Guest Editorial: The end of the Sharon Era
The end of the Sharon Era, Time for a New Beginning?
by Mark LeVine
Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, Irvine
‘ As Ariel Sharon clings to his life after suffering a major stroke, commentators across the globe, including many Arab leaders, are predicting the dire consequences of his removal from the Israeli political scene for the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Sharon wasn’t perfect; far from it. In fact, he arguably has more Palestinian blood on his hand than any Israeli Prime Minister and was the prime mover behind the post-1967 settlement project in the Occupied Territories. But for many people, that’s all in the past; today Sharon is viewed as perhaps the only Israeli with the clout to reach a deal with Palestinians that would be acceptable to the majority of Israelis, who no longer trust the other side.
Yet while it is true that with Sharon gone his new party Kedima will likely lose out to a Netanyahu led Likud party, no matter who wins the upcoming Israeli or Palestinian elections the end of the Sharon era will in fact have little impact on the peace process.
This is because for all intents and purposes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over, and Israel has won, decisively. Indeed, since the beginning of the 1990s the whole point of the Oslo peace process, followed by the the low intensity war that began in September 2000, have been to convince and then compel Palestinians to accept that not even their most minimal demands will be met, whether through negotiations or violence. Regardless of who has been prime minister during this period–Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak or Sharon–Israel’s negotiating strategy and final positions have changed little, which is why Palestinians soured on Oslo long before the al-Aqsa intifada erupted in 2000.
In this context, what the renewed violence that began five years ago signified was the growing disconnect between a Palestinian leadership whose very existence and freedom of movement has depended on Israe’s good graces, which in turn depended on their gaining Palestinian acquiescence to a deal that few wanted, and a people that refuses to sign despite a decade of largely unkept promises and escalating violence. And no matter who wins either election, no Palestinian leadership will be able to convince their people to accept what Sharon or his successor are willing to offer: a weak and disconnected “state,” bisected by settlements and Israeli-only roads, with its resources and economy remaining largely in Israel’s hands, Jerusalem out of reach for most citizens, and refugees forced to return cantons that are effectively too small to sustain the existing population.
But from Israel’s perspective of “unilateral disengagement” (begun by Barak and cemented by Sharon) the Palestinian position is irrelevant. Israel has succeeded in crushing the al-Aqsa intifada; its withdrawal of settlers and forces from Gaza has freed up personnel, funds and political capital to dig in where it really matters: protecting the red lines regarding settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, and economic control, which have guided Israel’s negotiations for decades. As important, they have now been accepted fully by the Bush Administration, which means that no power on earth will be able to force Israel to withdraw from a single settlement, change a single line on a map, or let in a single Palestinian refugee that its government doesn’t want to do.
Yet while Israel has crushed the intifada, it has not crushed Palestinian society to the point that it will accept a political agreement based on these red lines. Therefore, we can expect that the conflict will continue to cycle between periods of violence and negotiation while Israel strengthens its “facts on the ground” and Palestinians search for new strategies to prevent Israeli red lines from becoming their realities. As for the US, it will continue to back Israel, thereby ensuring the status quo of the last five years continues, while Palestinian society slides slowly but surely into increasing chaos.
If a Palestinian leadership signs onto an agreement on Israel’s terms, its rejection by a strong segment of Palestinian society will likely produce an Iraq-style dynamic, in which a government presides over a newly established state against which a large and popular insurgency will inflict significant violence while remaining incapable of seriously threatening the occupying power. Most Israelis, like most Americans, will remain outside the bubble of violence, and most Palestinians, like most Iraqis, will remain inside without the wherewithall either to resist or transcend their sorry situation.
Perhaps with the passing of Sharon, Arafat and the rest of the Israeli and Palestinian old guard, a new generation of leaders on both sides will emerge that has the courage and foresight to imagine a shared future for the two peoples that today remains unimaginable. The alternative is another generation lost to violence, a future neither Israelis nor Palestinians deserve. ‘
Dept. of History
453 Krieger Hall
Irvine, CA 92697-3275
Contributing Editor, Tikkun magazine, www.tikkun.org
for press or speaking engagements:
Christine Byrd, (949) 824-9055
Author: Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil.