Ariel Sharon - Part of the Solution, or Part of the Problem
By Marcia Freedman, President of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom and former member of Knesset

There's no denying that the public pronouncements of Ariel Sharon over the past few years have undergone a sweeping change. Ariel Sharon, "father of the settlements," addressing a Likud Party convention in 2003, shocked Israelis across the political spectrum by adopting the stance of the doves, declaring that Israel couldn't continue to occupy an unwilling people indefinitely. Then, under international pressure from the Geneva Accord, he proposed a unilateral disengagement from Gaza, becoming the sworn enemy of the radical right, losing half his party, and forcing himself to form a unity government with Labor that would to ensure a parliamentary majority for the Gaza withdrawal.

Sharon has no doubt set Israel on a path to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many believe he's experienced a sudden conversion and seen the light about the occupation's dangers to Israel. When Sharon came to New York for the annual AIPAC conference, the Jewish community turned out in full force to support him against those who side with the most extreme of the settlers. He was lauded by the American Jewish community, from mainstream hawk to mainstream dove, with full-page ads in the New York Times.

What Sharon couldn't foresee when he launched his disengagement proposal was that Yasser Arafat would die so soon, so suddenly, and that a moderate Palestinian leadership led by Mahmoud Abbas was waiting in the wings. The emergence of a non-violent, Western-style democratic government in the Palestinian territories, even in the absence of a state, and the significant reduction in violence have created a "window of opportunity" for the U.S. to actively pursue a resolution to the conflict.

The most interesting speech at the AIPAC conference wasn't Ariel Sharon's, but Condoleezza Rice's. She telegraphed the Administration's policy directions and laid the groundwork for President Bush's meeting with President Abbas just a few days later, saying the two men would "build a relationship [...] based on the good faith that only democratic leaders can bring. The President will be clear that there are commitments to be met, that there are goals to be met, but that democracy is a goal that is unassailable and incontrovertible."

However, Sharon's apparent change of heart and the Administration's support of his new measures haven't solved all outstanding issues: Will the evacuation of settlers be a relatively smooth process, and will the Palestinians cooperate? Will Hamas win a majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections? And the $64 million question: What are Sharon's true post-Gaza withdrawal intentions?

While many see Sharon as a sudden convert to dovish positions, others distrust his real motivation for the withdrawal, believing the disengagement is designed as a smoke screen for rapid Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the completion of the "Jerusalem envelope" which, once completed, will entirely cut off East Jerusalem from the West Bank. As for the West Bank, Sharon has already announced, through his top aide and confidante Dov Weisglas, that dismantling settlement outposts there will have to wait until after the Gaza disengagement.

Indeed, the building of new housing and infrastructure, expanding the West Bank settlements and "outposts," is intensive. The focus of the international community is forced to shift from one place to another every week or two. It becomes as bewildering as Sharon perhaps intended. First new housing construction in Maale Adumim, then home demolitions in Arab East Jerusalem, now preparation of infrastructure for the security barrier around Ariel.

I would argue that Sharon has made his post-Gaza intentions quite clear, through these "facts on the ground," and, more ominously, through statements by his proxy, Weisglas. It was Weisglas, for instance, who told Haaretz in October 2004 that, "[t]he disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."

It's the better part of wisdom to assume that Sharon hasn't suddenly become a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, that he in fact means both what he says and what he does. The dark pronouncements coming sporadically from the Prime Minister's office, (if via Weisglas), probably indicate his true intentions better than his own public statements.

Nevertheless, the window he opened has let in some fresh air. His adoption of a fresh course, the evacuation of the Gaza settlements (long espoused by Labor), together with the sudden transformation of the Palestinian Authority into an increasingly transparent democracy espousing non-violence, has spurred the Bush administration to move forward, more aggressively over the past several months. 

There's clearly a growing U.S. interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the U.S. has the means to do so. If the Bush administration is genuinely determined to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, then Sharon will become part of the solution, whether he means to or not.

But if the administration falters and becomes once again disheartened, we may soon discover that Sharon, with his true intentions for the West Bank revealed, is the problem.

What the American Jewish community does at this important juncture won't determine the outcome, but it will matter immensely. The voice of the doves is stronger than it has been for some time; that of the hawks, weaker. The support we give the Administration if it has to get tough with the Israelis or Palestinians could be critical.

But more critical still is the support we give to our members of Congress who, on both sides of the aisle, will have to break ranks and take new positions to clear the stale air of negativism toward the Palestinians that has pervaded the House and Senate since the outbreak of this intifada.

Assuming the Bush administration's recent policy shifts indicate a course for the future, one that will benefit both Israelis and Palestinians, it will need the support of Congress. We are all constituents. Now is the time to actively exercise our citizenship in the name of peace in the Middle East.

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
11 E. Adams Street, Suite 707
Chicago, IL 60603
Phone: (312) 341-1205
Fax: (312) 341-1206

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