Special Report

Ariel Sharon Rolls the Dice

Israel’s prime minister is risking more than just his career as he proceeds to uproot 25 Gaza and West Bank settlements.

By 11.4.04

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Ariel Sharon's daring decision to uproot 25 Gaza and West Bank settlements -- civilian and military alike -- hasn't been "welcomed and appreciated by those near and far," as he had exuberantly and naively hoped. For his courage, the Israeli Prime Minister has been pilloried rather than praised both in Israel and abroad. Ominously, the rancorous, divisive atmosphere in that country in anticipation of the imminent evacuation is reminiscent of that which prevailed just before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

Of special concern is the mutiny Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is leading against Sharon. The controversial and subversive "Bibi" threatens that if the PM doesn't hold a national referendum on the evacuations, he and a few other rebel cabinet ministers will quit. If the National Religious Party joins the renegades, the government's coalition will be forced into a parliamentary minority, and early elections will be required. This is a curious threat considering Sharon's plan has been approved by the Knesset and polls reveal at least 60 percent of Israelis support it.

Sharon is no stranger to the unpleasant task that lies ahead. He was instrumental in removing the settlers of Gush Emunim from the Sinai desert in 1978, in preparation for peace with Egypt. Still, while Sharon's statesmanship has won him no friends, much less earned him recognition from the international community, his resolve proves once again that "Arik" puts the people before both politics and the Likud party.

In a speech to the Knesset last Tuesday before the vote on disengagement, Sharon warned that he had learned "from experience that the sword alone cannot decide this bitter dispute in this land." As a fierce proponent of the settlements enterprise, Sharon's anguish is palpable. "For me," he told Israelis, "this decision is unbearably difficult. During my years as a fighter and commander, as a politician, Member of Knesset, as a minister in Israel's governments and as Prime Minister, I have never faced so difficult a decision." But, he argued, his disengagement plan would "present the possibility of opening a gate to a different reality."

It is not without political significance that Ariel Sharon has fought in all his country's defensive wars. Were it not for this Jewish Stonewall Jackson, Israel would have been annihilated in 1973. But whether Sharon's life of service will translate into political victory on evacuation depends to a large degree on the loyalty of his constituency, the demographics of which are ignored by too many American pundits.

Most Israelis are descended from the Sephardi Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497. From their exile in the Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East, they fled to Israel as refugees after 1948. Fierce Zionists, Sephardis are as indigenous to the region as the sand dunes and the Sabra cacti. Their loyalty to the Likud Party derives, in part, from a loathing of what the Labor Party stands for, not least, a racist condescension for dark-skinned Jews.

Fed up with being looked down upon and mistreated by the leftist rank-and-file European Ashkenazis that populate Labor, Sephardis, as scholar Meyrav Wurmser has pointed out, used the 2003 election to deal a political death blow to Labor. They were also sick and tired of the liberal domination of the media and judiciary and their politically correct assault on faith, tradition, and Zionism. More important than any of this, these Israelis were tired of being blown up on the streets by suicide bombers, while the WASPs -- "White Ashkenazis who Sympathize with Palestinians" -- hobnobbed with Yasser Arafat.

THE QUESTION THAT WILL decide Sharon's fate is this: Will Sephardi voters join him in rejecting the interpretation of the disengagement "as a shameful withdrawal under pressure" that "will increase the terror campaign, present Israel as weak, and will show our people as a nation unwilling to fight and to stand up for itself"? (As Sharon characterized the objections of the rejectionists.)

The objections made by the Palestinian Authority (and its cheerleaders in Europe and America) seem, at first glance, baffling. But as Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, RIP, that most perceptive Palestinian intellectual, said of his people: "We're mediocre, and in the end maybe that very mediocrity is what's going to beat the Israelis, for all their brilliance."

Wily adversaries that they are, the Palestinians immediately resorted to a "mediocre," yet devastatingly effective, argument to discredit a decision that could cost Sharon more than his party's loyalty. Deconstructed à la Derrida, disengagement has been framed as an Israeli plot not to disengage, or worse, to "disengage unilaterally," whatever that means. Evidence that contradicts their theory Palestinians invoke as evidence for their theory.

Of course the PA and its allies have long insisted that the bustling towns erected by West Bank and Gaza settlers are in direct violation of Palestinian rights and international law. So in evacuating them, isn't Sharon simply doing the right thing? Isn't he fulfilling his negative duty -- his obligation to return what the Palestinians claim is theirs?

How bizarre then for the supposedly aggrieved Palestinians to complain about the manner in which their rights are being restored. Imagine a husband who decides one day to stop abusing his wife. Imagine further that his wife complains she wasn't consulted before the hitting stopped. Would we not be justified in thinking she was somehow invested in her own mistreatment?

Nevertheless, Sharon took pains to dispel the accusation the evacuation is actually a "plot" to stall the "peace process," reminding the world that "everything remains open for a future agreement, which will hopefully be achieved when this murderous terror ends, and our neighbors will realize that they cannot triumph over us in this land." He was emphatic that the plans for disengagement do not "replace negotiations," and are not "meant to permanently freeze the situation which will be created."

Perhaps once the convalescing Arafat is replaced with a Palestinian leader not in the habit of promising that "a million shaheeds [martyrs] will break through to Jerusalem," as the Chairman recently avowed, Sharon's gesture will indeed serve to, as he put it, "reduce animosity, break through boycotts and sieges and advance us along the path of peace with the Palestinians and our other neighbors."

In his address to the Knesset, Sharon reminded his Jewish opponents of Menachem Begin's fatherly but firm words to the Sinai settlers, 26 years ago:

I once said, during an argument with people from Gush Emunim, that I love them today, and will continue to like them tomorrow. I told them: you are wonderful pioneers, builders of the land, settlers on barren soil, in rain and through winter, through all difficulties. However, you have one weakness -- you have developed among yourselves a messianic complex.

You must remember that there were days, before you were born or were only small children, when other people risked their lives day and night, worked and toiled, made sacrifices and performed their tasks without a hint of a messianic complex. And I call on you today, my good friends from Gush Emunim, to perform your tasks with no less modesty than your predecessors, on other days and nights.

Were I a settler, I'd be angered by such demands for self-sacrifice, especially after building a home in a place I thought was mine -- planting trees, growing flowers, and giving birth to sons and daughters who know no other home. I might even point out that the Arab citizens of Israel proper, who number more than one million, have not been asked to leave and relocate to the Palestinian Authority. Why then is genuine peace predicated on a unilateral evacuation of some 8,000-odd Jews who reside in Gaza and the West Bank?

But such cavils fly in the face of Realpolitik. If there is agreement on anything, it is that the settlers' fate has been sealed. Let us hope that, after demonstrating real leadership -- to say nothing of placing himself in great personal peril -- Ariel Sharon's Disengagement Plan is not likewise doomed.

Ilana Mercer is the author of Broad Sides: One Woman's Clash With a Corrupt Culture.

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About the Author

Ilana Mercer is the author of Broad Sides: One Woman's Clash With A Corrupt Culture.