Vol. 5, No. 15 January 12, 2006
- Some Israeli opinion-makers, seeking to define Sharon’s political legacy, are determined to transform him into a political dove due to his unilateral disengagement plan that pulled Israel out of Gaza. They claim that the “new” Sharon was willing to lead Israel in another major pullback – this time from at least 90 percent of the West Bank. This interpretation assumed the West Bank security fence would constitute Israel’s eastern border.
However, a careful examination of Sharon’s major speeches and interviews since he first proposed disengagement suggests the very opposite. Indeed, on January 6, 2006, Israel Channel 2 television’s chief diplomatic correspondent, Udi Segal, disclosed that Sharon told him privately that it was his policy to hold onto eight settlement blocs in the West Bank and not only the three blocs usually mentioned – Ariel, Maale Adumim, and Gush Etzion. Segal added that Sharon did not want to evacuate the Jordan Valley.
Explaining to the Knesset the significance of the U.S. Letter of Assurances he received from President Bush on April 14, 2004, Sharon said: “There is American acknowledgment that in any final status agreement there will be no Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines….This acknowledgment appears in two ways: understanding the facts determined by the large Israeli settlement blocs such as making it impossible to return to the 1967 lines, and implementation of the concept of ‘defensible borders.'”
Thus, Sharon saw the disengagement plan as a mechanism for trading land with a dense Palestinian population, like the Gaza Strip, in exchange for land that was critical for Israel’s future security: “I am firmly convinced and truly believe that this disengagement will strengthen Israel’s hold over territory which is essential to our existence.”
In private conversations with close friends, Sharon has repeated the traditional “defensible borders” position, and has reiterated in various interviews and public statements since the Gaza disengagement that Israel would retain close to half of the West Bank, as opposed to the single digit percentages that his advisors appear to be advancing.
Sharon the Dove?
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s political legacy is quickly becoming a matter of controversy. Some Israeli opinion-makers are determined to paint Sharon as a political dove. They claim that Sharon was willing to lead Israel in another major pullback in the West Bank if the political opportunity arose.
Sharon political strategist Kalman Gayer told Newsweek on December 5, 2006, that Sharon would accept a Palestinian state in 90 percent of the West Bank as well as a compromise on Jerusalem. Sharon personally denied the Newsweek report, especially the statement that he would divide Jerusalem, but the impression that Sharon was ready to give up Israel’s territorial assets remained.
Some leading U.S. commentators also read Sharon this way. On January 6, 2006, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer explained the Sharon legacy as follows: “Sharon withdrew Israel entirely from Gaza. On the other front, the West Bank, the separation fence under construction will give the new Palestine about 93 percent of the West Bank. Israel’s seven percent share will encompass a sizable majority of Israelis who live on the West Bank. The rest, everyone understands, will have to evacuate back to Israel.”1 Hillel Halkin, writing in Commentary in October 2005, similarly interpreted Sharon’s post-Gaza disengagement position, noting that “Israel is prepared to withdraw all of its settlers and armed forces from close to 90 percent of the West Bank to the security fence it has built.”
The Security Fence as Israel’s Eastern Border?
There are two assumptions underlying this interpretation of Sharon’s position: 1) the West Bank security fence would constitute Israel’s eastern border; and 2) Israel will withdraw from 90-93 percent of the West Bank. What also follows directly from this analysis is that Sharon would be ready to concede the vital strategic barrier of the Jordan Valley that accounts for about 30 percent of the West Bank.
This would also mean that Sharon intended to defy Yitzhak Rabin’s widely embraced legacy, which, according to his last Knesset speech in October 1995, in the middle of the Oslo peace process, called for Israel to retain the Jordan Valley “in the widest sense of the term.”
Eight Settlement Blocs
Was Sharon really ready to make such unprecedented territorial concessions? A careful examination of Sharon’s speeches, interviews, and off-the-record confirmations of his position regarding the territories since he first presented his disengagement plan reveals a clearer message about his plans for the future of the West Bank.
Most recently, Ha’aretz political affairs commentator Tom Segev rejects the notion that Sharon had abandoned his traditional view of the territorial requirements of Israeli security: “The withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of settlements gave birth to the thesis that Sharon had become a different man from who he was, ‘a new Sharon.’ That was an optical illusion.”2 Segev believed that Sharon wanted to annex broad areas near the “green line” and in the Jordan Valley.
