A Belief in Force

The ruling arrived like a letter from another era, written in strange script, waiting to be deciphered. In mid-February, the Israeli supreme court upheld a lower-court decision, thereby dismissing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's libel suit against the Ha'aretz newspaper and its political commentator Uzi Benziman. At issue was a column Benziman wrote a decade ago on Sharon's record as defense minister during Israel's disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Benziman wrote that Prime Minister Menachem Begin -- still alive at the time -- knew "full well that Sharon deceived him" on the goals and conduct of that war.

Sharon has spent years trying to erase the stain of the Lebanon War. Still, the latest legal defeat would seem to be the least of his troubles. A year after he won the premiership by promising to bring peace and security to Israel's citizens, Sharon has produced neither. The conflict with the Palestinians continues to escalate. The day of the court ruling, four Israelis died in Palestinian attacks; the following day, six soldiers died in a strike against an army roadblock. Sharon responded with a rare speech to the nation -- in which he disappointed all expectations that he would announce a new policy direction. Among voters, confidence that he has a strategy is bleeding away. In one recent Israeli public-opinion poll, 29 percent of respondents said that Sharon had a clear plan, while 58 percent said he was simply reacting to events.

Since his election, Sharon has stated two policy goals. The first is an unconditional cease-fire. "Violence and peacemaking are diametrically opposed. Therefore the position of the national-unity government is that Israel will not negotiate under fire," says Dore Gold, ex-ambassador to the United Nations and a member of Sharon's inner policy circle. After quiet is achieved, Gold adds, "the diplomatic strategy is to get to a long-term interim agreement" with the Palestinians, rather than a final peace accord. Sharon has said he'd offer the Palestinians a state in 42 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That's the amount of land that Israel already turned over to Palestinian administration under the Oslo Accords, in the form of a collection of jagged enclaves. It's far less than former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer at the July 2000 Camp David summit, which Yasir Arafat rejected. So it's tempting to conclude that Sharon's proposal isn't meant seriously -- and that he lacks any vision of how to conclude the conflict.

Last month's court ruling, however, is a timely reminder that Sharon has a long, troubling history that provides a basis for understanding his moves today. Rather than reacting erratically, he almost certainly has a detailed strategy. It's likely to be ambitious -- and deeply flawed.

As a general and a politician, Sharon always has acted according to a strategic vision. It includes "battalion-level calculations regarding the value of territory," notes Yossi Alpher, a leading Israeli strategic analyst. To maintain overall military control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Sharon believes that Israel must "control every strategic hilltop, and fragment the Palestinian population," says Alpher.

As an architect of Israeli settlement policy, Sharon implemented that approach. Alpher recalls a conversation with Sharon several years ago in which Sharon took out a map and pointed to a desolate corner of the southern West Bank. In one wadi, there was a Bedouin tribe, he said, and in the next wadi there was another. So, Sharon said, explaining his method, "I plant an Israeli settlement on the hilltop between them" to keep them from uniting. In an interview soon after he became prime minister last year, Sharon said that even the isolated Gaza Strip settlement of Netzarim, where a few dozen Israelis live between hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, "has strategic importance" because it divides the Palestinian cities of Gaza and Khan Younis. When Sharon offers the Palestinians enclaves divided by Israeli territory, that really is his map of a long-term solution.

Does he expect Palestinians to accept such a map? The answer lies in another aspect of Sharon's thinking, revealed during his tenure as defense minister under Menachem Begin from 1981 to 1983: He presumed that he could use force to manipulate Arab politics and produce leaders who would bend to Israel's needs. Under Sharon in those years, Israeli government in the West Bank gave funds and guns to rural groups known as "village leagues." The goal was to create Israeli clients in place of the pro–Palestine Liberation Organization leadership in the territories. It was a bid to "bypass the national movement," according to Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on Palestinian politics, and in the end it "failed utterly."

Meanwhile, Sharon began preparing to invade Lebanon as soon as he became defense minister. His plan was to drive PLO forces out of southern Lebanon and Beirut and bring the Christian Phalange Party under Bashir Gemayel to power in the country. Sharon expected Gemayel to sign a peace treaty with Israel and, it seems, to remain under Israeli hegemony.

In early June 1982, the Israeli cabinet approved what Sharon described as a brief operation that would extend 25 miles into Lebanon. Within a week, Israeli troops were besieging the PLO in West Beirut. Antiwar protests grew at home; relations with the United States turned grim. But by August, the PLO evacuated Beirut and the Lebanese parliament elected Gemayel president.

