Saturday, Jul 20, 2024

Sharon’s Tainted Legacy

Ariel Sharon's legacy is in sharp dispute. His major accomplishments were often enmeshed in controversy, and he made many enemies along the way. One of Israel's most brilliant military leaders, he also risked court martial for disobeying orders of his superiors. His enemies and the international media often condemned him as a war criminal, but he ultimately overcame those accusations to achieve the pinnacle of Israeli political power. As a national leader, he is remembered most by the radical change of direction he took during his final two years as prime minister, turning his back on the alliances and accomplishments of a lifetime.

After his last electoral victory, he betrayed his longtime supporters in the religious community by shutting them out of his government, in favor the Shinui party which was dedicated to the destruction of Israel’s Torah institutions. Then, in an effort to win support in the media and the White House, he undermined decades of his own efforts building the settlements by forcibly dismantling all 21 Gaza Jewish communities and throwing 10,000 men, women and children out of their homes.


Sharon’s ultimate motives will always remain a mystery. Some former associates sadly accused him of selling out his principles to escape scandal and criminal prosecution, at a time when he was accused of accepting illegal campaign contributions. Others claim he succumbed to US pressure, or the desire to win popularity and recognition after decades of being publicly vilified as a war criminal.


Sharon claimed that he was forced to sacrifice the Gaza settlers to protect Israel from even greater losses due to relentless pressure from the US and the international community for painful concessions, and that even more territorial sacrifices would ultimately be required from Israel in the future.




After Sharon led the Likud to victory in the January 2003 election, he shocked his long-time religious supporters in Shas and UTJ by shutting them out of his new government and formed an alliance with the anti-religious Shinui party, which eagerly used its government powers to attack the key interests of Israel’s Torah community.


Sharon had spent years winning the trust of the leaders of the religious community. He also became wildly popular as prime minister among religious Sefardim. However, he was reluctant to form a narrowly-based government with only religious and right wing parties He feared that it would not survive the reaction to the concessions he was prepared to make to the Palestinians in order to satisfy US demands.


To strengthen his new coalition, Sharon felt he needed the participation of the violently anti-religious Shinui party, which had made major gains in the January election by promising to end army draft deferments for yeshiva students and to cut government aid to yeshivos and religious families. When Shinui adamantly refused to sit in the same government with Shas, the other two religious parties, UTJ and NRP initially closed ranks and said they would not support the new government if Shas was not included.




This led to a political deadlock which was broken by a deal between NRP and Shinui which was brokered for Sharon by Ehud Olmert. After reaching a compromise on some religious issues, NRP and Shinui joined Sharon’s new government, leaving Shas and UTJ out in the cold.


The arrangement with Shinui and NRP turned out to be a temporary alliance of political convenience for Sharon, and did not last. In December, 2004, Sharon kicked Shinui out of his government and invited UTJ back in, but by then, much damage had been done by Shinui to Israel’s Torah institutions.


Sharon betrayed the religious Zionist supporters of NRP as well, when he turned against the settlement movement which he had helped to create and nurture over the previous 25 years came.


The deal brokered by Olmert ultimately proved to be politically fatal to both Shinui and NRP. By the time of the next election, in 2006, Shinui had self-destructed. Many of NRP’s supporters held it responsible for Sharon’s turn against the settlements, and reduced it to just 3 Knesset seats. Two years later, NRP was disbanded as an independent party.




Sharon first publicly accepted the inevitability of a Palestinian state in a speech he made in September 2001, several months before being elected prime minister.


To the growing shock and dismay of his Likud colleagues, in late 2002, Sharon said that Israel shouldn’t “sit forever in Jenin or Sh’chem or Ramallah.” He stated that the government structures of the Palestinian state “already exists. The Palestinians have ministers, they have a cabinet, and they have a president. They also have 104 states acknowledging their right to statehood, even before they declare it.”


His next step came in May, 2003, when he told his cabinet that he would endorse, with reservations, the road-map peace plan endorsed by President George W. Bush, the EU and the UN, which called for a West Bank construction freeze and the implementation of a two-state solution. Israel’s reservations to the concessions demanded by the road-map were quickly dismissed by the international community, which assumed the construction freeze as a given.


At the next meeting of Likud MK’s, David Levy spoke for many of his colleagues when he complained to Sharon, “You have given up everything. There is no difference now between the Likud and the Left.”




