Sharon pushes, Peres pulls

Peres's plan to pull out of Gaza and close settlements counters 'Greater Israel' vision.


First came the explosion of the assassin's bullet fired by a Palestinian hard-liner, then the roar of Israeli tanks crashing through cities, villages, and refugee camps.

The last two weeks in the West Bank? Yes. But also the start of Israel's invasion of Lebanon 19 years ago.

Then it was the attempted assassination of Shlomo Argov, Israel's ambassador to Britain, that ignited then defense minister Ariel Sharon's offensive to crush the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon. And two weeks ago, with Mr. Sharon as prime minister, it was the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi that set in motion Israel's largest offensive in the West Bank since the launch of Palestinian self-rule in 1994.

Each onslaught was waged in the name of combating terrorism. And in both cases, Shimon Peres, now the foreign minister, tried to reverse or limit the negative consequences.

In 1985, with Peres as prime minister, Israel pulled its forces out of much of Lebanon, where they had been incurring heavy casualties. The troops redeployed to a border strip. On Sunday night, Peres, mindful of US criticism of the military moves, advised Sharon to begin the pullout from West Bank cities, despite a shooting attack. Sharon agreed. And yesterday, Peres was reportedly finalizing a proposal, which would include a pullout from Gaza and the dismantling of settlements there.

For the past 25 years, the careers of the right-wing Likud party's Sharon and Labor's Peres, have intersected, often pitting them against each other on the Palestinian issue. But for the last eight months, since Sharon won a victory over Labor leader Ehud Barak, Sharon and Peres have worked in the same government.

Their partnership raises a difficult question: Are the signs of uncompromising nationalism from Sharon and his predilection for military solutions to be taken at face value? Or is this a government flexible enough to navigate toward the end of bloodletting provided there are enabling steps on the Palestinian side?

In a speech in the Knesset last week, Sharon praised Zeevi as a model Zionist. Zeevi's ideology called for the "transfer" of all Palestinians from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip.

"Gandhi, we will be victorious," Sharon vowed, using Zeevi's unlikely nickname.

Peres, meanwhile, was insisting, even as the tanks advanced in the West Bank, that he still believes in negotiations. "I think that the state of Israel, not just the Labor Party, must preserve two channels, one the security channel for self defense, which I have never opposed, and second, a diplomatic channel in order to speak, to achieve a cease-fire and to renew the peace process," Peres told Israel Television.

Ironically, Peres's disgrace at losing the 1977 elections to Likud firebrand Menachem Begin - the first Labor loss in Israeli history - marked the real start of Sharon's rise from general to politician, as he assumed the post of agriculture minister. Sharon would use that and every other ministry he has held to advance his vision of a Greater Israel by building Jewish settlements in all areas of the occupied territories.

Peres, by contrast, spent much of the 1980s trying to produce a peace agreement that would relinquish most of the West Bank to Jordan. He feared that control of its large Palestinian population and the lack of an international border would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

"Either we preserve our Jewish majority or we lose our country. We have no time. The situation is getting worse every year," Peres said recently.

Although he succeeded in striking a deal with Jordan in 1987, Likud, a partner in government, torpedoed the agreement.

In 1993, the partner for peace and demographic relief became the PLO, according to the Oslo Agreement on Palestinian self-rule, partly devised by Peres. Sharon and Likud unsuccessfully opposed the agreement, viewing the withdrawal from the Palestinian cities as a threat to the settlement enterprise and to security.

After the collapse of the Camp David summit in July 2000 and more than a year of violence, ignited partly by Sharon's provocative visit to a Jerusalem holy shrine, the Likud feels vindicated and Labor is in disarray.

Yossi Beilin, a one-time Peres protégé who was deputy foreign minister during the Oslo negotiations, says Labor's place is in the opposition, offering the public an alternative to militarism. Peres's presence in a government, which in Mr. Beilin's view is deliberately destroying the Oslo agreement, is "inexplicable," according to Beilin. And Peres's joining of a cabinet with Zeevi was "immoral," Beilin adds.

But the alliance between Peres and Sharon is not beyond explanation. It is based on mutual dependence and political interest. After winning the election, Sharon pushed for a national unity government to include the Labor Party and Peres argued within Labor for the idea.

"Sharon really believes the unity government serves his function as prime minister," says Uzi Benziman, a Haaretz columnist who has written a biography of the prime minister. "He realizes Peres has a tremendous international reputation, and this paves the way for him. Sharon still bears the burden of the [1982] Lebanese war, and Peres gives him legitimacy abroad and within Israel."

As defense minister in 1982, Sharon depicted the invasion of Lebanon as a limited antiterrorist operation, but Israeli troops went all the way to Beirut in a conflict that continued until last year.

Sharon was found by a state commission to bear "personal responsibility" for the massacre of at least 700 Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militiamen he had ordered into their Beirut refugee camps.

For both Peres and Sharon, now is the last hurrah. They know that a collapse of the coalition would pave the way for new elections and, if polls are correct, a victory for popular former Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Another glue believed to be holding the two men together is Arafat. In Benziman's view, by failing to convince the Israeli public that he is seriously cracking down on terrorism, Arafat has not provided Peres with a clear reason to pull out.

Last week, the foreign minister squelched voices within the Labor Party urging a pullout from the government.

At the height of the controversy over the incursions, Peres made it clear he was staying. "It's a daily battle, and I know sometimes I have to fulfill an unpleasant task," Peres added. "I don't defend the Palestinian Authority or anyone else. I defend the supreme interest of Israel."

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