Sharon was euphoric. On U.S. television, he told of meeting village-league leaders and argued that peace could now be negotiated with moderate Palestinians. In another interview, with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, he said that "politically, [Arafat] is crushed." And he stressed one more piece of his vision: The Palestinians, he said, already "have a homeland. It is the Palestine that is called Jordan." Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the West Bank, and elsewhere "could transfer themselves to Transjordan."

In the words of professor Arye Naor of Ben-Gurion University, who was cabinet secretary under Begin until the spring of 1982: "It's pretty clear his intent was . . . that the Palestinians in Lebanon would go to Jordan and overthrow the government, and [Israel] would help them create a Palestinian state in Jordan. It's belief in force: We'll make the process happen."

But Sharon's design quickly unraveled. Gemayel was assassinated. Sharon sent Phalange forces to take control of the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, where they slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians. The Israeli inquiry commission into the massacre forced Sharon to resign as defense minister. The PLO didn't vanish. But it took Israel until 2000 to extricate its army from Lebanon.

Sharon has never admitted that the Lebanon War was a mistake. In last year's election campaign, he tried to present himself as a mellowed statesman. But he also has insisted that the only change in his views is that he no longer regards Jordan as the Palestinian state. The lesson he has taken from the Lebanon War is to avoid a repeat of the 1982 crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations and to maintain wide support at home. That's why he brought the rival Labor Party into his coalition, and why he has sought to avoid any serious clash with the Bush administration.

Sharon's strategic thinking, though, has not changed. The most reasonable reading of his actions for the past year is that he still believes Israel can "exploit territorial control to manipulate the [Arab] leadership structure," as Alpher puts it. Sharon wants the Palestinians to end the uprising -- and then to accept his program for a "state" in enclaves broken up by Israeli settlements. Regarding Arafat as both the cause of the violent conflict and the roadblock to Palestinian acquiescence, he seeks to push him out of power. Sharon apparently thinks that Arafat's successor will be more willing to bend. Sharon, says Menachem Klein, expects "to get a Palestinian gas-station attendant who doesn't want a state, just better pay."

To achieve his goals, Sharon has used ever increasing military force while trying to maintain domestic and American backing. Last April, for instance, after Palestinians fired mortar shells from the Gaza Strip into Israel, Sharon ordered the army into Palestinian-controlled territory in the strip. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell immediately condemned the operation and the troops withdrew that day. But each successive operation makes the next one less startling. In October, after Palestinian gunmen assassinated far-right Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze'evy, Israeli troops moved into Palestinian Authority territory in six West Bank cities. Several days passed before Labor Party politicians began protesting and the United States demanded a pullout. It was two weeks before the troops began withdrawing. For much of this winter, Israeli troops held pieces of Ramallah in what has become routine reoccupation.

Sharon has stopped short of deposing Arafat. Again, he's paying attention to domestic and U.S. pressure. "Israel has a national-unity government," observes Sharon's adviser Dore Gold, one "where perhaps [Labor's Foreign Minister Shimon] Peres believes you can give Arafat another chance to change, while the prime minister is very skeptical about that happening."

Instead, Sharon has sought to undercut Arafat's position. In mid-December, following a Palestinian attack at the settlement of Immanuel, the Israeli security cabinet declared the Palestinian leader "no longer relevant to Israel." After that, Sharon announced that Arafat would not be allowed to leave his Ramallah headquarters until he arrested Ze'evy's killers. In late February, the alleged murderers were arrested -- and Arafat was told he could move no farther than the town of Ramallah. The point is to show that Arafat cannot function as leader and to encourage other Palestinians to remove him.

Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli civilians have played a central role in the escalation, and Arafat has done all he can to aid in his own delegitimation. But if Arafat's regime does crumble under Israeli pressure, Palestinian nationalism won't evaporate. If men now considered moderates replace Arafat, they will need to take hard-line positions to show that they are not Israel's lackeys. Klein says that it's more likely that a coalition of Islamic fundamentalists and radical nationalists would seize power. And if Sharon continues a slow-motion reconquest of Palestinian territory, guerrilla attacks on the Israeli army won't stop. Instead, the shifting battle without front lines will become more bitter.

It still remains possible, however, that further American pressure -- in support, say, of the Saudi peace proposal -- or the drop in domestic support could put the brakes on Sharon. After a year and a half of violence, Israel still faces the dilemma of how to end the conflict and reach a livable compromise with the Palestinians. But the letter from Sharon's past deserves attention: His path has been disastrous before, and it remains dangerous today.

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