Responding to Levy’s accusation, Sharon further outraged his audience by challenging the legitimacy of the continued Jewish presence that he had helped to create on the West Bank and Gaza, using the language of the left wing to refer to it as an “occupation.”


“You might not love that word occupation, but that is what it is,” Sharon said, calling it a “terrible thing, [that] could not continue indefinitely.” Just a few years earlier, Sharon had been routinely referring to the West Bank and Gaza as “liberated territory.”


A month earlier, Sharon spelled out the territorial concessions he was prepared to make, saying in an interview, “I know that we will have to part from places that are connected to the whole course of our history — Bais Lechem, Shiloh and Beit El. As a Jew, this pains me. But the national necessity to reach a peace settlement is overcoming my feelings.”


In June, 2003, at the Aqaba summit, Sharon said that, “Israel understands the importance of territorial contiguity in the West Bank for a viable Palestinian state.”


Another concession by Sharon which hurt the settlement movement was his decision to construct the West Bank security barrier. While it proved effective in reducing the number of terrorist attacks within the Green Line, it left the settlements outside the fence isolated and at least symbolically abandoned. Sharon insisted that the fence would not become a political boundary, but everyone knew it would.




In trying to understand why he changed his position so drastically on these issues, especially after he became prime minister, it is important to recall what Sharon said when he first joined Begin’s cabinet in 1977, that he was a “more pragmatic Zionist” than Begin, who was a “political Zionist.”


What that meant to Sharon was that creating the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza was merely a means to the end of providing for Israel’s security. While he was aware of the historical and religious significance of the land to the Jewish people, he saw the settlements primarily in military terms. He intended them to be a buffer against foreign invasion and an obstacle to the creation of a hostile Palestinian state that would be a constant threat to Israel’s future.




As a result, when Begin put Sharon in charge of settlement development in 1977, he responded with a burst of creative energy. The general who had became known in the Israeli military as “the bulldozer” for letting nothing stand in his way brought the same determination to building up the settlements. Within four years, he had helped to found 64 new Jewish communities across the West Bank and Gaza, and an additional 56 in the Gallil, where Arabs outnumber Jews.


According to a former National Union MK Zvi Hendel, who supported Sharon’s settlement-building efforts, the secret of his success was that whenever he became a government minister, he insisted on controlling the Israel Land Administration which enabled him to “to provide the support the new communities and towns needed to grow and thrive,” while bypassing the government bureaucracy and outmaneuvering anti-settlement groups like Peace Now.




Sharon said that he had a special affection for the residents of the settlements he helped to found in Gaza. He told an interviewer that he saw the Gaza settlers as rugged pioneers who had put their lives and the lives of their families on the line to protect Israel’s southern flank.


In 1989, he wrote in his autobiography, “What will we do once we withdraw from Gaza, and find, as we inevitably will, that Arafat or his successors have stepped in and the squads of terrorists are again operating from there into Israel, murdering and destroying? What will we do when the Katyusha fire starts hitting Sderot, four miles from Gaza, Ashkelon, nine miles from Gaza, and Kiryat Gat, fourteen miles from Gaza?”


Such statements made his subsequent betrayal of the Gaza settlers all the more painful.


By December 2003, Sharon felt that all of the concessions to the Palestinians to which he had already agreed would not be enough to satisfy the international community and the insatiable demands of the Palestinians.


He was particularly concerned by the enthusiastic media response for a half-baked peace proposal presented by former Meretz leader Yossi Beilin and former PA cabinet minister Yasser Abed Rabbo in Geneva.




Sharon responded to it later that month with a startling announcement at the annual Herzliya security conference. While insisting that the Palestinians under Arafat were not legitimate negotiating partners, Sharon said that Israel could not afford to wait for them indefinitely. Instead, he was ready to disengage unilaterally from areas “which will not be included in Israel in the framework of any possible future permanent agreement,” to demonstrate Israel’s sincerity to the rest of the world.


Sharon spoke of the need to separate the Jewish and Palestinian populations and make it more difficult for terrorists to attack Israel by redeploying behind “more efficient security lines.”


As the details of his disengagement plan gradually emerged, it became clear that Sharon meant to evacuate and destroy all 21 Gaza settlements. There was to be no Jewish presence in Gaza. In addition, Israel would withdraw from four small isolated settlements in the northern West Bank.


