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Promises, promises

By Ze'ev Schiff

 

On the day of the funeral of assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, U.S. secretary of state Alexander Haig met with foreign minister Yitzhak Shamir at the Holiday Inn hotel in Cairo. Shamir was accompanied by defense minister Ariel Sharon and interior minister Yosef Burg.At the time, the Americans were concerned about the increased influence of Islamic elements in Egypt and were wondering what could be done to keep them from getting any stronger. Haig's suggestion was to step up the pace of the talks on autonomy for the Palestinians and to freeze the establishment of Jewish settlements in the territories. Everyone at the meeting immediately looked at Sharon, who said that there were still another 10 settlements that had to be established to complete Israel's settlement program. Once they were established, Sharon assured Haig, Israel would announce a freeze on new settlements.

Sharon made the same promise, using the very same words, when Haig met with the interministerial committee on autonomy. Sharon's former adviser, Major General Avraham Tamir writes about that meeting in his book, "A Soldier in Search of Peace: An Inside Look at Israel's Military Strategy." According to Tamir, the participants in the meeting who were filled with hope when they heard Sharon's comments did not know him very well. They took him at his word and were elated; however, the next day, Sharon planned the establishment of dozens of new settlements.

Sharon treated Haig with kid gloves but would adopt a different attitude toward another American secretary of state, James Baker, a few years later: Whenever Baker would visit Israel in the context of his mediation attempts, Sharon would make sure to lay the cornerstone of a new Jewish settlement.

This is only part of the story, which continued during the first Likud government headed by Menachem Begin. When a cabinet debate was held on settlement programs for the territories, two plans were considered. Defense minister Ezer Weizman's plan, which had been prepared by the unit for national security, proposed focusing on the establishment of settlements in six blocs on the West Bank, with a seventh bloc earmarked for the Gaza Strip.

Sharon's plan called for the creation of settlements, even very small ones, throughout the West Bank. Everyone was aware of the dangers involved in Sharon's proposal, whose political goal was to sabotage any possibility of territorial contiguity for the Palestinians and, thus, to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Sharon had a similar goal in mind when he supported the creation of the Gush Katif settlements in the Gaza Strip. These settlements, which ate up the scant land reserves of the densely populated Gaza Strip, would later be referred to by Yitzhak Rabin as "political" settlements.

Although the majority of cabinet votes supported Weizman's settlement bloc plan, Sharon was not prepared to give up so easily on his idea. Ignoring the government's decision, he went ahead with his own plan, but implemented it slowly, stage by stage. This tactic recalls various moves Sharon made in the military sphere in the context of the Israel Defense Forces' retaliatory operations and in the context of Israel's wars: Sharon would, on his own initiative, expand the scope of military operations, sometimes without permission and sometimes giving his own interpretation to the decisions and orders of his superior officers, but, in most cases, at a heavy price.

Now, however, Sharon was following the same pattern in a non-combat context. When the residents of these settlements complain about the hardships of living in isolated communities, it should be recalled that this was precisely the reason for setting them up: They were meant to be cut off from Weizman's settlement blocs despite the risk involved for the residents of such isolated settlements. However, instead of encircling Palestinian cities, these settlements have themselves ended up as remote communities.

If Sharon is elected prime minister, he will not have to take orders from anyone nor will he have to circumvent the decisions made by any of his superiors. Is he capable of taking actions that would violate the concepts of the world-view that has guided him since 1967? Sharon does not see the withdrawal from the territories in the same terms as he saw the withdrawal of Israeli troops from South Lebanon; furthermore, in his view, the idea of giving up settlements in the territories is like amputating an arm or a leg.

The isolated settlements are today a military, human and political problem all rolled up in one, and, with regard to that issue, it really does not matter whether Sharon or Ehud Barak is Israel's next prime minister. Regardless of who sits in the prime minister's office after February 6, these settlements will remain where they are if the present situation - a military confrontation combined with a partial occupation - persists, or if a single state - which will be neither Jewish nor democratic - is gradually established for the Palestinians and the Israelis

 

 


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