Politics & Policy

Unsettled Settlers

Will Sharon's bold move work?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the August 29, 2005, issue of National Review.

Ariel Sharon’s career as prime minister of Israel is just now reaching a climax, and its outcome will establish him either as a leader who protected his country’s precarious security or, on the contrary, as someone who endangered it unnecessarily. For decades now, Israel has been attempting to find accommodation with the Palestinians by whatever means were possible, ranging from the softness of international diplomacy and appeasement to the harshness of military measures. Nothing has worked.

Palestinians have proved themselves to be neighbors unwilling or unable to live on peaceful terms. In this dilemma, some Israelis conclude that they have to surrender more and more to Palestinian demands, others that they must be harsher still. These conflicting visions of the future tend to political paralysis, and Sharon is obliging the nation to make up its mind, and even to face its destiny. Israelis and Palestinians have to separate as much as possible, as he sees it, and go their own ways.

Sharon’s overall strategy is clear and considered. He has set about erecting a security fence to keep terrorists at bay along the West Bank border with the Palestinians, and he intends to evacuate a handful of settlements and 300 square miles there. On the other border, the Gaza Strip, he has ordered the abandoning of all 20 or so Israeli settlements, involving about 8,500 people, a minority always difficult and expensive to guard in the midst of at least a million Palestinians, two-thirds of whom live below the poverty line. The logic cannot be faulted.

Previously, nobody in Israeli public life had done more than Sharon to encourage settlers both on the West Bank and in Gaza. This, he always maintained, was in accordance with Zionist ideology. Riding roughly over political or moral objections, he had cut so many corners that settlers had every justification in assuming that he would be their man through thick and thin, and they voted for him and his Likud party. The decision to pull out settlements has been met with absolute disbelief. More than a reversal of policy, here is a negation of the Zionism that Sharon has hitherto embodied; but opinion polls at first showed that over two-thirds of the country was in favor of disengagement.

Another politician might have called for a general election, or at least a referendum, on an issue affecting not just security but essential identity. That is not Sharon’s style. He is first and foremost a general. As a tactical move, he asked his Likud party members to vote on his plan. Unsurprisingly, they voted it down. Undeterred, Sharon engineered a political earthquake in the course of which he broke his own Likud, fired cabinet ministers, and formed a coalition with the Labor opposition — which ironically had been almost wiped out in the previous election for advocating exactly this sort of disengagement. Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and an author very conspicuously approved of by President Bush, resigned on the grounds that Israel was receiving no concessions from the Palestinians in return for removing the settlements. Late in the day, Bibi Netanyahu, finance minister and a possible successor to Sharon, resigned on the grounds that disengagement is compromising security. The logic of these two also cannot be faulted…

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