In an analysis broadcast on January 6, 2006, Israel Channel 2 television’s chief diplomatic correspondent, Udi Segal, presented a sharply different interpretation of Sharon’s plans for the West Bank. He disclosed that Sharon told him privately that it was his policy to hold onto eight settlement blocs in the West Bank and not only the three blocs usually mentioned – Ariel, Maale Adumim, and Gush Etzion – that collectively make up ten percent of the West Bank (and which former Prime Minister Ehud Barak sought to retain at the failed Camp David summit in July 2000). The eight blocs were exactly what Sharon designed in the 1980s with his national security advisor, Maj.-Gen. Abraham “Abrasha” Tamir.3 Segal also stressed that several of these eight settlement blocs were situated east of the current line of the West Bank security fence. He added that Sharon did not want to evacuate the Jordan Valley, which, according to Segal, was supposed to be held as a security zone to protect Israel against threats from the east.
Sharon also told Ha’aretz on April 24, 2005, “The Jordan Rift Valley is very important and it’s not just the rift valley we’re talking about [but]…up to the Allon road and a step above the Allon road. In my view, this area is of extreme importance.”4 He reconfirmed this was still his view in a private meeting in New York on September 19, 2005.5 Earlier, Sharon told the Jerusalem Post on September 15, 2004, “I don’t see the possibility of Jews not living in Shiloh or Beit El, or not controlling Rachel’s Tomb or living in Hebron.”6
Sharon, A Master of Tactical “Fog”
So what is Ariel Sharon’s true legacy? The answer is somewhat complex. It is well known in Israeli political circles that Sharon was a master in the use of ambiguous language as a valuable instrument for political coalition-building in Israel and to protect his diplomatic flank in the international community. He intentionally spread diplomatic “fog” to enable the broadest possible political and diplomatic constituencies to embrace his policies.
A good example of Sharon’s tactical skills could be seen in 2002 when he shocked his ruling Likud faction by referring to Israel’s “occupation” of West Bank cities, seeming to adopt the political nomenclature of Israel’s political left. Within 24 hours, Sharon’s senior advisors had issued a public correction, insisting that Sharon’s use of “occupied territory” only meant Israel’s military control of major Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Sharon further clarified that the West Bank was not legally “occupied” but rather “disputed territory,” in line with the opinion of Israel’s Attorney General and the Foreign Ministry’s legal advisor.
Sharon clearly had a talent for playing to various sections of a very broad audience, which he did to maintain his delicate political balance in the epicenter of the Israeli body-politic.
The Key to Understanding Sharon: The 2004 Bush-Sharon Deal
The key to understanding Sharon’s territorial strategy may be found in his diplomacy with the United States that preceded the Gaza disengagement plan. Traditionally, Israel had always insisted on securing a diplomatic quid pro quo from its Arab neighbors as a condition of any political concessions. That had been the essence of Israel’s understanding of “land for peace” with respect to the bilateral peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. However, in 2004, Sharon understood that Israel had no partner in PA leader Yasser Arafat and in 2005 that Arafat’s more moderate successor, Mahmoud Abbas, was too weak to deliver a deal. Therefore, in quitting Gaza, Sharon sought a diplomatic quid pro quo from U.S. President George W. Bush and not from the Palestinian or Arab side. Sharon told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot in mid-2005: “I prefer a deal with the Americans to a deal with the Arabs.”7 This deal came in the form of a Letter of Assurances to Israel of April 14, 2004, signed by President Bush.
Upon his return from the White House, Sharon explained to the Knesset the significance of the U.S. assurances: “There is American acknowledgment that in any final status agreement there will be no Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines….This acknowledgment appears in two ways: understanding the facts determined by the large Israeli settlement blocs such as making it impossible to return to the 1967 lines, and implementation of the concept of ‘defensible borders.'”8 Sharon even repeated the term “defensible borders” in English for emphasis. Sharon’s use of the English term may have been meant to invoke the classic concept of “defensible borders,” understood since 1967 by most Israeli and U.S. governments to mean Israel’s retention of the Jordan Valley and other strategic areas of the territories vital for Israel’s defense and national security.9
Sharon and Areas East of the Fence
Thus, Sharon saw the disengagement plan as a mechanism for trading land with a dense Palestinian population, like the Gaza Strip, in exchange for land that was critical for Israel’s future security: “I am firmly convinced and truly believe that this disengagement will strengthen Israel’s hold over territory which is essential to our existence.”10 There is little question that he had the Jordan Rift Valley in mind. He was looking not only at the low-lying Jordan riverbed area, but also, like former Generals Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin, Sharon intended for Israel to retain the eastern slopes of the West Bank hill ridge facing the Jordan River, where it has built a network of bases and defensive positions against any potential threat from the east.