The human cost of the disengagement to Gaza’s former Jewish residents was also much higher than had been anticipated. Their family and professional lives were badly disrupted, and many have still not fully recovered from the experience. Their experience also illustrates the enormous practical difficulties facing any peace agreement which calls for the forced displacement of tens thousands of Jewish families now living in West Bank communities which would be turned over to the Palestinians.




The initial reaction by many settlers was disbelief. They could not understand how they could be betrayed by the man who encouraged them to devote their lives to building a Jewish presence in Gaza, and how he could now insist upon their destruction.


Uzi Landau was a Sharon supporter and a right wing Likud MK in late 2000, when then-Prime Minister Barak’s poll numbers were plunging in the wake of the failed Camp David summit and the start of the intifada. When asked by Bloomberg News columnist Jeffrey Goldberg what he thought about the apparent demise of the peace process, Landau said, “Oslo is Munich, and Arik [Sharon] is Churchill.”


Five years later, shortly before the disengagement, Landau told Goldberg that, “Arik is making a joke of his [Likud] party and a joke of his beliefs. He is destroying himself, destroying his party and destroying Israel’s security, and for what? So that he will be popular in Europe?”


Landau was appointed by Sharon as Minister of Internal Security in 2001, and resigned from the government in 2004 as a protest against the disengagement plan. In late 2005, Sharon broke away from Likud and formed the Kadima party. The move decimated Likud, and in the next election Landau lost his Knesset seat. He then switched to Yisroel Beiteinu, and since 2009, he has been a cabinet member in Netanyahu’s governments.




Hendel had a more sinister theory to explain Sharon’s betrayal of the settlement movement. He claimed that Sharon himself “doesn’t believe one word” of the diplomatic and security justifications he gave for supporting the disengagement. Hendel claims that Sharon decided that he had to cater to the left wingers controlling the Israeli media and judiciary in order to escape the charges of political corruption allegations being made against him and his sons with regard to the Likud campaigns he won to take over the party leadership in 1999. Sharon and his two sons, Gilad and Omri, who managed Sharon’s campaign, and Sharon’s legal adviser Dov Weisglass, were accused of accepting bribes or arranging illegal campaign contributions.


According to Hendel, Sharon’s growing betrayal of right wing principles followed a sinister pattern. “The deeper the investigation, the deeper the uprooting of settlements,” Hendel said.


In the end, prosecutors and police dropped all the charges for lack of evidence, except for one count of violating the campaign law against Sharon’s son Omri. He admitted accepting illegal contributions funneled through a fake corporation set up by Weisglass. Omri claimed that his father was unaware of the illegality, and that he did it because he loved his father and wanted him to become prime minister. Omri was forced to give up his Knesset seat and served five months in jail.




The day after Sharon’s death, Hendel expressed mixed emotions. “I cannot forgive him for what he did to the Jews of Gush Katif. It is very difficult for me to discuss my feelings about Sharon. On the one hand I had many amazing experiences with him, he was in my house quite often, and I was at his ranch many times. But it all got ruined in the end. All that he built, he destroyed, for impure reasons. . . He went through with the disengagement in 2005, throwing 10,000 Jews out of their homes, in order to get a ‘break’ on cases the Justice Ministry was pursuing. I know this for a fact. Unfortunately I cannot bring evidence, because of course all the people involved will deny it.”




After Sharon became prime minister, Hendel said that he had difficulty scheduling meetings with his old friend. When Hendel served as Minister of Religion in Sharon’s government, they did have a meeting to discuss the dismemberment of the Ministry of Religion, as had been demanded by Sharon’s Shinui coalition partners.


“We sat and spoke for two hours,” Hendel said, “but he could not look directly at me. He knew that I knew what was going on.


That meeting took place months before the Disengagement had been announced, but there were already rumors about what Sharon intended to do, and Sharon’s body language


“I find it very hard to forgive,” said Hendel. “I do recall the decades of good that he did. He was a man I admired and loved for many years. I remember many good things about Sharon, but unfortunately the entire good I remember has been overshadowed and erased by the bad.”




Columnist Goldberg claims that Sharon never changed his mind about the intentions of the Arabs. In 2000 he told Goldberg, “The Arabs don’t want the Jews to be here. That is the secret of this whole story. . . They will never let anyone possess it. You should read the Koran. You’ll see what they think about Jews. They want to take this land by violence.”


