Middle East

ISRAEL'S LANDSCAPER

Ariel Sharon is doing nothing less than remaking his country's map, writes JONATHON GATEHOUSE

August 22 2005
Middle East

ISRAEL'S LANDSCAPER

Ariel Sharon is doing nothing less than remaking his country's map, writes JONATHON GATEHOUSE

August 22 2005

ISRAEL'S LANDSCAPER

Middle East

Ariel Sharon is doing nothing less than remaking his country's map, writes JONATHON GATEHOUSE

TWO RECENT stories about Ariel Sharon from the Israeli press.

One dark night a couple of weeks back, a group of 20 far-right activists gathered in a village near the Sea of Galilee. Standing at the gravesite of Shlomo Ben-Yosef, a member of the militant Zionist Irgun movement, hanged by the British in 1938 for shooting up a bus full of Arabs, they took ritual baths, dressed themselves in black, and then chanted until dawn. They were laying an ancient Halachic death curse on the head of the Prime Minister. If massive protests couldn’t stop the dismantling of the settlements in the Gaza strip, they reasoned, maybe the biblical Angels of Destruction would take care of matters. After all, back in 1995, the group had cast the same spell on Yitzhak Rabin, shortly before he was assassinated.

This past week, the news was more flattering, if still creepy. An unnamed Israeli man, the son of an army medic, has put a blood-soaked bandage that allegedly dressed Sharon’s head in the 1973 Yom Kippur war up for sale on eBay. The Prime Minister, then a dashing Israeli army major-general, was wounded in a tank battle with the Egyptians at the Suez Canal. The daring nighttime offensive, which encircled the invading Egyptian army and forced its surrender, made Sharon a national hero, providing the springboard for his leap to politics soon after. The opening bid price for the crusty gauze is US$10,000.

To say that Israelis hold strong opinions about their 77-year-old Prime Minister is a vast understatement. His love of bold gambits is both the source of his mystique and his greatest weakness. (A provocateur par excellence, it was Sharon who is frequently credited with lighting the fuse for the current intifada, with a visit as opposition leader to the al-Aqsa mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in September 2000 that touched off waves of Palestinian rioting. He subsequently came to power by vowing to quell the violence.) But since finally capturing the political office he had coveted for more than

three decades in the 2001 election, Sharon has raised the stakes dramatically. By pulling out of 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the northern Samaria region of the West Bank, and embarking on an ambitious plan to seal off the West Bank, he is remaking the map of Israel. By weathering the mass outrage of the settlers and their supporters he is changing the political landscape.

Now, with his patchwork coalition government fraying and another election on the horizon, there is growing speculation Sharon might bail out of the party he helped found in 1973, and forge a new, centrist option. Whether the Prime Minister has a master plan, or is simply flying by the seat of his pants, is the subject of hot debate. But if the polls are to be believed, even if Israelis

PUBLIC support

has been running around 55 per cent for Sharon’s controversial disengagement plan

have no idea where they are going, Sharon is going to be the one they choose to follow.

THE ISRAELI government is always careful to refer to the 680-km-long barrier that it is rapidly building around the West Bank as a “security fence.” But in and around Jerusalem, it is clearly a wall—an unbelievably ugly, 8.5m-high line of grey concrete that bisects urban neighbourhoods and snakes along the hillsides outside the city to encircle the expanding red-roofed settlements to the east. The UN has denounced it as a violation of Israel’s human rights obligations. It isn’t difficult to find Palestinians with tales of hardship in its shadow. “Before this miserable wall, 15,000 people passed by here every day,” says Hassan Ekelmawir, the owner of a small grocery in Abu Dis, just outside the Old City’s walls. “Now I don’t have 10.” Ekelmawir says he will soon be forced to close the shop that has supported his family for 50 years. “This is a barrier between Palestinians and Palestinians—I don’t understand it.”

Most Israelis, however, are clear on the wall’s purpose: to make it more difficult for

Ariel Sharon is doing nothing less than remaking his country's map, writes JONATHON GATEHOUSE

people to blow themselves up in restaurants and on buses. And they support it in overwhelming numbers. “In terms of public opinion, it’s a fait accompli,” says Tamar Hermann, a pollster and public opinion researcher at Tel Aviv University. “Close to 80 per cent agree with it. It cuts across party lines, and it’s one issue that brings people together on the left and the right.” That’s because it is difficult to argue with success. Since construction started on the barrier in the summer of2002, the number of suicide attacks has dropped precipitously.

Sharon’s disengagement plan may be controversial (support has been running around 55 per cent), and public feelings about his government’s social and economic policy lukewarm, but security trumps all in Israeli politics. And his measurable success in that sphere alone should be enough to deliver him another mandate. “He’s going to take it by

default,” says Hermann. “People aren’t crazy about his other accomplishments, but basically, no one else comes close.” Technically, Sharon doesn’t have to call an election until the fall of 2006, but all indications point to Israelis heading to the polls sooner. Labour Leader Shimon Peres has said his commitment to his party’s coalition with Likud ends after the Gaza pullout, which should be completed by late fall (page 29). And Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation from cabinet over disengagement sets the stage for an internal struggle for the leadership of Likud. But the telegenic “Bibi,” while popular abroad, is not greatly loved at home where his Republican-style tax rollbacks and cuts to social spending as finance minister have earned him a reputation as heartless. Even if he were to wrest control of Likud away from Sharon, the old general might yet best him running under a differ-

ent banner. One popular scenario has Sharon joining forces with Peres, 80, and Yosef (Tomy) Lapid, 74, leader of Shinui, the secular party, to form a centrist gerontocracy. Israel has never had a majority government in its history—14 parties are represented in the current Knesset. And Likud won the last election with just 40 of the 120 seats. The threshold for becoming prime minister could be even lower this time around.

The bigger question is what kind of coalition the eventual winner will be able to build. The bitterness over disengagement has shredded Israel’s fragile national consensus. And there is little agreement on the road forward. “There has never ever been such a direct and adamant challenge to the government or a government decision,” says Emanuel Gutmann, a Hebrew University political scientist and observer of the Israeli scene for five decades. “I honestly don’t know what is going to happen next, and I don’t think anyone does.” Some are even more pessimistic about the future. The fight has “doomed us to many more years of disabled, crippled democracy, conducted in the shadowy anarchy of this period,” Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset, wrote recently in one Israeli newspaper.

If the settlers and religious right have won anything with their protests, it is the general acknowledgement that any future government wishing to pull out of the West Bank or hand over parts of Jerusalem in the search for peace and security is in for an even tougher battle. The emotional and historical claims to Gaza pale in comparison to many of the other settlements now deep on the Palestinian side of the pre-1967 green line—places with biblical significance.

Whether Sharon will be willing, in the run-up to the elections or during a second mandate, to charge deeper into the fray is an open question. But few observers would have picked him as a likely candidate to leave Gaza. “There’s an expression we use in Hebrew—he has no god in his hat,” says Uzi Benziman, a political columnist for the daily Ha’aretz, and author of Sharon: An Israeli Caesar. “He has no commitment, no ideology. He’s quite opportunistic and pragmatic in a cynical way.” The desire of politicians to leave a legacy behind is universal. It’s just that in Israel, that usually means making history. ÍJU

jonathon.gatehouse@macleans.rogers.com