Can Sharon win by force?


For the past decade, political leaders — Israeli, Palestinian, American, European and Arab alike, have had one point of agreement with peace activists around the Israel-Palestine conflict. That was the axiom that “neither side would triumph by force.” But now, the dangerous duo of George Bush in the White House and Ariel Sharon in the Prime Minister’s office has embarked on their attempt to prove this false.


At a White House press conference on April 14, Sharon received his thank-you gift from the United States for his plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip. The gift that Bush gave him will severely limit the possibility of fruitful negotiations with the Palestinians and will profoundly damage prospects for a lasting peace. But it was precisely what Sharon wanted most. Behind the specific statements Bush made was the opportunity for Sharon to see if he can prove the axiom about triumph by force wrong.


Ill-fated press conference


Bush made several key statements during the press conference highlighting the rewards to Israel for the Gaza withdrawal. These included: an endorsement of the Israeli separation wall’s route deep into occupied territory in the West Bank, with only a few alterations to prevent the complete encircling of some Palestinian towns; a promise that Israel would not be expected to withdraw to the armistice borders that existed before 1967; and the clearest statement ever by an American president against any return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. In the letters exchanged between the two heads of state, Bush makes it clear that Israel has a free hand for “anti-terror operations” in Gaza after the pullout and that the US will block all peace initiatives, outside of Bush’s stillborn “road map.” Bush thereby assured Sharon that the Saudi plan that gathered so much international support, as well as the Geneva plan will be held in check along with any international or other interference in US/Israeli programs.


Sharon had hoped that Bush would endorse immediate Israeli annexation of key settlement blocs on the West Bank and make an unequivocal statement against any return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Bush did not go quite so far. But the commitments he did give to Sharon severely undermine the potential for negotiations. They send a clear message to Palestinians that fiat, rather than diplomacy will bring the resolution of this conflict as far as America is concerned.


The entire discussion about the Gaza withdrawal and compensation for it has been held between Israel and the United States without any Palestinian representation whatsoever. Even Egyptian involvement has been limited to the question of policing the southern border of Gaza. Thus, the question of whether there should even be compensation to Israel for a withdrawal that is mandated by both international law and common sense is never even raised. This stands in complete opposition to the long-standing American rhetoric, frequently reiterated by Bush, that the conflict must be settled through direct negotiations between the two parties.


Pre-empting Palestinian Aspirations


An Israeli return to the de facto borders that existed between 1949 and 1967 has been a staple of Palestinian aspirations. It is the basis of the hopes for a two-state solution. It was the hope that the Palestinians held over fifteen years ago when the Palestinian Legislative Council, the representative body of the PLO, agreed to recognize Israel’s existence on 78% of the land that had been called “Palestine” under the British Mandate. An American guarantee that the Palestinians cannot even expect the 22% of that land that they hoped for could well mean the death of the two-state solution, and more than that, the end of Palestinian hopes for a negotiated settlement that they can live with. It can be expected that many Palestinians, including many who had heretofore been “moderates”, will draw the intended conclusion—that violence is the only option left to them.


At least as fundamental for the Palestinian people is their claim against Israel regarding refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars and their descendants. In both this matter and the question of return to the pre-1967 borders, most negotiators and observers have long recognized that the Palestinians are unlikely to get all or even most what they want. But the search for a peaceful solution to this vexing crisis depends on negotiations that allow Palestinians to press their claims. The rationale behind ending the occupation has never realistically been the belief that ending the occupation would end the conflict. Rather, it has been that ending the occupation would allow the Palestinians to develop their governmental structures and institutions independent of Israeli domination. This would allow them to negotiate on a somewhat more equal footing. This is also why the movement to end the occupation has been virtually welded to campaigns for international involvement in the conflict and a framework of international law to decide it.


It needs to be made clear that Bush did not change policy on these matters. That Israel would not return to the pre-1967 borders and would not allow any return of refugees behind the Green Line has been implicit American policy for a long time, and, though never stated, was clearly the policy of his Democrat predecessor, Bill Clinton. John Kerry has made it abundantly clear that he fully supports this disastrous declaration by his opponent in the 2004 election. But by explicitly stating American positions on these fundamental questions, Bush has completely short-circuited negotiations, leaving the Palestinians with nothing to bargain for. And the only thing they now have to bargain with is violence. Even more, by granting Israel permission to conduct military operations in Gaza, the effects of the withdrawal for Palestinian residents will be minimized.


