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What Future and in which Centre?
Ariel Sharon & the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

16 January   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Over the past twelve days, many political pundits and journalists have been asserting that PM Ariel Sharon's massive hemorrhagic stroke on 4 January 2006 has thrown the future of any process for peace with the Palestinians into serious question. Some of the commentators have also described the ailing prime minister as the best peacemaker Israel ever spawned since its founding days in 1948 - even more so than the likes of the late Yitzhak Rabin. In the last few months alone, and certainly since Israel completed its withdrawal from Gaza on 12 September 2005, it is clear that quite a few analysts have revised their opinions about Sharon, and his Kadima party (Forward, in Hebrew, launched officially on 24 November 2005) has become a fashionable political behemoth for peace today.

But what did Sharon truly represent in some Israeli, Palestinian or international circles? Had he truly become an icon for pragmatism and peace in the midst of a fierce conflict between two nationalisms, or did he remain the same bulldozer that fomented unending Israeli-Palestinian strife? What is happening to the political landscape today?

Assuming that a miracle bringing Sharon back to the prime ministerial chair is well nigh impossible, the epicentre of any struggle between now and 28 March 2006 (date of the Israeli Knesset [parliamentary] elections) will be over the future credibility and political platform of Kadima as the latest tantalising prospect for a third-way solution toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians . Kadima was ab initio more about Sharon himself than about any real vision. Even the National Agenda that Kadima unfurled on 28 November 2005 refers much of its foreign policy orientations to Sharon himself. However, since the stroke, this so-called centrist party has attracted the likes of Ehud Olmert, Shimon Peres, Tzipi Livni, Tzachi Hanegbi, Dalia Itzik, Gideon Ezra, Chaim Ramon and Meir Sheetrit from both Likud and Labour, and it now needs to define - and also refine - a political vision that does not revolve solely around the personality of Ariel Sharon. This becomes even more urgent since many Israelis distrust Likud's Benyamin Netanyahu and view him diffidently as a slick and discredited opportunist whose political paroxysms represent the old approach of inflaming Palestinian tensions through war and continuing settlements on Palestinian land. At the other end of the traditional political spectrum stands Labour, headed by a former trade union leader Amir Peretz, who favours negotiations with the Palestinians. Unfortunately, the failure of the Oslo accords and a lack of political experience would not necessarily encourage the Israeli electorate to trust his prime ministership during this volatile period in the Middle East.

So we come back to Kadima . The vision that Sharon had pushed forward for at least the past year was built around the central tenet of separation. Separation predicates that Israelis cannot live with Palestinians, and so they will separate from them, by building for instance a wall to render such separation visible and permanent. Indeed, Sharon seems to have looked at the demographics of his country and concluded that the only way to keep Israel a Jewish state (despite the fact that 20% of its citizens are Palestinian Arabs) was to detach it physically, wherever possible, from the Palestinians. Toward that end, he faced down the relatively small number of Israeli hardcore settlers in Gaza and carried out the first finite withdrawal from occupied lands that Palestinians have been claiming back for their future state. Yet, despite this withdrawal, Sharon still adhered to a list of fourteen objections to the Quartet-backed roadmap that was ratified by UNSC Resolution 1515 on 19 November 2003 and that foresaw in essence the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005. One of those objections flatly ruled out "final status" peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

However, without the stamina or charisma associated with Sharon, the vision of Kadima can no longer rely solely on unilateral separation or political procrastination - not that it could have done so ad infinitum even with Sharon at the helm. For such a centrist path not to become redundant, one needs a vision that also incorporates the steps necessary to end the conflict with the Palestinians. Such a vision should include a complete enough withdrawal from the West Bank to give the Palestinians a workable, contiguous and sovereign state. Sharon's place in history could only be secured ex post facto if the party he founded managed to turn his vision of separation into one of a just and durable peace.

But was PM Sharon the peacemaker he is now being portrayed in some quarters? Not really, and certainly not so when viewed through the multiple regional prisms that are considerably less fawning of his achievements.

Some moons ago, I read Sun Tzu's The Art of War . This compelling book, written by one of the most famous Chinese military generals circa 500 BCE, focused on the striking differences between strategies and tactics. His book supports an argument that Sharon was not a strategist. Rather, he was a tactician who could not forge successful long-term strategies or policies. His reliance on military force and tactical audacity proved to be much more high drama than good strategy, and it has certainly not bequeathed upon Israel far greater security. Even his withdrawal from Gaza, the 'high noon' of his 'peace legacy', was dulled by his harrying attempts at recreating in the northern Gaza Strip the same sort of 'security zone' that had been a colossal failure in southern Lebanon over two decades ago. Then in Lebanon, just as now in Gaza, Sharon refused to learn the lesson that only a truly free and sovereign state could become a peaceful neighbour to Israel. Sharon never conceded, and the Western political establishments never challenged him on it, that one cannot refer to Gaza as an example of peace in the making when Israel still controls many dimensions of Palestinian life, movement and economy. With the separation wall (including large tracts of fenced areas) increasingly isolating Palestinian communities across their land (including the hub of East Jerusalem), coupled with an expansion of settlements in the West Bank, it is hard to describe his achievements as irenic. No wonder then that the Arab popular resentment has not abated much since the dusk of the Oslo Accords when the misshapen hopes for peace were dwarfed yet again by narrow definitions, otiose ideologies and unrelenting stratagems. Ever since that era over a decade ago, Sharon resisted the concept of land-for-peace negotiations leading to a two-state solution, replacing it bald-facedly with his own unilateralism - building walls and fences as punitive as those built by Morocco to isolate the indigenous Sahrawis in Western Sahara, withdrawing from Gaza, engaging in extra-judicial assassinations of Palestinian militants, and deciding if, when and on what terms Palestinians could be drawn into discussions. Sun Tzu, a master of deception himself, would be proud of such a pupil.

