Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Israel's chief interlocutors with the Palestinians Part I

Ariel "Arik" Sharon's first practical introduction to the Palestinian problem came at the age of 24 when he was picked to lead an elite unit of individualist soldiers, many misfits in the IDF, in implementing Israel's strategy of reprisal raids. Sharon had been raised in a Revisionist Party (forerunner of the Likud) family in a Mapai (forerunner of the Labor Party) settlement in the Plain of Sharon, from which he would later take his name. He joined the prestate Hagana militia at age 15 and was badly wounded at the First Battle of Latrun in May 1948. He had quit the army to become a full time student of Middle Eastern History at the Hebrew University shortly before being picked.

Sharon spent the next three years personally leading raids into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. He also was responsible with integrating his commando Unit 101 with a paratroop company to produce Israel's first Paratroop Battalion. On one of the raids in the village of Kibya, Sharon had his men dynamite the homes of the villagers. Although his soldiers called in Arabic for the occupants to come out many remained in hiding out of fear and were killed in the blasts. Some 69 people died and Sharon's reputation was established both within Israel and with the Palestinians.

From May 1948, when the civil war phase of the Israeli War of Independence ended, until June 1967, the Palestinians virtually disappeared as independent actors from international politics. There only collective role was in a series of guerrilla operations from 1953 to 1956 and again from 1965 to 1967. Israel, reacting to a series of Palestinian incursions raided the Gaza Strip in early 1953 and dynamited a police station. The Egyptian government reacted by setting up training camps in Gaza to train Palestinian volunteers in guerrilla warfare. Colonel Nasser used the raids to establish Egypt's position as the leader of the Arab resistance against Israel and within Egypt to outmaneuver General Naguib, the figurehead leader of the Egyptian Revolution. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion used the raids as a middle-finger salute against the international community and to establish a reputation as a protector of Israel's vulnerable immigrant communities and collective settlements that were often the target of the raids.

Sharon, having won the patronage of Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, the latter first as chief of staff in the 1950s and then as defense minister a decade later, had risen from major to major general. They had kept others from ejecting him from the army for his recklessness, insubordination, and quarrelsome nature. They saw in him both patriotism and military genius. In 1965, like Erwin Rommel, he transferred from the infantry to armor and became a master of the new (for him) form of warfare. After leading a division in the conquest of the Sinai in June 1967 he became the next head of Southern Command. In this role he had his next encounter with the Palestinians in 1971.

Israel's first political interaction with Palestinians since the mandate came as occupiers in 1967. Yasir Arafat returned to the West Bank in 1967 and for several months tried to set up a guerrilla resistance there while managing to stay one step ahead of the IDF. From 1967 to 1970 most of Israel's military interaction with the Palestinians took place along the Jordan River as the Palestinians had set themselves up along the East Bank as a state within a state. Expelled by King Hussein in September 1970 when they defied his authority, they then moved to southern Lebanon, Fatahland. Gaza was a backwater.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) had established a number of cells within the crowded refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. From there they mounted attacks on the small Israeli settlements, populated by Arabic-speaking Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, that surrounded the Strip. Sharon was determined to use whatever methods were necessary to stamp out these attacks. He used rather vigorous interrogation methods and deported the families of those involved in guerrilla activity. Several of his subordinate commanders made their anxieties about his methods known up the chain of command. Gaza was temporarily transferred from the Southern Command to the Central Command. But Sharon had stamped out the insurgency.

In July 1973 Sharon was forced to retire from the IDF after failing to be promoted up the next step. He blamed it on his political sympathies. There is something to this--Ezer Weizman, the former commander of the Israel Air Force, was promoted to deputy chief of staff but was never made chief of staff and quit in frustration. Sharon's failure to win promotion was probably due in equal parts to his personality and politics. In September he had his revenge by forcing four right-of-center parties to combine to form the Likud (union in Hebrew). Sharon joined the Liberal wing of the Likud to avoid competing with Weizman in Herut.

The Israeli Right had foundered for a decade. It consisted mainly of two parties: Herut, successor both to the Revisionist Party of Vladimir "Ze'ev" Jabotinsky and to the Irgun Zvai Leumi underground, representing the nationalist right; and the Liberal Party, successor to Haim Weizmann's General Zionists, representing the small businessmen of the economic right. In 1965 Herut and the Liberals had formed an electoral pact known as Gahal (Herut-Liberal Block in Hebrew).  In 1966 Shmuel Tamir, a former Irgun commander and very successful lawyer was forced out of Herut by Begin for challenging him and formed the Free Center Party. And in 1968 when Rafi combined with Mapai and Ahdut Ha'Avoda on the Left to form the Israel Labor Party, David Ben-Gurion remained outside out of spite and formed the State List. Sharon by combining these four parties made something that was greater than the sum of their parts.

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