When running for Prime Minister in February of last year, Ariel Sharon, Israel’s ferocious hawk, tried to reinvent himself as a man of peace. Against the background of the al-Aqsa intifada, which he had helped to trigger by his provocative visit to Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount), he ran on a ticket of peace with security. In his first year in power, Sharon has achieved neither peace nor security but only a steady escalation of the violence. In the last two weeks Sharon has revealed himself once again as a man wedded to military force as the only instrument of policy.
The 74 year-old Israeli leader has been at the sharp end of confrontation with the Arabs for most of his life. The hallmarks of his career are mendacity, the most savage brutality towards Arab civilians, and a persistent preference for force over diplomacy to solve political problems. These features found their clearest expression in the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 which Sharon masterminded as defence minister in Menachem Begin’s Likud government.
The war that Sharon is currently waging on the West Bank, fraudulently named ‘Operation Defensive Shield’, is in some ways a replay of his war in Lebanon. It is directed against the Palestinian people; it stems from the same stereotypes that the Palestinians are terrorists; it is based on the same denial of Palestinian national rights; it employs the same strategy of savage and overwhelming military force; and it displays the same callous disregard for international opinion, international law, the UN, and the norms of civilised behaviour. Even the principal personalities are the same: today, as in 1982, Ariel Sharon confronts Yasser Arafat.
The invasion of Lebanon was not a defensive war but a war of deception. Sharon obtained cabinet approval for a limited military operation against the PLO forces in southern Lebanon. From the beginning, however, he planned a much bigger operation to serve broader geostrategic aims. The principal objective of Sharon’s war was to destroy the PLO as a military and political organisation, to break the backbone of Palestinian nationalism, to spread despair and despondency among the inhabitants of the West Bank, and to pave the way to its absorption into Greater Israel. A second objective was to give Israel’s Maronite allies a leg-up to power, and then compel them to sign a peace treaty with Israel. A third objective was to expel the Syrian army from Lebanon and to make Israel the dominant power in the Levant.
Under Sharon’s devious direction, an operation that was supposedly undertaken in self-defence developed into a merciless siege of Beirut and culminated in a horrendous massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila which led to the removal of Sharon from the ministry of defence.
In his crude but relentless propaganda war, Sharon tries to portray Arafat as the master terrorist who orchestrates the violence against Israel and secretly encourages suicide bombings by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. To be sure, Arafat is not above using violence. Nor has he done as much as he could to curb the activities of the Islamic militants. Yet Arafat is the leader who persuaded his movement to abandon armed struggle and adopt the political path in the struggle for independence. By signing the Oslo Accord in 1993, and clinching it with a hesitant handshake, he and Yitzhak Rabin undertook to resolve the outstanding differences between their two nations by peaceful means. Until the assassination of Rabin two years later, Arafat proved himself an effective partner on the road to peace. The subsequent decline of the Oslo peace process was caused more by Israeli territorial expansionism than by Palestinian terrorism. Israeli settlements on the West Bank, which Sharon’s government continues to expand, are the root of the problem.
Ever the opportunist, Sharon was quick to jump on the bandwagon of America’s ‘war against terror’ in the aftermath of 11 September. Under this banner, Sharon has embarked on a sinister attempt to destroy the infrastructure of a future Palestinian state. His real agenda is to subvert what remains of the Oslo accords, to smash the Palestinians into the ground, and to extinguish hope for independence and statehood. To add insult to injury, he wants to remove Yasser Arafat, the democratically elected leader and symbol of the Palestinian revolution, and to replace him with a collaborationist regime which would serve as a sub-contractor charged with upholding Israeli security.
What Sharon is unable or unwilling to comprehend is that security cannot be achieved by purely military means. The only hope of security for both communities lies in a return to the political track, something that the champion of violent solutions has always avoided. Consequently, Sharon’s second war, like his first, is doomed to failure. If the history of this conflict teaches anything, it is that violence breeds more violence.
Many people who do not necessarily support Sharon’s brutal methods nevertheless have sympathy for Israel’s predicament. They point out that the suicide bombs against innocent Israeli civilians pre-dated the incursion of Israeli tanks into West Bank towns and villages. Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, however, goes back to 1967 and constitutes the underlying cause of Palestinian frustration, hatred, and despair of which the suicide bombs are only the cruelest manifestation. They say that Hamas and Islamic Jihad deny altogether Israel’s right to exist. These are, however, the extremist fringes. The savage treatment meted out by Sharon to the Palestinians is self-defeating precisely because it undermines moderates and strengthens extremists.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the current crisis is America’s complicity in the Israeli onslaught. One might have expected George Bush Jr. to resume the even-handed policy of his father towards Arabs and Israelis. Instead, he has reverted to a blatantly pro-Israeli policy reminiscent of the Reagan years. Although America is a signatory to the Oslo Accord, Bush has abandoned the Palestinian side.
Sharon is holding Arafat hostage in his headquarters in Ramallah, depriving him of food, water, medicines and telephone lines. The only concession that the American President has managed to extract from the truculent Israeli Prime Minister is a promise not to kill the Palestinian leader. The Israelis have destroyed much of Arafat’s police force and security services, leaving him with a mobile phone. Under these conditions the embattled Palestinian leader does not have the means to prevent suicide attacks even if he had the will to do so.
In an apparent reversal of American policy a week ago, President Bush called on Sharon to pull out his troops from the Palestinian towns and villages. Sharon insisted they would stay as long as necessary to accomplish their mission of uprooting the infrastructure of terror. Secretary of State Colin Powell was dispatched to the region to broker a ceasefire and restore the political track. He is unlikely to get far with Sharon unless he backs up his words with the threat to cut economic and military aid to Israel. The death toll in ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ is more than 200 Palestinians and 60 Israelis. How many more lives will have to be sacrificed before the Americans understand that General Sharon is part of the problem, not the solution?
Avi Shlaim is a professor of International Relations at Oxford and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (2000)