There is no doubt that the maneuverability and survivability of the veteran politician Ariel Sharon deserves our astonishment, whereas the pitifulness of Shimon Peres, his partner to recycle the "unity" government, barely deserves our pity.
To understand Sharon's success, we have to examine a phenomenon that is odd in itself: That significant segments of the mainstream, on both the right and the left, support the disengagement plan, or at least do not strenuously oppose it. In comparison with the Oslo era, even the reactions by the extreme right are moderate at this stage, even though Sharon's rhetoric in favor of a Palestinian state and his intention to evacuate whole areas of settlement seem at the moment no less far-reaching than the declared intentions and the rhetoric of those who were at the forefront of the Oslo agreement.
There are two approaches in the pragmatic right and in the center-right -- presented openly or winkingly -- which to them justify Sharon's move. They have long since understood that there is no possibility in this generation of realizing the idea of Greater Israel without Arabs. Therefore, a formula has to be found that will subject the Palestinians to indirect Israeli rule and will greatly reduce the costs of the occupation. The goal is to police and silence the Palestinians by means of subcontractors and in exchange for payment of a few material assets, together with symbolic incentives. This is effectively an upgraded version of the Oslo Accords, amid an attempt to impose them as the "end of the conflict."
Four and a half years of systematic destruction of the infrastructures of the Palestinian society, the physical and political liquidation of their leadership and the unrelenting injury to the population were intended to demonstrate the real balance of forces on the ground and to get the Palestinians to accept a kind of "Versailles treaty" in which they would agree to any Israeli "peace formula." The Palestinian use of suicide bombers, which at first looked, from the Palestinian side, as an appropriate response, supposedly able to offset Israel's total military superiority, turned out to be a boomerang, because it gave Israel internal and external legitimacy to make use of unrestrained force and to describe the Palestinians' desperate war for independence as part of international terrorism.
Sharon's model for a settlement was already apparent in his speech at the Herzliya Conference in November 2002: Within the framework of the road map, Israel will evacuate the densely populated Palestinian territories but will leave under its control the large settlement blocs, including a deep territorial hinterland around them. Because that situation will break up the Palestinian territories into three enclaves, in addition to the Gaza Strip enclave, Sharon promised that the Palestinians would be able to travel from Jenin to Hebron without encountering Israeli checkpoints, by means of an integrated system of tunnels and bridges. This, on condition (reasonable in itself) that they stop the armed activity against Israel.
This map effectively reverses the existing situation. Until now, the Jews tried to use bypass roads, whereas now they will continue to control large territorial tracts and the Palestinians will have to travel beneath the ground or above it. The refugee problem and the Jerusalem question are not raised for discussion in the Sharon plan, but because the framework of the settlement is ostensibly anchored in the road map, the idea is the establishment of a Palestinian state within these parameters - though in practice the Israeli presence will continue on the access routes to it on land, at sea and in the air.
The second version of the Sharon plan was presented sharply by the prime minister's adviser, Dov Weisglass, in an interview in Ha'aretz Magazine in October. According to this view, the "separation" from Gaza is not the first step in the plan but the last one, and the plan is meant as a sop to the Palestinians, the Israelis and the international community, especially the United States. This move is meant to freeze the political process for a very long time (to put it in formaldehyde, as Weisglass so colorfully put it). It is possible that the two versions are mutually complementary. Sharon will try the formaldehyde and if it does not stabilize the situation, he will launch an attempt to implement the second stage of his vision.
In the left-center camp, too, there is logic in supporting Sharon and in the claim that a right-wing leader who was the central engine of the colonization of the occupied territories will be able to evacuate settlements more easily than a government that is identified with the Ma'arach - the old Labor Alignment - which is detested by broad sections of the population, and that this will create a precedent refuting the theory of irreversibility in the territories. This is why the established left exulted in its heart of hearts at the brutal blows that the Sharon-Mofaz-Ya'alon government inflicted on the Palestinians, thus doing the dirty work of "softening" them and lowering their bar of expectations.
From this point of view, it is only natural for the Labor Party to support the Sharon version of the Likud, because, with the exception of a few eccentrics in Labor, the party's conceptions are not and were never different from those of Sharon, who in fact sprang up in the fields of Mapai, the forerunner of Labor. This move has done away with any possibility of political opposition and alternative thought in the country. Indeed, the country is now going to be put into that wonderful chemical of unity - formaldehyde.
Baruch Kimmerling is a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his recent books are Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War Against the Palestinians (Verso, 2003), Immigrants, Settlers and Natives (Alma and Am Oved, Hebrew, 2003), and The Palestinian People (Harvard University Press, 2003) with Joel S. Migdal.
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