In 1977, Sharon was appointed minister of agriculture in the first Begin government, following the failure of the electoral adventure in which he had fielded his own separate list, to win only two seats in the Knesset. Inevitably, Sharon used the agricultural portfolio for his own political advancement, as he had used the army before.
Whereas once he had set his sights on becoming a chief of staff, now his dream was to be minister of war. The army had made him a national hero. He mocked political leaders for their hesitancy, and jeered at their inability to understand the army from where they stood in their bureaucratic ivory towers. They were weak: they lacked the courage to back policy with military force, and were forever kowtowing to American dictates. He, on the other hand, was an intrepid man of action: his clothes were laden with the dust of mountains and deserts, his body covered with scars from using force to try and make the Arabs understand that they had no hope of victory.
This image was and remains Sharon’s prelude to any talk of peace in the region. He is a man of deeds, not words: he takes to the field, he goes on the offensive. Never had Tsahal been able to boast a soldier who so epitomised the myth of the Sabra Israeli warrior — or who has exploited this image so deftly in the media to promote his views, realise his political ambitions and neutralise anyone who tried to stand in his way.
Sharon swore at his bosses in front of their subordinates, rebuked superior officers in front of his soldiers, lashed out at political leaders in front of the army. He lied, if necessary, in order to cover his tracks, or to justify a step he wanted to take to those empowered to make the decision. How many Israeli political and military leaders, looking back, must now realise that they were deceived by him — that they had no idea Sharon would do what he did when they gave him their approval?
But the ministry of agriculture? How could he possibly turn such a portfolio to his advantage? The key word was: settlements. From the day he was appointed minister of agriculture until the present, Sharon has been the father of settlement expansion. It is he who has been the author of all the major initiatives in this regard.
In September 1977, 40 days after being named chairman of the ministerial committee for settlement affairs, Sharon announced his plan to create a line of settlements in the West Bank parallel to the Israeli coastal cities. The plan called for the creation of towns, complete with outlying suburbs and satellite cities, in a circle around Jerusalem. One cannot help but notice how closely Sharon’s programme then resembles the reality that faces us today. Throughout his term as minister of agriculture, he pushed settlement expansion as the primary mission of the state, and openly attacked his fellow cabinet members for ignoring that mission, of which he was the self- appointed guardian.
On 20 November 1977, the Israeli cabinet assembled to hear Menachem Begin’s report on his first meeting with Anwar El-Sadat in Jerusalem. That was the first Sharon had heard of the substance of that meeting. He had not been consulted beforehand regarding the Egyptian president’s visit and he had no idea of how the encounter had been arranged. Then, on 13 December, in the ministerial committee for security affairs, he heard — again for the first time — about the peace proposal Israel had made to Egypt, which included a provision for autonomous rule for the West Bank and Gaza. Although his initial response was to reject the peace plan, by the end of that meeting Sharon had agreed to the principle of returning the whole of the Sinai in exchange for peace, leaving only Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur opposed to full withdrawal from the peninsula. Sharon was also won over to autonomous rule for the Palestinians, which Begin had backed, on the basis that there would be guarantees in place to prevent the autonomous rule areas from evolving into a Palestinian state.
On 3 January 1978, Sharon succeeded in persuading the government to approve a plan which called for the creation of three new settlements in the West Bank and the fortification of the existing settlements in the northern Sinai near Rafah by expanding the area of agricultural land and digging new water wells. Negotiations with Egypt had reached an advanced stage. The way Sharon pitched his proposal was to argue that by adding agricultural land to the Sinai settlements, Israel would be testing Egypt’s political will and whether it would agree to allow the existing settlements to remain. Begin was enthusiastic. In fact, however, what Sharon told Begin fell some way short of the truth: for he had already ordered 23 new settlement outposts to be created.
On 6 January, the world awoke to reports of massive Israeli settlement activity in northern Sinai. Negotiations with Egypt were thrown into disarray. When Tel Aviv denied the reports, this simply afforded Sharon yet another opportunity to accuse his government of lack of resolve and of abandoning the principle of settlement expansion. Sharon continued to create similar crises over settlement construction, ultimately compelling Ezer Weizman, who was an enthusiastic supporter of peace with Egypt, to resign in 1980, thus leaving the way open for Sharon to become minister of security following the 1981 elections.
On the other hand, when Sharon was asked to contact Begin, then in Camp David, to convince the prime minister to relinquish the settlements in the Sinai — including Yamit, which was the last remaining obstacle — he complied. Bringing Sharon in on negotiations would seem to make him more flexible, and the experience of Wye River supports this point of view. While then Prime Minister Netanyahu was negotiating with Arafat in October 1998, Sharon urged settlers to occupy the hilltops in the West Bank and build settlement outposts there. However, when he was invited to Wye to participate in the negotiations, he gave his blessing to the agreements, including those provisions calling for redeployment and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of Hebron.
Today, Sharon is not only participating in negotiations, he is directing them: it is he who has the ultimate say. It follows that he should be even more flexible. Nevertheless, we find him telling Yediot Ahranot on 30 January 2001 that the dismantling of Yamit was a mistake. And, after becoming prime minister, he repeated this position in an interview with Ha’aretz: “I see no reason to dismantle the settlements as long as there’s no peace. In any case, we’re there. If peace does come with time, there will naturally be no objection to the settlements remaining.” “You will not repeat the case of Yamit?” he was asked. “No. Definitely not.”
