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Politics

A Curse on Sharon

16 September 2004

A Curse on Sharon

By Gwynne Dyer

The way his enemies and even his allies are talking, you’d think that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had suggested giving the country back to the Arabs. In fact, he accused his critics last Wednesday of trying to spark a civil war in Israel, so extreme are their condemnations of his plan to evacuate Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip by the end of next year.

Early last week, 70,000 people, including many members of his own Likud party, rallied in Jerusalem to denounce him as a “traitor” and a “dictator”. His chief rival within the Likud party and the government, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has demanded a referendum on Sharon’s Gaza pull-out plan. And a settler-rabbi, Yael Dayan, has announced that he is prepared to put a death curse on Sharon.

Yael Dayan has a track-record in this matter. He conducted a similar mystical ceremony to put a death curse on then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin shortly before he was murdered by an ultra-nationalist Israeli Jew in 1995. The thought of Ariel Sharon being murdered because he is soft on the Arabs boggles the mind, but right now he probably is more at risk of being assassinated by a fanatical Jewish settler than by a suicide-bomber from Hamas. Can this be the Sharon we all know and love?

Relax, he hasn’t really gone soft on us. He’s just not as totally blind to inconvenient realities as the more extremist Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. In the West Bank, which is over a third as large as Israel itself and quite close to the most densely settled areas of that country, the 230,000 Jewish settlers make up over a tenth of the total population and effectively control about half the land. With few exceptions, their settlements are relatively easy to protect from the hostile Palestinian majority around them.

The Gaza Strip is different. It is a tiny, mostly barren strip of land, right on the Egyptian border and far from Israel’s main population centres, packed tight with 1.3 million Palestinians whose parents or grandparents fled or were driven from their homes further north in Israel proper in 1948. Amid them live only 8,000 Jewish settlers — but those settlers control one-third of the land, and require an approximately equal number of Israeli soldiers to guard them from the Palestinians who surround them.

The Gaza settlements make no economic or military sense, and while many of the Jewish settlers there are driven by a religious vision, the enclaves were probably always seen by the secular Israeli governments that authorised them as bargaining chips in some potential future deal with the Palestinians. Sharon is certainly using them as bargaining chips, though he has no intention of making a deal with the Palestinians.

Sharon’s strategy aims to separate Israelis from Palestinians as much as possible while still retaining almost all the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and carving the Palestinian areas up into enclaves separated by Israeli-patrolled roads and military checkpoints. The Gaza pull-out saves Israel money and troops while also letting him throw the world a bone: Look, Israel is withdrawing voluntarily from some settlements. But about 96 percent of the Jewish settler population, up in the West Bank, will remain.

Asked what would happen after the Gaza withdrawal last week, Sharon replied: “Israel will continue its war on terrorism, and will stay in the territories that will remain.” But the furious arguments in Israel over the Gaza withdrawal serve to divert foreign attention from all that, and to make Sharon appear a beleaguered moderate assailed by wild-eyed fanatics. If Yael Dayan hadn’t volunteered to put a death curse on him, Sharon would gladly have paid him to do it.

It is vintage Sharon: brilliant tactics, but not even a hint of strategic vision. Of course, Sharon was the main political patron of the settlers from the start, and though he does not share their religious fanaticism he has a deep emotional attachment to the territories they have settled on. Now he has turned the more extremist settlers against him, but he still wants to keep almost all of the land. The problem is that this means no deal with the Palestinians, and a future of endless war.

The late Yitzhak Rabin was at least as tough a general and as dedicated to Israel as Ariel Sharon, but he was a great deal wiser. He thought long-term, and understood that the day will eventually come when Israel no longer enjoys all its current advantages of overwhelming military superiority over its Arab neighbours, a regional monopoly of nuclear weapons, and unwavering US support. It was therefore necessary for Israel’s long-term survival to reach a lasting settlement with the Palestinians before it lost the upper hand.

Sharon and his allies deny that a deal is possible, because “there is nobody to negotiate with,” and by now they have managed to discredit or kill most of their potential Palestinian negotiating partners, but they don’t really want a deal anyway. They are unwilling to contemplate the sacrifices that it would require, so they have no coherent vision beyond endless military occupation of the territories and an endless war on terrorism.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“Sharon’s…remain”; and “It is vintage…war”)