Sharon’s Misbegotten Miracle

Published January 14, 2005, issue of January 14, 2005.

The new Israeli government sworn in this week in Jerusalem is a stark testament to the power of one man’s will. Ariel Sharon, for a half-century the living embodiment of Israeli intransigence, has decided to remake Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians before his days are up, and he is willing to batter down any door, climb any mountain, pay almost any price to do it. His new coalition, as Ofer Shelah describes it on Page 1, is a shaky, misbegotten alliance of natural enemies held together only by the power of Sharon’s will to disengage from Gaza. It will require something like a miracle to keep this government intact until the disengagement is implemented later this year. But as the saying goes, miracles are commonplace in the Holy Land. The last year has, if anything, proved that.

When Sharon first unveiled his disengagement plan a year ago, it was taken by allies and foes alike to be a ruse, designed to deflect pressure on Israel for bigger concessions. Over the months the ruse has become an enigma, as Sharon has allowed his longtime alliance with the settler movement and the broader Israeli right to crumble rather than reconsider the plan. Events in the last two months — the death of Yasser Arafat, the budding reconciliation between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the growing signs of Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation and the mounting rage of the settlers — have turned the enigma into a riddle. The question is no longer whether he will do it, but why.

The answer is no mystery. Sharon has decided to dismantle settlements and begin a process of withdrawal from the territories because he believes Israel has no other choice. He and his allies on the right had argued for years that Israel could solve its Palestinian terrorism problem through military means, if it would only try. Over the last two years he has had his chance to try, and it has worked, but only up to a point. Terrorism against Israelis has dropped to a trickle, defeated by military means, something the Israeli left always said could not work. But Israel now finds itself in a new and more vulnerable spot, isolated on the world stage as never before, utterly dependent — far too dependent, many Israeli strategists say — on the mercies of America, which itself stands increasingly alone. The right used to say none of that matters. But it does. Israel faces genuine threats, and the worst threats are not from Palestinian terrorists.

In the end Sharon has fallen back on the counsel of his first and truest allies, his fellow soldiers. Israel’s security establishment has believed for years, nearly unanimously, that the safest way to protect Israel in the long run was to withdraw from the territories and strike a deal with the Palestinians. That could open the way to deals with neighboring Arab states, defuse the worst of Muslim rage and isolate the extremists. It could also help stabilize the Israeli economy by reassuring world markets. As costly as withdrawal might be, they said, staying put will ultimately cost more.

The new Israeli strategy might stand as a cautionary lesson to some of Israel’s more overheated admirers in Washington. In recent days, news reports have surfaced of growing support among American planners for what is known as a Salvadoran strategy in Iraq: unleashing a war of extermination against anti-American insurgents and anyone identified with them, as America and its local allies did in El Salvador in the 1980s. The thinking, it’s said, is that what worked in Central America two decades ago could work in the Middle East today. Some strategists point to Sharon’s success in suppressing Islamic terrorists in the territories in the last two years as an updated model, proving the point.

They should talk to Sharon’s generals before they try something like that. Israel’s lesson in the last two years has been that you can crush Islamic terrorism for a while by hunting and killing terrorists, but it will come back again and again until you confront Muslim anger. The ultimate answer, the Israelis will tell you, is not victory but coexistence.

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