But let us cast our minds back! Only a couple of years ago, the mantra of the Sharon-led government stated that Israel would not negotiate with the late Yasser Arafat. Now, with a new president for the Palestinian Authority since 11 January 2005, Sharon's Israel has still failed to facilitate any credible peace process with the Palestinians. His policies to date have indirectly contributed to the lawlessness in parts of Palestine and to a damaged Palestinian leadership, as much as to the uncertainty about the future status of Gaza, a high probability of Hamas and other Islamist groups doing well in the forthcoming legislative elections, and the fomenting of more anti-Israel sentiments across parts of the world.

The Palestinians have not been the model partners for peace either - what with their corruption, violence, internecine dilemmas and squabbles, the lack of a sense of robust realism or any pan-Arab solidarity. As Khaled Duzdar from the Israel / Palestine Center for Research and Information and Khalil Shikaki from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research have both cautioned, there is serious chaos inside the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, and the Palestinian leadership seems unable to stop this systematic meltdown of the Palestinian national movement. Moreover, this whole movement is now running the risk of economic disintegration and foreign disinvestment - so much so that the World Bank might even consider taking over the international trusteeship of the Palestinian economy if its management does not improve quite soon. With the UN Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA) already meeting the basic needs of Palestinian refugees in camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it does not take a quantum leap for the World Bank to do likewise for the non-refugee population. The process for peace is dunked in the 'formaldehyde' of unilateral Israeli initiatives, and it is not inconceivable that the Palestinian Authority would be administered by international organisations and could then exist only as an institutional fig leaf masking the reality of Israeli occupation.

But neither Palestinian mismanagement, nor political stasis or the potential pitfalls following the legislative elections on 25 January 2006 as spelt out by Mou'in Rabbani, senior analyst on the Middle East for Crisis Group, should in themselves become excuses that exonerate Sharon for the damage he inflicted upon the Palestinians over the years - and by analogy upon peace in the Middle East too. In that sense, Kadima, as a post-Sharon political phenomenon, should show real political courage to wade across the current morass and pursue a vision that would achieve self-determination for Palestinians. I suppose a sort of Shimon Peres approach on final borders minus Shimon Peres himself. Otherwise, after an initial glow and perhaps '40-plus' seats in the forthcoming elections, this party would join the likes of Yigal Yadin's Democratic Movement for Change, Yitzhak Mordechai's Centre Party or even nowadays Tommy Lapid's Shinui and simply become bogged down by its own inconsistencies or fade away as another flash in the pan.

By nature and instinct, I am a mediator and conciliator. I favour neither doomsday scenarios nor uncompromising stances. However, the only conclusion I can possibly draw today is that Israel simply does not want credible peace with the Palestinians - whether with PM Sharon or without him. It seems to struggle for the domination of another people in such a way that it imposes unilaterally its dictates for peace, places Palestinians in territorial cages, keeps as much of their land as possible, builds walls, ignores ICJ rulings and international law rights, and then declares to the world that it alone is a democracy - and therefore it alone can deliver peace. I wonder how Israel will have felt if the shoe were on the other foot, and it had to put up with the humiliating hardships meted out against Palestinians today.

In a world of spin, sound bites and captions, one of the better summations on Sharon came last week from Yossi Beilin, former Justice Minister, and now member of the Meretz-Ahad party. He assessed that Sharon is neither a peacemaker nor a monster. Both extremes, he admitted, are exaggerations. I concur, since Sharon is a wily politician whose scruples always sublimated when it came to defending Jewish-only interests within Israel or Palestine. Consequently, throughout all those times he held political office, he pursued those tactics that are inimical to peace in the belief that he was defending Israel. But he never quite understand that such short-term gains would rebound against Israel - unless it embraces peace, rather than flirt with it, only to cheat on it and then dump it and walk away again.

In his book The Five People You Meet in Heaven , Mitch Alborn writes that 'all endings are also beginnings - even if we don't know it at the time'. Perhaps this latest chapter in Middle Eastern politics - with shivering changes tentatively afoot in Israeli, Palestinian and regional politics - might metamorphose into a new beginning and not necessarily hurt regional peace-making efforts. This, after all, is the wish of countless hard-working peace-seekers today.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   16 January


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