With the sudden incapacitation of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his effective exit from the political scene, the rush to define his legacy has begun. President George W. Bush called Sharon “a man of courage and peace,” and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) commented, “it is [Sharon’s] vision for making peace with the Palestinians and achieving a two-state solution that has driven him in recent years.”
In fact, progress toward Middle East peace depends on undoing the ailing premier’s legacy.
Sharon is often called “hawkish” in acknowledgement of his career as an army commander and then as defense minister. In the 1950s and 1970s, he led harsh crackdowns against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. He was the key architect of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, undertaken with the goal of expelling the PLO from its bases there. That same year, he was found by an Israeli commission to bear “personal responsibility” for the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Lebanese Phalangist forces. But, throughout this career, Sharon also focused relentlessly on denying Palestinian national aspirations in order to create a “Greater Israel.”
As housing minister in the 1970s, and subsequently, he was the patron of the project of settling Israelis in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. While Sharon justified these settlements in the name of Israeli security, they were clearly aimed at territorial expansion. His policies after he became prime minister in 2001 also show that his security goals are political. Settlement construction has continued unabated.
Perhaps Sharon’s biggest political success as prime minister was to convince the Bush administration to follow his rigid parameters for dealing with the Palestinians. Because of his long-standing claim that Israel has no Palestinian partner, Sharon refused to talk with former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, and has only reluctantly talked with Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas. The Bush administration has gone along with this approach.
Although Sharon officially accepted the U.S.-sponsored “road map” to Middle East peace, his government has not complied with its initial obligation under the scheme, the freezing of settlement expansion. As recently as December, about 300 additional houses in the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim were approved. As per the standard ritual, the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv reminded Israel it should stop this settlement activity. This periodic finger-wagging is all that is left of the U.S. commitment to the ballyhooed “peace plan.”
Sharon’s unilateral decision to remove Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was expressly intended to shelve the road map, thereby avoiding the prospect of actual negotiations with the Palestinians. The United States acquiesced in the disengagement plan in an April 2004 letter to Sharon, even suggesting that the United States also supports Israel keeping major settlements in the West Bank, although these are illegal under international law and were described by the Reagan administration as “obstacles to peace.”
Further evidence of the destructive nature of Sharon’s policies for peace lies in the tall concrete blocks and fences of the separation barrier, often just called “the wall.” This wall, which snakes through occupied Palestinian territory, is justified as a temporary security measure, but its route is political. It plunges deep into the West Bank to place large settlements on the “Israeli side,” and in the process has walled some Palestinian towns into enclaves with only one entrance, cut many farmers off from their lands, and isolated people from one another and from East Jerusalem, their center of commercial, educational and religious life.
Sharon’s imposition of new realities separating Israelis from Palestinians and Palestinians from each other has severely damaged the possibility that a sovereign Palestinian state will emerge anytime soon, if ever. His legacy places unilateralism above compromise and short-term security measures over comprehensive peace. Lest the legacy of the Bush administration in the Middle East be the same, the United States should use this time of change in Israel’s leadership to change its own course. Instead of facilitating Sharon’s vision, the United States should pressure both the Israelis and the Palestinians to engage in direct negotiations, with hands-on, high-level U.S. involvement, to resolve the political issues that are the core of the conflict.