Jewish settlements Sharon had hitherto defended. Details of their discussion have never been published, but it appears that Begin and Sharon agreed to give in to Sadat’s demands, in the expectation that a peace deal with Egypt—albeit with its stipulation that the Palestinians be granted “autonomy”—would in fact leave Israel free to retain its hold on the Palestinian territories.

Sharon’s consent to relinquish the Sinai settlements can be compared to a chess player’s willingness to sacrifice minor pieces in order to capture a strategic advantage. Or perhaps, in view of his military background, it was the move of a commander drawing in exposed and vulnerable flanks, in order to concentrate his forces for a major lunge at his principal objective. He knew that Egypt would never surrender its claim to Sinai, and that continued occupation of the peninsula would leave Israel under constant threat of an Egyptian offensive, such the one launched in 1973, to reclaim its lost territory. The necessity of preparing for such an eventuality would tie down Israeli forces and soak up resources, eroding Israel’s ability to control and colonize the lands it had conquered within the bounds of the biblical land of Israel.

It was not an easy choice. Sharon would certainly have preferred to hold on to Sinai. Prior to 1973, when Moshe Dayan, then defense minister, affirmed that “it is better to have [the Sinai port] Sharm al-Sheikh without peace, rather than peace without Sharm al-Sheikh,” Sharon heartily endorsed this view. But when it became evident that retaining Israel’s hold on Sinai jeopardized “Greater Israel” dreams, Sharon reached a calm and calculated decision to give up the peninsula, settlements and all. Bulldozing them was merely a petulant postscript, a farewell “dog-in-the-manger” gesture whereby Sharon sought to ensure that houses built for Jewish settlers would not be occupied by Egyptian Arabs.

Thorn in the Flesh

Sharon’s conduct in relation to the Sinai settlements goes a long way toward explaining the apparent about-face entailed in his current plan to withdraw from Gaza and a few West Bank settlements. The prime minister’s critics on the far right vigorously oppose the “separation” plan and are already engaged in lobbying the Likud rank and file, ahead of the referendum planned for May 2, 2004 wherein the party will be asked to give the plan its approval. These diehards’ propaganda relies heavily on quotes from Sharon himself, who only in 2003 extolled the enormous strategic importance of Netzarim and other Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, and insisted that any withdrawal would gravely prejudice national security. In the rhetorical standoff, such quotes offer the opposition ready ammunition, as do insinuations—not always oblique—that the separation plan is merely a ploy to divert public attention from the criminal charges hanging over Sharon and his sons, or a way of dissuading the attorney general from submitting a formal indictment.

But Sharon is not to be put off by charges of inconsistency or attacks on his personal integrity. His response will take the long view, appealing to sentiments long prevalent in Israeli public opinion. An awareness of the utter futility of maintaining the settlement footholds in the Gaza Strip is not limited to the Israeli peace movement. The mainstream “doves” of the Labor Party, such as former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, had long spoken of taking this step. Today, even some of the more level-headed members of Sharon’s own party admit that it makes no sense whatsoever to keep approximately 7,500 Jewish settlers in enclaves emplaced at the heart of Gaza, where they constitute a constant thorn in the flesh of a Palestinian population of close to a million and a half. Netzarim itself, with its 60 families, is reported to require the protection of an entire battalion of Israeli troops. The settlers and their defenders generate incessant friction with the Palestinian population, which is required to put up with restrictions and daily humiliation imposed ostensibly to ensure the safety of their unwelcome neighbors. But since the suicide bombers have rendered Israeli opinion largely indifferent to Palestinian suffering, the main incentive Sharon can offer to attract public support for his “separation” plan is the hope of extricating the army from the “Gaza morass.”

It is the hope of rallying public support that has induced Sharon to spring his “referendum” demarche. Finding that his colleagues in the Likud leadership were largely hostile to the separation plan, Sharon went over their heads to the party’s 200,000 members. Unable to oppose such an unexceptional democratic procedure, the rebels have gone along with the “mini-referendum,” launching an intensive campaign to win the rank and file to their viewpoint. But although initial polls show a majority of Likud members opposed to the separation plan, Sharon can probably rely on the party’s traditional loyalty to its leaders, and his control of the party apparatus, to swing the vote in his favor.

Eyes on the Prize

Thus we find Sharon—a politician notorious for his expansionist philosophy and his indifference to democratic values—in the uncharacteristic dual role of advocating withdrawal and resorting to democratic consultation to ram his plan through. Is this the same man?

One should not be misled. Sharon has not changed his spots. His show of concern for popular feeling is no democratic epiphany, but is merely a political ploy to achieve short-term goals. As for “abandoning” Gaza, this also is a tactical redeployment. As in the case of the Sinai withdrawal of the 1980s, Sharon is drawing in his exposed Gaza flanks the better to reinforce Israel’s hold on the main prize—the West Bank, the historical Jewish heartland of biblical times and an area of far greater strategic and economic value than the Gaza Strip.

When Sharon speaks of a two-state solution, he intends to grant the Palestinians nothing more than the bare minimum of territory, on which they can achieve no viable sovereignty—particularly when their “state” will be a subdivided bantustan entirely surrounded by Israeli territory and under almost total Israeli economic and military domination. In the stark words of Amira Hass, the courageous Israeli journalist who pulls no punches in reporting from the Palestinian territories: “This is a reality of evicting as many Palestinians as possible from their lands, concentrating them in crowded residential enclaves and thwarting their desire to establish a state that will enable them to live with dignity.” Ariel Sharon may enjoy posing as statesman, but behind the façade there still lurks the same old “Arik,” cutting corners and swift on his feet, but with eyes firmly fixed on his strategic objective.

How to cite this article:

Peretz Kidron "Sharon’s Sights on Strategic Objective," Middle East Report Online, April 14, 2004.

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