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

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Israel's Locutor with the Palestinians Part II

Sharon wasted his first three years in Israeli politics because he still schemed to become chief of staff. Having resigned from the Knesset to hold a reserve commission as general, he was forced to form his own party in 1976 as a vehicle for furthering his own career. In this he was a pioneer for many other generals. In 1977 Sharon's two-seat Shlomzion faction was absorbed into the Herut wing of the Likud and Sharon became minister of agriculture. Although Sharon's father was a skilled agronomist, and he was himself a rancher, he used his cabinet seat mainly to head up Israel's colonization of the West Bank. For the next four years Sharon headed the cabinet committee on settlements.

During Labor's last decade of rule, from 1967-77, it created a number of settlements in two types of places in the territories. The first were in strategic areas that Labor wanted Israel to control such as Sharm al-Sheikh at the tip of Sinai, on the Golan Heights, and in the Jordan Valley. These were meant to guard against military threats to Israel by commanding the approach routes. The second were in areas like the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Etzion Block where Jews had lived before the 1948 war but then been expelled. Labor governments also permitted a few settlements as faits accomplis by religious Zionist settlers such as Kiryat Arba outside Hebron in 1968 and Kadumim in 1974. In these cases the settlers carefully exploited rifts in the governing coalition.

Sharon became the champion of the settlement movement over the next four years. He sat down regularly with figures from Gush Emunim (the Block of the Faithful) with maps of the West Bank to plan new settlements. Israel's farmers were orphans under Sharon's ministry, but the settlers finally had a father. Settlements sprang up on the West Bank like mushrooms after a spring rain. And this "mushroom cloud" became as toxic to Israeli politics and Israel's international standing over time as a real mushroom cloud that leaves radiation to poison the atmosphere.

Prime Minister Menahem Begin appointed Sharon as his minister of defense in his second government in 1981, despite having earlier joked about Sharon surrounding Begin's office with tanks. Sharon immediately began preparing carefully for his next encounter with the Palestinians. He sat down with Chief of Staff Raphael "Raful" Eitan and began preparing plans for an invasion of Lebanon to uproot the PLO infrastructure in that country. Sharon's opportunity finally came when a dissident Palestinian organization, the Fatah Revolutionary Cells or Abu Nidal Organization, assassinated Israel's ambassador to Britain in London. Sharon told Begin he would only go forty kilometers (about 25 miles) north of the international border and that he would avoid the Syrians stationed in eastern Lebanon. Sharon lied on both counts. Within weeks Sharon's tanks were besieging Beirut. Begin was forced to make excuses to President Reagan, America's most pro-Israel president before Clinton. Sharon thought that he had destroyed the PLO and ended his duel with the Palestinians.

Even before the PLO was expelled from Jordan by the Jordanian army in 1970-71, it had begun to establish itself in southern Lebanon along the Israeli border. Its presence was guaranteed by inter-Arab agreements such as the Melkert Treaty of 1969 and the Cairo Agreement of 1972 that allowed it to use this area, dubbed Fatahland by Israel, to launch raids into Israel. The process was speeded up after the expulsion. Simultaneously the PLO established itself in West Beirut near the Mediterranean Sea by establishing a headquarters. This small area of Beirut became the de facto capital of a state-within-a state (like the Vatican within Italy). In April 1975 after the PLO fired on a bus full of Phalangists in Beirut the Lebanese Civil War began with the Christians on one side and the Palestinians and Muslims on the other.

Sharon had planned to reorder the politics of the region by reordering the politics of Lebanon. He would put Phalange leader Bashir Gemayel in power as president of Lebanon, expel the Palestinian military presence from Lebanon and teach Syria's military a lesson. Although the IAF destroyed the Syrian air force worse than it had destroyed the Egyptian air force in 1967, and driven Syrian tanks from southern Lebanon, Syria was not finished. Syria plotted with its Lebanese assets, including those in the Maronite community, to assassinate Gemayel. Gemayel was killed in a huge explosion. Sharon then allowed the Phalange militia into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut to make sure that no guerrillas remained behind. Seeking revenge for past Palestinian massacres and for the death of their leader, the Lebanese conducted their own reprisal raid according to Lebanese rules. Sharon was collateral damage of the Syrian bomb.

In February 1983 the Kahan Commission, appointed by Begin under pressure by the Israeli peace movement and Labor following the massacres, held Sharon unfit to serve as defense minister and Eitan to serve as chief of staff.  It ruled that Israel bore indirect responsibility for the massacre; Begin refused to accept that Israel bore any responsibility whatever for it.  Sharon became minister without portfolio and spent the next fourteen and a half years in internal "exile" filling minor posts in Likud governments. Begin went into a deep depression and retired from politics in September 1983.

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