Behind the Perception of Sharon’s Dovish Shift
Writing in Ha’aretz on January 6, 2006, Akiva Eldar notes that Sharon’s close advisor, Dov Weisglass, “said to everyone who was willing to listen that Sharon has no intention of annexing more than 10 percent of the West Bank, and he was conceding Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley.”11 Weisglass served as Sharon’s main conduit to the Bush administration and to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in particular. Weisglass has also briefed top Washington media figures since 2001 during his frequent visits to the State Department.
Raviv Drucker, a political commentator for Israel’s Channel 10 television, wrote in Boomerang, his recent book on the Gaza disengagement, that Weisglass was known to have expressed his personal support in closed circles for Yossi Beilin’s Geneva Initiative.12 According to Drucker and co-author Ofer Shiloah, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, another key player in Sharon’s inner circle, envisioned a process of unilateral disengagements in the West Bank that would lead to Israel retaining 15 percent of the territory.13 Were these Sharon advisors reflecting his true thinking or were they seeking to use Sharon to advance their own foreign policy agenda?
More recent declarations by leading members of Sharon’s new Kadima party have added further to the confusion. For example, in the first publicly released draft of the Kadima platform, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni declared that Israel would retain the settlement blocs, but the document said nothing about the Jordan Valley. “One does not have to be a genius to see that the fence will have implications for the future border,” Livni noted.14 After Likud Knesset member Gideon Saar criticized the omission, Sharon issued a clarification that Israel would retain the Jordan Valley as a “security zone.”15
It is possible that Sharon was both aware of and satisfied with Livni’s message and his advisors declarations, in view of the fact that Sharon has, since 2001, used mixed messages to maintain maximum flexibility over his ultimate political and territorial intentions. However, in private conversations with close friends, Sharon has repeated the traditional “defensible borders” position, and has reiterated in various interviews and public statements since the Gaza disengagement that Israel would retain close to half of the West Bank, as opposed to the single digit percentages that his advisors appear to be advancing.
With Sharon’s political career at an end, Israel is forced to rely on the statements of Sharon’s advisors and the political inheritors of his new Kadima party. Unfortunately, Sharon’s legacy can be too easily tailored to fit a political perspective that Sharon himself never adopted.
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1. Charles Krauthammer, “A Calamity for Israel,” Washington Post, January 6, 2006; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/05/AR2006010501901.html
2. Tom Segev, “Maximum Territory, Minimum Arabs,” Ha’aretz Weekend Magazine, January 13, 2006.
3. Interview with General Tamir, January 10, 2006.
4. Aluf Benn and Yossi Verter, “Interview with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon,” Ha’aretz, April 22, 2005.
5. Interview of meeting host by the author.
6. Amotz Asa-El, Herb Keinon and Gil Hoffman, “My Algeria is Here: Interview with Ariel Sharon,” Jerusalem Post, September 9, 2004.
7. Zev Chavets, “Mother Knows Best,” New York Times, August 15, 2005.
8. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Speech at the Knesset, April 22, 2004; http://www.pmo.gov.il/PMOEng/Communication/PMSpeaks/speech2204.htm
9. Dan Diker, “Defensible Borders Make Good Neighbors,” Azure: Ideas for the Jewish Nation, No. 21 (Summer 2005):52-54l; http://www.azure.org.il.
10. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Address to the Knesset – The Vote on the Disengagement Plan, October 25, 2004; http://www.pmo.gov.il/PMOEng/Communication/PMSpeaks/speach2510.htm
11. Akiva Eldar, “Is It Possible that He Left Nothing Behind,” Ha’aretz, January 6, 2006.
12. Raviv Drucker and Ofer Shiloah, Boomerang [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Keter, 2005), p. 362.
13. Ibid., p. 353.
14. Laurie Copans, “Sharon Ally: Border Will Follow Barrier,” Associated Press/Guardian (UK), December 1, 2005; http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,1280,-5450261,00.html
15. “Sharon: Israel to Keep Jordan Valley Under Any Deal,” Reuters, December 1, 2001.
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Dan Diker is a senior policy analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and heads its Defensible Borders Initiative. He also serves as Knesset correspondent and analyst for the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s English News.