Milton Viorst on Israel’s Tragic Predicament
Posted on Feb 1, 2008
Since childhood, Sharon has said, he lived “in the shadow of security problems.” Warschawski grudgingly acknowledges him as one of only two strategic visionaries in Israel’s history, the other being David Ben-Gurion. Israelis initially came to admire Sharon as a swashbuckling general, whose greatest triumph was turning the tide in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Afterward, he retired to take command of the right-wing Likud, a role which proved that, politically as well, he was irrepressible. “The best answer for security,” he once said, “is settlement,” but he might have reversed the order. In diverse political posts Sharon remained the dominant figure over the army and the territories. Long before becoming prime minister, he was a bulldozer in expanding the settlements, while at the same time keeping the army focused on protecting them.
In an interview in the newspaper Haaretz after he was elected prime minister in 2001, Sharon expressed a belief that Israel’s permanent security was an ongoing objective that might take a century to attain. The War of Independence, he said, was just the opening chapter. A peace treaty, he said, was no guarantee, and if a Palestinian state became unavoidable, he would permit it to cover no more than 42 per cent of the land that was envisioned for it by the international community and in U.N. resolutions.
“It’s not by accident,” he said, “that the settlements are located where they are. They safeguard the cradle of the Jewish people’s birth and also provide strategic depth which is vital to our existence.” It was Sharon’s idea, say Zertal and Eldar, to create chains of settlements to control the West Bank’s key aquifer and strategic hills. “I see no reason for evacuating any settlement,” he told Haaretz. Even after solemnly promising Bush to halt building in the territories, he kept pouring in funds, often selecting the construction sites himself. By conceding the principle of a Palestinian state, he hoped to keep Arabs from ever voting in Israel; he even had the army pull out of the Gaza Strip, though he ceded nothing in the West Bank. Time was working in Israel’s favor, Sharon insisted, and a hasty peace would only be a barrier to its achieving its security goals.
With help from the religious and military establishments, Sharon as prime minister saw to the transformation of the very nature of the occupied territories and of the army itself. The officers corps, once dominated by secular Jews heavily drawn from the kibbutzim, increasingly tilted toward the settlers, many of them educated in ultranationalist yeshivas. According to Zertal and Eldar, promotions became a function of service to settlement expansion. Settlers themselves were put in charge of planning, infrastructure and construction in the territories. Step by step the civilian authorities, not just the government but the courts and the police too, deferred to the army in making policy and enforcing law. Concerned Israelis warned that the army’s shift in orientation to population control in the territories would diminish its level of readiness and training, thereby actually subverting national security. When Israel went to war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the army’s poor showing vindicated the warning.
Even before Sharon became prime minister, the army was tilting toward unbridled repression of the Palestinians. Sharon’s predecessor was Ehud Barak, a general who talked peace while also cultivating his ties to the settlers. In 2000, Barak stepped up the heat on the Palestinians, says Warschawski, in response to their refusal of his offer—which Barak called “extremely generous”—of a Palestinian state made up of a mosaic of bantustans that would leave the army in control. The predictable result was the second intifada, more violent than the first, on which Sharon, as candidate for prime minister, deliberately poured fuel by invading the Temple Mount with a band of soldiers. After his election, says Warschawski, Sharon embarked on a program that was “essentially punitive ... meant to teach the Palestinians a lesson for having dared to defy the occupation.”
Six months later, the attack on New York’s World Trade Center by suicide bombers proclaiming an extremist form of Islam had its impact on Israel. Bush retaliated by launching the “war on terror,” and Sharon, seizing the opportunity to join in, received from the U.S. the legitimation of his own practices. The focus on Israeli settlements was superseded by America’s obsession with terror, and in the public mind the Palestinian yearning for liberation was transformed into a danger to the civilized world. The army, spreading fear throughout the territories, became more powerful than ever, in ways more powerful than the government itself. Claiming the right to promote security, writes Warschawski, the army has literally imprisoned a society of 4 million people.
The prison’s perimeter is the ugly, abutting slabs of concrete, some 30 feet high, that run like a scar across the biblical terrain. The army refers to it as the security fence, but almost everyone else calls it simply “the wall.” Sharon said it was needed to protect Israelis from terrorists, and conceivably it has saved some lives. But it does much more. In places, it follows the old border between Israel and the West Bank. Then, across from Jerusalem’s Old City, it loops outward to embrace the most populated settlements, which are not the clusters of trailers that I found 30 years ago but beautifully designed and landscaped communities, well-watered and air-conditioned, at the edge of superhighways that Arabs are forbidden to use. Elsewhere, the wall strays from the border deep into Arab land, slicing through villages, encircling towns, blocking inhabitants from their fields. Some 10 per cent of the West Bank is on the wall’s Israeli side. Settlers who live to its east glide through gates under the protective eyes of soldiers, but Palestinians face huge administrative obstructions to crossing it. Many are denied the right to cross at all.
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