Four years later, he told Goldberg. “We have a problem with our partner. It is not realistic to think that the Palestinians would stop their war on us if they receive some pieces of territory.” Yet, by that time Sharon was convinced that Israel’s security required him to evict the Jews of Gaza from their homes and turn the area over to the Palestinians, even though he believed that they would remain Israel’s implacable enemies.




One of the reasons why Sharon pushed so hard for the disengagement, over the strong objections of his own party, was to convince President George W. Bush to express formal US support for Israel’s objectives in any peace agreement with the Palestinians. He achieved that goal in the form of an April, 2004 letter in which Bush wrote, “in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”


The letter also says, “It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”


Sharon had already convinced Bush that Arafat never cut his ties to terrorism, and Bush’s letter insisted that a peace agreement is only possible with the Palestinian leaders once they end the incitement against Israel, fight terrorism, reform their government and accept the two-state solution.


Bush’s concessions to Israel, while significant, were to be short-lived. President Obama refuses to recognize the declarations in Bush’s letter, as well as other agreements reached at that time between Israel and the US on guidelines for continued West Bank construction, as binding on his administration.




Sharon enjoyed strong US support in overcoming the opposition of his own Likud party, led by Netanyahu, to his Disengagement plan. It became unstoppable after Netanyahu declined to openly challenge Sharon’s leadership of the Likud. With the support of the Israeli media, Sharon had outmaneuvered a now leaderless Israeli right wing.


The forcible removal of the Gaza settlers was a traumatic event for the country, but failed to achieve the goals Sharon had set for it. It did not reduce international pressure on Israel for more concessions to the Arabs, and instead of separating Israel from its enemies, Gaza became their base of operations when Hamas took it over less than a year later.




There has always been speculation as to what would have happened had Sharon not fallen into a permanent coma in January, 2006. When Ehud Olmert took over as acting prime minister, he immediately came under intense US pressure to drop Israel’s objections to allowing members of Hamas to run in the Palestinian legislative elections a few weeks later. Olmert gave in, and Hamas’ victory in those elections undermined the PA’s legitimacy. It also set the stage for Hamas’ takeover of Gaza.


Olmert and Tzipi Livni claimed that they were following Sharon’s wishes in seeking a negotiated agreement with Abbas and the PA based on major territorial concessions in the West Bank, but that is speculation. In his final interviews, Sharon insisted that, after Gaza, he had no intention of agreeing to any more unilateral withdrawals.


It is also not clear if Sharon would have tolerated the Hamas takeover of Gaza in the summer of 2006, and how he would have reacted to the Hezbollah provocations which launched the Second Lebanon War. If there is any single consistent pattern about Sharon, it was his volatility and unpredictability, confounding both his allies and enemies.




Prime Minister Netanyahu was Sharon’s longtime rival for the leadership of the Likud, and bitterly opposed the Gaza disengagement. Nevertheless, he expressed his “deep sorrow” over Sharon’s death. He said that Sharon was “first and foremost a courageous warrior and an outstanding general, one of the greatest commanders in the Israeli army.”


He said that Sharon “played a central role in the struggle for the security of Israel throughout the years,” citing “the critical role” he played in leading his soldiers across the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War. The tactics he employed to cut off and surrounded the Egyptian Third Army are still widely studied in military war colleges around the world. Netanyahu also saluted the important contributions he made with the tough but effective measures his soldiers took against terrorists during Israel’s early years, and later in Gaza, before he retired from the army.


Netanyahu lauded Sharon’s service to Israel in many government positions, including as its 11th prime minister, and said, “his memory will be enshrined forever in the heart of the nation.”


President Shimon Peres, who had been Sharon’s political adversary for decades, called him a great and courageous leader who knew no fear. Peres said that Sharon loved his people and was loved by them, and added that he would miss him personally as a friend.


President Barack Obama called Sharon a leader who “dedicated his life to Israel,” while reaffirming the “unshakable [US] commitment to Israel’s security and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our two countries and our two peoples. We continue to strive for lasting peace and security for the people of Israel, including through our commitment to the goal of two states living side-by-side in peace and security. As Israel says goodbye to Prime Minister Sharon, we join with the Israeli people in honoring his commitment to his country.”




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