Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who had been in a coma for eight years, has fought the last battle of his life. Sadly for Sharon, and for us, this is a dead end indeed.
Until now, dead end was not something you could find in Sharon’s vocabulary. Maybe it was the robust farmer in him, toughened by rough weather and aggressive Arab neighbours; or the general, who always knew how to maintain the initiative and surprise the enemy; or the shrewd politician, who managed to turn temporary defeats into long-term successes.
Probably it was a blend of all three. One way or another, whenever Sharon encountered an impasse, he found a way to break through. And typical for him, he always did it in an unconventional way.
For years, Ariel Sharon was one of the main architects of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and Gaza. When he served as a minister in the Israeli government, he used all the state resources available to build more and more houses for Jews in these areas. When in opposition, he used to lead tours to those areas, vividly explaining to his enthusiastic listeners why settling in places saturated with Arab residents was important for the future of Israel.
Then, in 2001, he was elected prime minister, and obviously, from the top, things suddenly looked different. Prime minister Sharon realised that if Israel keeps the West Bank and Gaza, not only is it doomed to endless conflict with the Arabs, but more important – with the demographic reality of the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean – Israel could lose either its Jewish or democratic nature, or both. Israelis, he reasoned, must therefore adjust their borders to their numbers.
This is why in 2005 he surprised us all when he initiated the unilateral disengagement from Gaza. This was a slap in the face of the settlers who felt betrayed by the man who had pushed them to settle there in the first place, and who had made them believe that Israel would keep them there forever.
To indicate that the West Bank’s turn would come next, Sharon insisted on uprooting a few Jewish settlements there as well. Then the coma put everything on hold.
There is no point in speculating what would have happened had Sharon not been incapacitated, just as it is useless to hypothesise how the Palestinian-Israeli peace process would look today had Yitzhak Rabin not been assassinated. The fact is that today Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister, and it seems that, like his predecessors, he has also gone through the process of coming to terms with reality.
Rabin, who had said that he would never speak with the PLO, eventually shook Yasser Arafat’s hand at the White House; Sharon, who had encouraged Israelis to settle in Gaza, was the leader who pulled them out of there; and Netanyahu, who in his book “A Place Under the Sun” wrote that a Palestinian state would pose a mortal danger to Israel, spoke the unspeakable when in his 2009 Bar Ilan speech he accepted the idea of a two-state solution.
The difference among the three is that Rabin and Sharon, once they made their painful turnabout, had the courage to vigorously pursue their new paths, against all odds. Sharon, when faced with fierce opposition from his own Likkud party, broke away from it and created the Kadima party as a vehicle to implement his audacious plan. Rabin stood up against virulent incitement (with the pre-reformed Sharon as the most vocal opponent!), and tragically paid with his life for trying to lead Israel in what he believed was the right way.
Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, still seems to be unable to turn his formal acceptance of a Palestinian state into a coherent policy. Caught between the rock (US Secretary of State John Kerry) and the hard place (right-wing opposition within his Likkud party), Netanyahu is zigzagging.
Three decades ago, following a prisoner release deal, he wrote: “How can Israel preach to the United States and the West they must adopt a policy of non-surrender to terror, when Israel surrendered herself so shamefully?” Then, two weeks ago, he released convicted Palestinian terrorists himself, as a step meant to promote the peace process. Yet at the same breath he gives a green light (or at least turns a blind eye) to further settlement efforts, which raises doubts about his seriousness regarding the same peace process.
Since Netanyahu doesn’t seem to be capable of adopting either Rabin’s negotiated settlement course or Sharon’s unilateral disengagement, we are left with procrastination, which doesn’t work in favour of Israel. Not only is Israel moving away from the option of a two-state solution, but it faces growing isolation in the world.
Obviously, a new, out-of-the-box thinking is needed, and here is my modest advice to my prime minister:
In 2002, the Arab League issued a comprehensive peace initiative with Israel. It was met with a strange dismissal and apathy in Israel. The time has come to reconsider it. Netanyahu should call for a regional peace conference based on that initiative. With the rising threat of Shi’ite Iran, he might find unexpected Sunni partners around the table, led by the Saudis.
Furthermore, Arab leaders can provide their Palestinian brother Mahmoud Abbas the backing he needs to make compromises, especially on the refugees issue, while at the same time offering generous financial support to ameliorate the painful process.