Since showing up in Crawford, Texas, earlier this week for talks with President George W. Bush about Israel's long-overdue unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip this summer, the Israeli Prime Minister has been striking the pose of a beleaguered, peace-making martyr.
"All my life I was defending the life of Jews," Sharon lamented on NBC. "Now, for the first time, I am taking steps to protect me from Jews."
Saying "Jews" is painting with a broad brush, to say the least. More accurately, Sharon is being protected from extremist settlers, proponents of a fundamentalist creed well outside the mainstream of Israeli public opinion, known as the Eretz Israel HaShlema movement. Essentially, it is a loosely affiliated group of fanatics dedicated to "completing" Israel by pursuing ownership of the God-ordained, yet politically intractable landmass once held by the biblical twelve tribes, from Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. Otherwise, they say, the true savior will never show.
Once more than a little chummy, the settlers these days hate Sharon with a ferocity that can possibly only be matched by the way the Al-Asqua Martyr's Brigade hate Mahmoud Abbas. In some of the more radical Israeli neighborhoods graffiti has sprung up, taunting, "Sharon, Lily is waiting for you," as well as "Sharon, Rabin is waiting for you." Lily is Sharon's wife, who died of lung cancer in 2000. Rabin, of course, is Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish fundamentalist for attempting to make peace.
Unfortunately, these threats and others must be taken seriously. These are people, after all, who openly celebrate Rabin's murderer, Yigal Amir, as well as Baruch Goldstein, the 38-year-old American-born doctor who massacred 29 praying Palestinians in the Tomb of the Patriarchs as godly men on a higher mission.
"The Sharon Government is criminal," Noam Federman, an influential settler in Hebron, told Newsday. "It has crossed all the red lines. No one should expect their opponents to behave differently. It's not about legality, it's about morality. I follow God's law."
Federman -- who once told the international press, "I think the government should put bombs in [Palestinian] hospitals, but unfortunately the government doesn't do it, so it is up to the people" -- became a hero to the settlers when he was arrested and held by Israeli authorities on suspicion that he was planning to blow up an Arab girl's day school in East Jerusalem. Nice guy.
CLEARLY SHARON IS BRAVE for standing up against such fanatics. Nevertheless, as anyone who watches mob movies knows, if you hang about the wrong element, your best friends can morph into your worst enemies in short measure. And Ariel Sharon has been egging on the settlement movement for many years now, to the point that his change of heart (firmly in line with every available poll on the Israeli public's sentiment) is seen as more of a betrayal by fundamentalists than most.
As Minister of Agriculture in 1977, Sharon put forward a document entitled "Vision for Israel at Century's End," which proposed putting at least two million settlers into the occupied territories by 2000. (The current number is around 240,000.) Seven years ago, during a speech in front of members of the Tsomet Party while Foreign Minister, Sharon exhorted settlers to "move, run and grab as many (Palestinian) hilltops as they can to enlarge the (Jewish) settlements because everything we take now will stay ours....Everything we don't grab will go to them." In between, Sharon was a booster and ally of the settlement movement at every step.
At a time when every other entity with its hand in this mess, from the so-called Mideast Quartet of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations to Israel itself, has accepted the eventuality and necessity of a Palestinian state, fundamentalist settlers, anti-Democratic and anti-pluralistic at their core, are preparing mass disruptions and violence because their government cannot live by their interpretation of the Torah. Israeli soldiers are now being prepared for combat with fellow Israelis, leading Sharon to tell NBC that in Israel it "looks like the eve of the civil war."
President Bush should keep all of this in mind as he presses the Israeli government to stay the dismantlement course. While Bush's detractors swore he'd never challenge Sharon this week about new settlement activity, the President was publicly, and quite rightly, critical yesterday of an Israeli plan to add 3,650 homes to the West Bank's largest settlement.
"I told the prime minister not to undertake any activity that contravenes the road map or prejudices final status obligations," Bush said at the press conference, and Sharon promised he's gotten the message.
Yet it is not clear Sharon is being entirely upfront.
"I talk about the Road Map, but those who know me know that I'm here to preserve the Land of Israel, not divide it," Sharon told the Israeli paper B'Sheva last year. "But we have to work smartly and cleverly. Why fight with Bush if we can talk nicely to him? After all, nothing will come out of this Road Map plan anyway, since the Arabs are simply unable to stop murdering Jews no matter what."
Sharon's top advisor Dov Weisglass was more blunt about what he said -- and the American side immediately denied -- the quid pro quo was for a Gaza pullout.
"Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda," he told Haaretz. "And all this with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress....The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."
IF BUSH WANTS TO SEE his Roadmap plan succeed, however, it might as well be openly said that the issue of allowing large blocs of Israeli settlements to remain on the West Bank is as much a non-starter as Palestinian demands for a right of return. The love affair with the settlements and Eretz Israel HaShlema must end and the settlers' gangster tactics and lust for the apocalypse must be denied. The vast majority of the Israeli people knows this, as does the world and the American president. It is now time the Israeli government recognizes that, whatever the negative consequences of disengagement, delaying a promised statehood now considered by themselves and the world as inevitable will only serve to add to their woes at home and abroad.
If the Gaza pullout should turn out to be a sleight of hand designed to subvert negotiations on West Bank settlements, this incredible opportunity brought on by the death of Arafat may have been for naught and the tragedy will seem all the more endless.
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