Criticized by left and right, Sharon still thrives

Nablus occupation Wednesday shows Israeli leader's hard-line priorities.

The pattern is characteristic of Ariel Sharon's tenure as prime minister: Palestinian terrorists do something heinous and the Israeli military sends tanks and helicopters into Palestinian areas.

Wednesday, Israeli forces returned in force to the northern West Bank city of Nablus, citing as a provocation a Palestinian attack last Sunday against Israeli civilians. The cycle echoes a Palestinian suicide bombing last March, which led the way to an Israeli operation christened "Defensive Shield" - a massive military reoccupation of nearly all the Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.

Now, as before, Israel's goal is to dismantle what it calls the "infrastructure of terror." But recent history has shown that the fighting, mass arrests, and curfews involved in such operations provoke more Palestinian militancy.

That is why many Israelis, especially from the leftist "peace" camp, say Mr. Sharon has failed as prime minister. They say peace with the Palestinians seems ever more distant, day-to-day security remains grim, and the economy is shrinking ominously.

Even some right-wing Israelis, who generally applauded Sharon's election as prime minister 20 months ago, say he has failed to use the force necessary to crush what they see as the Palestinian enemy.

But for a man so widely accused of failure, Mr. Sharon is doing just fine, both in terms of his short-term political future and his long-term vision for the Jewish state.

Last week, Sharon dissolved Israel's parliament, necessitating elections next January, but he stands a good chance of becoming prime minister again. Polls put him slightly ahead of a challenger seeking to unseat Sharon as leader of his Likud bloc, which is widely expected to emerge from the elections as Israel's leading party.

That challenger - newly appointed Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - is fighting hard, telling interviewers that, should he become Likud leader and prime minister, his government will be one of "solutions."

Politically, Sharon has reinvented himself during his tenure. "He managed to keep Israeli politics and the Israeli public together," says Hebrew University political scientist Reuven Hazan. "He's become a sheep in wolf's clothing - in other words, he's moved much more to the center."

Mr. Hazan also says that Sharon "has done absolutely nothing - [there has been] no progress on the peace process, no progress on the economy, no progress on religious-secular tensions" within Israeli society.

Such assessments may miss what is most important to Sharon. In office, he has helped eviscerate prospects for Palestinian statehood and oversee the extension of Jewish control over parts of the West Bank.

These two achievements are in accord with Sharon's strategic vision for Israel. "[W]e must say very clearly that concern for our own survival does not permit the establishment of a ... Palestinian state on the West Bank," he and coauthor David Chanoff write in "Warrior," an autobiography of Sharon re-issued last year.

Sharon has spoken in favor of a Palestinian state in the past year. But "All the talk about statehood is aimed at American ears," says a senior Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He doesn't believe in it all."

The autobiography spells out Sharon's belief that "the only way to permanently secure the most strategic terrain in our hands" - a reference to the hilly parts of the West Bank, which Israel seized in 1967 and which overlook Israel's coastal plain - "was to live on it."

The Palestinians certainly feel pummeled after 20 months of Sharon in power. The peace process that began in earnest in Oslo, Norway, in 1993, and the Palestinian Authority, are in tatters. "He was extremely successful in destroying Oslo, in destroying the authority, and in almost destroying [Yasser] Arafat," says Palestinian political scientist Ali Jarbawi.

Analysts and diplomats say that the idea of two states, side by side - the premise of peacemaking efforts for more than a decade and the goal of current US policy - is now in question.

In the view of the Israeli official, the Palestinians deserve credit for this state of affairs, as they resorted to violence after US-brokered peace talks failed in July 2000. He argues Sharon also benefited because his coalition partner, Binyamin "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer, the former defense minister and head of the Labor Party, generally supported the expansion of Jewish settlements.

"Sharon is a wise tactician," the official says. "He succeeded in utilizing every mistake that Arafat and Palestinians made ... and he used the incompetence and foolishness of Fuad to promote a settlement agenda - which is [Sharon's] agenda."

Mr. Ben-Eliezer and his party resigned from Sharon's Cabinet on Oct. 30, saying that the prime minister's next budget penalizes Israel's poor in order to fund the settlements, but his time as defense minister saw the establishment of dozens of new settlement "outposts." Ben-Eliezer succeeded in dismantling only a few of these new Jewish footholds on Palestinian land. Israel considers them illegal, in contrast to the vast majority of settlements, which the government supports.

Sharon has emphasized unity, which has proved a politically successful tactic. He also has cultivated an image as a deliberate, experienced leader who does not capitulate to partisan demands. "There was no nervousness in his leadership," says Naomi Blumenthal, a Likud member of parliament. "He created an atmosphere that 'we will manage.' "

Sharon is using this image to fend off Netanyahu's challenge, telling a Likud meeting Tuesday that "the Israeli nation wants responsible leadership, leadership that acts with discretion."

Unity has also been a key tactic in confronting the Palestinians, whose strategy is at least partly aimed at sowing dissension among Israelis. "It is a war that is meant to force [Israel's] democratic institutions to ask questions," says Mr. Hazan of Hebrew University, and create the same sort of domestic discord that forced the French out of Algeria, the Americans out of Vietnam, and Israel out of Lebanon.

The Palestinians are locked in a debate over tactics, and are much further from their goals of sovereignty and statehood than two years ago. Many Israeli analysts say the state of Palestinian affairs vindicates Sharon.

Still, the focus on unity has created dissension on Sharon's right. "He was elected to be a right-wing prime minister, but he took the Labor Party with him," says Eliezer Cohen, a member of parliament from the Yisrael Beitenu party. "We had unity and unity and unity, but we achieved no economy and no security. What is the point of that?"

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.