Improving Conditions for the Use of Force


Is there a longer-range purpose to this? George Bush did not seem to really grasp the magnitude of what he had done. This view is supported by Bush’s backtracking the next day, as he made rather shallow and insincere efforts to assure both Europe and the Arab states that nothing he said actually pre-determined anything. But others do understand the impact of his statements. A paper issued eight years ago by the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies’ “Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000″, entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” clearly maps out a strategy very similar to this one. The goal they set out was to move diplomacy away from a “land for peace” formula. Many of the authors are very influential in US Mideast policy, and the group included Douglas Feith and Richard Perle.


Sharon’s ambitions go even further. Having this announcement sandwiched between the assassinations of arguably the two most well-known leaders of Palestinian militant groups, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantissi, was not coincidental. Sharon stirs the rage among Palestinians, gets his ally in Washington to demonstrate that there will be no diplomacy, and then stirs the rage some more. It is also no coincidence that all of this is happening at the same time that an historic Palestinian statement against attacks on Israeli civilians was made. By simultaneously increasing despair and anger, Sharon is hoping to raise the stakes in this conflict. It is astonishing to think it, but Sharon has been restrained thus far. He has been held back by world opinion, the US and Israeli public opinion. But the hold of each of these over Sharon diminishes as Palestinian violence increases.


Re-creating ’48?


Sharon is often referred to in Israel as being the last leader of the “Palmach generation”. That is the generation that created the state of Israel. Perhaps more than any Israeli alive, Sharon remembers the feeling of driving Palestinians from Palestine, whether through direct expulsion or from the fear the Zionist militias created. These current moves seem calculated to re-create many of the conditions of 1948.


Over a year ago, as the US prepared for war with Iraq, some speculated that the war would serve for cover for a mass expulsion of Palestinians. At that time, I argued that this was unlikely, as the conditions, especially the view of the Israeli public, were not right, although it was certainly well within Sharon’s physical and ethical capabilities. So, Sharon is trying to change the conditions. His opposition to a “land for peace” formulation is long-standing and well-known. With the help of George Bush, he hopes to erase the possibility of the “land for peace” idea. He hopes to defeat the Palestinians militarily and then, if he must, he will allow them a few scraps of useless land.


Sharon made clear that he intends to keep the major settlement blocs, as well as the Jewish enclave in Hebron. The route of the “separation wall” is remarkably similar to Sharon’s stated “vision” of a Palestinian “state” on the West Bank. But even the Bush Administration cannot deliver this on its own. To make this a reality, the Palestinians must be defeated. Quite likely, a good number of them would have to leave. Is this a possibility?


Sharon believes the victory of 1948 can be replicated. We should not underestimate the possibility that he could be right. Palestinian steadfastness is well-known, but even the most dedicated person must, at some point, look at her or his children and wonder if they are doing the right thing for them. But this is not 1948. In 1948, many Palestinians fled the war believing that they would return to them when the war was over. Many surely believed they could come back even if the Zionists won. Such is not the case today. While we should not blithely assume the Palestinians can weather anything Sharon throws at them, their history to date shows that they are not a people easily moved or easily defeated.


Spiraling Violence


What we can be sure of is that Bush’s declaration and Sharon’s excesses will ensure that the bloodshed continues. As it becomes increasingly clear that the US will not be able to install its own government in Iraq, we can be even more assured that a Palestinian government that is based on its acceptability to Israel and the US is a hopeless illusion.


Sharon will continue to pursue his attempts to defy conventional wisdom and prevail through overwhelming force. But even with the United States moving further and further in support of his program, Sharon will have to see a lot of things go his way for this to succeed. With Iraqi resistance intensifying; the dual occupations of Iraq and Palestine raising militancy and anger throughout the Arab world; and international support for US domination in the Middle East splintering, the necessity for either the US changing its course or the international community finally coming together to oppose this madness is growing. And, while anger continues to grow among Palestinians, so are the cries for internal reform, popular struggle and a democratic, representative and effective leadership.


It also remains to be seen if the already-terrified Israeli public can be made so fearful and so angry that they would tolerate an imposed settlement that crammed Palestinians into some 15% of Mandatory Palestine, and forced many of them to flee. While Israelis continue to favor Sharon, his approval ratings remain very low, both in terms of his domestic scandals and because of his failure to deliver on his promise of security. His ability to hold on to power is greatly dependent on the lack of a credible opponent outside of the Likud coalition. Israeli politics are much more volatile than American and Sharon and the Likud could face real opposition in the coming years.


Bush and Sharon have guaranteed more death and misery for Palestinians and Israelis. John Kerry offers no relief from this, nor do Israeli “doves” like Shimon Peres who was only too quick to applaud the assassination of Rantissi. The potential for change remains where it has always been—in the hands of those who need only organize themselves and force their governments to change course, the hands of ordinary Israelis and Americans.

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