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Who Are You Ariel Sharon?

24 January 2005

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Nowadays, Israeli PM Ariel Sharon is coming across as the peace maker, the compromiser, the man of the two-state solution. In the late 1970s and into the 1980s he was the settlement builder. As Agriculture Minister from 1977-81 he was then PM Menachem Begin's right hand man for implementation of the overall grandiose settlement scheme in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) aimed at bringing hundreds of thousands of Jews to live in this central mountain range.

Although Sharon was instrumental in unifying the secular right into the Likud by bringing Begin's Herut and Simcha Erlich's Liberals (re: conservatives) together in order to remove the Labor Alignment from power by 1977, his real allies in the settlement initiatives came from the Bnei Akiva youth movement of the National Religious Party (NRP). Their messianic fervor in the shadow of the 1967 Six Day War brought them to the heights of pioneering settlement activity, defying secular law and facing down Yitzchak Rabin's first Labor government (1974–77).

With the collapse of the Labor Zionist ideology and the waning of its central ideological gems, the kibbutz, the moshav and in particular the Histadrut Labor federation, religious commitment as proven through human action became the new flag of Zionist endeavor. This no longer meant only praying and studying in yeshiva, going to synagogue and keeping the mitzvot (good deeds), but the physical action necessary in settling the Land of Israel. The Merkaz HaRav yeshiva led by Zvi Yehuda Kook (son of national religious movement ideologue and Chief Rabbi of Mandated Palestine, Avraham Yitzhak Kook) took to the front lines in forcing Labor to allow settlement in regions not allocated for such by the government. The religious ideologues established "Gush Emmunim" as the implementation arm for settlement.

Messianic activism replaced socialism (Zionism's surrogate religion for many decades) and a new vanguard of Jewish nationalism was born. Sharon, who grew up in a Labor Zionist environment would not only ride the new tiger but harness its energies for his own political/military purposes. He was in disagreement with the unofficial Labor Party settlement framework known as the Allon Plan (July 1967) which called for a territorial compromise based on the need to keep a security zone (15 – 20 kilometers wide – 9 to 12 miles) along the length of the Jordan River and Dead Sea to ensure a defensive line to the east facing Jordan and Iraq. The Jerusalem environs, Gush Etzion and the Latrun salient were also to be absorbed into Israel. The heavily populated Palestinian central Judean and Samarian mountain ranges were to be returned to Jordan. Except for the Jerusalem environs, the areas to be annexed were of limited population while the areas to be returned were considered a demographic threat to Israel's future existence. Former general and then cabinet minister, Yigal Allon, who initiated the plan, spoke of the need for security while avoiding a bi-national state. Amman rejected the plan outright.

Sharon met with Foreign Minister Allon (1974-77) where the former explained where he thought the latter's plan for territorial compromise was lacking. Sharon saw the pragmatic military necessity for holding the "high terrain" or mountain areas to ensure the "east-west" roads on the "strategic axes" leading from Israel's coastal plain to the Jordan River and Israel's eastern frontier. Hence Sharon demanded a Jewish presence both on the eastern and western slopes of the Judean and Samarian mountains. This would require settlement in heavily populated Arab regions.

Taking a strictly military position, Sharon apparently believed demographic challenges would be overcome. He also spoke of individual rights for non-Jews in the State of Israel, but declared that national rights belonged solely to the Jewish People. Here he was in the Zionist mainstream, but the question needed to be asked concerning the borders of that state. In those days Sharon saw Jordan as the Palestinian state and did not think of territorial compromise west of the Jordan River.

He, like Begin, expected massive Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union, North America and western Europe. The Russians came but the others, except for a few true Zionists, were a colossal failure. The Palestinian population exploded as it benefited from the economic link to Israel and improved medical services. Even by the early 1990s Sharon refused to admit publicly that his settlement plans only led to entanglement with the Palestinians. The real intifada (popular Palestinian uprising – 1987-91 and not the present 4 year terror offensive) led Sharon to insist on a hard line anti-compromise policy which included military action and more settlement especially as a minister in the Shamir government of 1990-92.

Today Sharon has brought in the Labor Party led by Shimon Peres, in his supposed National Unity Government. Peres, the Oslo Accords (1993) architect, had been hinting about and then demanding a two-state solution for over a decade. But it was not always that way. As defense minister in Rabin's first government he sanctioned the illegal settlement activity by Gush Emmunim by allowing water, electrical hook-ups and temporary permits in settlement sites. Circumventing Rabin (the two were bitter enemies) he gave his approval for development in those same densely Arab populated areas not included in the Labor settlement map. On the other hand Rabin himself appointed Sharon as a special advisor on military affairs in 1976. Labor was divided and contradicting itself while the Right insisted on developing the Greater Land of Israel.

With Labor's collapse in the 1977 elections Begin and Sharon implemented their own settlement strategy, only that the secular Right knew how to make noise while the real pioneers came from Gush Emmunim. Both secular Right and many from the Left moved 5 kilometers (3 miles) across the old borders for economic reasons (cheap private homes) but the toughest pioneering was done by the religious. Sharon and Begin knew upon whom they could depend.

But Arik was never religious, even if he donned a kippa and carried a Torah at Gush Emmunim activities and sought out their political support whenever necessary. For him the State of Israel was the best insurance for the continued existence of the Jewish People and keeping the central mountain ridge was seen to guarantee national security. To keep the ridge you needed settlement, and to ensure settlement Gush Emmunim became an irreplaceable ally. But Sharon was not following any Godly directive, rather he sought to take the most logical path to a secure Israel. On the other hand Gush Emmunim believed in the sanctity of the Land of Israel. Once in Jewish hands the Promised Land could never be relinquished to non-Jews. Their interests dovetailed into a temporary agreed upon policy.

By the 1990s Sharon saw the same demographic (and by now diplomatic – after Oslo) threats as understood by the Labor leadership of the 1970s. Lest one forget, Sharon as foreign minister helped PM Benyamin Netanyahu come to agreement with Yasser Arafat on the Wye Accords (1998). Israel was to cede another 14.3% of the West Bank to the Palestinians (Wye was never implemented by Labor or Likud).

Many ask today how Sharon could "betray" the settlers, the religious ideologues for whom he had and still has so much respect and understanding. Sharon does not see it that way, his first loyalty is to the Jewish People and the State of Israel, not to the ideals which brought Gush Emmunim to build settlements. Nor are Sharon's loyalties to rabbinic injunctions based on an understanding of Lordly demands. The religious settlers embedded in thickly populated Palestinian areas are willing to endure all forms of hardship as they follow what is believed to be religious imperative which will bring the Messianic Endtime. For them the sanctity of the Land of Israel takes precedence over the interests of the State of Israel. The Land was God given, the State built by humans.

Sharon and the national religious used each other, but now that their final objectives no longer mesh, they have not only parted ways but are bitter enemies. Shimon Peres, Labor and anyone else who will agree with him are the new allies as he pursues three objectives: security, democracy and a Jewish majority in the State of Israel. Declarations concerning the Greater Land of Israel were only a means to a strategic end of holding the central mountain slopes. That strategy has been overwhelmed by the Palestinian demographic tidal wave and is no longer relevant.

Finally, for Sharon and the vast majority of secular politicians, the settlement movement failed, despite the self-sacrifice and heroism. Jewish settlements in Gaza are now said to have increased their numbers to 8,000 residents as the religiously committed augment those already there. Originally, the Katif Bloc settlements were established as a Jewish buffer to separate the northern Strip from Sinai. But all this pales in the face of 1.3 million Palestinians. In a similar vein there are 40,000 to 50,000 Jews living in the central mountain areas of the West Bank surrounded by at least 1.5 million Palestinians, also from Arik's perspective, a lost cause.

Having gone much further than "a bridge too far" General Sharon is overextended, has no chance of winning in the present situation and intends to realign and regroup his forces. That calls for withdrawing one's "troops" whether they like it or not, giving up what cannot be won and stabilizing the front. The Gaza and northern Samaria Disengagements are only the first steps in what Sharon sees as a pragmatic approach to promise Israel's survival.