This more flexible Sharon no longer has to spout demagogic statements in order to cast aside adversaries or topple obstacles which stand between him and the top of the ladder. However, the flexibility he acquires when involved in the decision-making process would seem to have its limits. It also appears that he is still ready to harass and slander in order to clear his way to positions he has set his sights on in the event he has to step down. Opportunism and status-seeking still determine part of his behaviour, but they do not explain everything.
Sharon has said that he has not changed his mind on the Palestinian issue: “I have not changed my point of view,” he told Maariv on 13 April 2001. “The only thing I’ve changed is my opinion that Jordan is Palestine. And this change only occurred because of developments on the ground. I never wanted there to be two Palestinian states.” What Sharon wants is a protracted interim “no war” agreement, during which Israel makes minimal concessions towards reaching a permanent peace with the Arabs. Like Kissinger, he believes this to be a more realistic solution than permanent peace treaties, nor does it require the dismantling of Israeli settlements. He also believes that it would have been better to conclude a “no war” agreement with Egypt, without having to remove the settlements in the northern Sinai, including Yamit. Like Kissinger, he thought that peace with Egypt should not have warranted “sacrificing” the principle of settlement expansion.
No war with the Palestinians, to Sharon’s thinking, would be achieved through a negotiated agreement, creating a Palestinian state, “as outlined in the Wye agreement”, on 42 per cent of the land. Again on 13 April 2001, he told Maariv: “This state will be kept under restrictions and will be unarmed, unlike the situation we have today. It will have only police forces, which will have only those arms they need to maintain security. For years to come, it will be Israel which will maintain that state’s external boundaries. It will not be able to conclude alliances with states hostile to Israel, and Israel will have full rights to use its airspace. As long as it does not impinge on Israeli security, I have no problem with it.” He added that the state should be territorially contiguous, and that a solution had to be found to the question of Israeli roadblocks, “for these are the things that bother the Palestinians in their daily lives”.
How did Sharon arrive at this vision of a Palestinian entity? Not only had he approved Begin’s notion of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, he made it the focal point of his thinking on diverse aspects of the Palestinian issue, especially after the 1982 war in Lebanon, in which he, in collusion with the Lebanese militias, had failed to drive the Palestinians into Jordan. On Palestinian autonomy and its relationship with Jordan, Sharon wrote (in Yediot Ahranot of 26 February 1988): “I personally believe that the autonomy programme will serve as a bridge of peace between us and the Palestinian state in Jordan. In the distant future, autonomy will lead to an Israeli-Palestinian federation or confederation on the banks of the Jordan River.”
This period was marked by the onset of the first Intifada, which Sharon repeatedly urged should be crushed with a fist of iron. In another article from that time, Sharon outlined the “framework conditions” that Israel should put to the Americans as indispensable for any peace agreement: “Unified Jerusalem is to be the eternal capital of Israel. The Jordan River will form the eastern security boundary of Israel [note, he did not say political boundary]. There will be no other army but the Israeli army to the west of the Jordan. Israel will be responsible for internal and external security in all of Israel’s western territory [by which he meant the land west of the Jordan River]. No one else will have sovereignty over Judiah, Samaria and Gaza. A second Palestinian state will not be created west of the Jordan River. The problem of Palestinian refugees must be solved by the Arabs. The Golan is part of the land of Israel.” And at the end of this article, he concluded: “My proposal will, in the future, enable the implementation of both the Likud line — a Palestinian state in Jordan and autonomous administration, in accordance with Camp David, as an interim phase — and the Labour Party line (if it wins in future elections), which is to reach a territorial compromise.” (Yediot Ahranot, 12 March 1988)
When did these ideas begin to change? As the first Intifada showed no signs of stopping, and Jordan announced that it had unilaterally severed its links with the West Bank and Gaza, Sharon’s response was to throw down the gauntlet to the Labour Party. In an important article followed by a press conference that drew considerable attention, he urged Labour to respond to the Jordanian action by unilaterally annexing to Israel those areas that were not subject to the territorial settlement with Amman. Sharon had essentially adopted the Allon plan, which called for the annexation of certain territories to Israel and the return of other territories to Jordan — with the single difference that now those territories initially destined for Jordan would be returned to the Palestinians themselves.
If King Hussein had effectively pulled the carpet from under the Labour Party’s plan to return the more densely populated parts of Palestine to Jordan, Sharon had in turn preempted the birth of a Palestinian alternative, by confining the areas to be returned to the Palestinians to those indicated in the Allon plan. Curiously, those areas which Sharon had thus identified make up 42 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza. The only differences between the Elon plan and Sharon’s proposal are that, firstly, the PLO has taken the place of Jordan through the Oslo accords, a de facto reality that Sharon inherited from Rabin, and, secondly, that Sharon now speaks of a Palestinian “state” instead of autonomy. However, when we look more closely at Sharon’s idea of a Palestinian state, we find that it differs from his notion of autonomy only in that the Palestinians are to assume control over their internal security affairs and that they are to be allowed certain token manifestations of sovereignty. But they are not to be granted the substance of sovereignty itself.
The writer is a Palestinian Israeli and member of the Knesset.