Ariel Sharon: A hawk who might just have liberated the Palestinians

 

What would have happened if Ariel Sharon had not been struck down by his stroke in January 2006? Could the man Palestinians saw as the butcher of Beirut, who had urged Jewish settlers to grab every hilltop in the West Bank – and provided the spark that ignited the second intifada – have been the  general-politician to end the occupation, in a local version of De Gaulle’s withdrawal from Algeria?

The case against is easy to make, beyond his long record of opposing every peace initiative before he became Prime Minister in 2001. Confronted with the internationally agreed Road Map in 2003, supposed to pave the way to a Palestinian state, he resorted to the well-worn Israeli stratagem of appearing to endorse it while entering so many reservations as to render it meaningless.

Even the withdrawal of settlers from Gaza was unilaterally executed so that the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas derived from it no political advantage over Hamas. Sharon did not regard Abbas as a “partner”, despite being the most moderate Palestinian leader Israel had ever dealt with. And his lieutenants went out of the way at the time to boast that withdrawal from Gaza would remove US pressure to abandon its settlements in the West Bank.

Yet, oddly, the counter case is also quite easy to make, beyond his frequent confession once in office that “things that you see from there are different from the things you see from here”. Or the surprising suggestion by his veteran Israeli leftist opponent Yossi Sarid in a Haaretz piece last week that he might after all have become the “liberator of Palestine” if had not fallen ill.

 

There are tentative signs that “his plot”, as Israel’s most prominent columnist Nahum Barnea insisted in Yedhiot Ahronot yesterday, was “a unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank”. And certainly that was the plan on which his ally and successor as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert fought – and won –the 2006 election, as leader of Kadima. This was the new party Sharon formed in the face of bitter right-wing opposition within Likud –led by the present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – to the disengagement from Gaza.

Unilateral withdrawal is not the same, of course, as a lasting peace agreement with the Palestinians. It would have been, at the very most, from territory east of the separation barrier which Sharon had constructed and which swallowed sections of the West Bank.

But Olmert – along with Sharon’s protégé Tzipi Livni – in time became self-confessed convert to the idea of a negotiated peace deal. Olmert’s unilateral plan was derailed by – beside allegations of corruption to which Sharon himself had hardly been immune – the failures of the second Lebanon war in 2006, and his negotiations with the Palestinians by the brutal war he launched in Gaza in 2008-9.

Sharon did not – unlike Olmert – have anything to prove militarily, and the claim by his former chief of staff, Dov Weissglass, in an Independent interview, that Sharon would at least not have launched the unnecessary 2006 ground war in Lebanon is credible.

Counterfactual history is addictive but, like most addictions, tends to be bad for the brain. The truth is we can’t know if Sharon would have conducted a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, let alone been eventually persuaded by the US to enter serious negotiations with Abbas. All that can be said with certainty is that –like Yitzhak Rabin but with the added advantage of being from the right – he had the military and political authority to do it if he chose. And that in being prepared over Gaza not only to provoke the wrath of settlers but to desert large parts of his political base in order to act in what he had come to see as Israel’s national interest, he did something which Netanyahu has conspicuously failed to do since taking office in 2009.

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