My name and title (“global-political and economic-affairs analyst”) appears on a few rolodexes on the desks of the young ladies, a.k.a. “schedulers,” who are in search of pundits—that is, pompous think tankers and retired foreign-policy types who are willing “to do Iraq” or “to do Iran” (in Washington lingo) or some other international crisis.
So it was not surprising that, when Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon “remained seriously dead” (as comedian Chevy Chase used to open his fictional “news” segments on Saturday Night Live to report on Generalissimo Franco’s very, very long death watch), I received hysterical phone calls from panic-stricken schedulers asking whether I would be able to “do Sharon” and to discuss whether the world-as-we-know-it would survive even if he departed to a more peaceful place. The more composed among the callers wanted to know if “we” would be able to continue moving ahead with the “peace process” in the aftermath of Sharon’s exit. And they seemed to have taken it for granted that I considered the retired Israeli general to be a “peacemaker” and one of the most important figures in Israeli, not to mention Jewish, history.
Well, my personal view has always been more nuanced. There are those who have worshiped the Sharon who, during the 1973 Middle East War, commanded Israeli forces crossing the Suez Canal and transformed what could have been a military defeat into a victory. And there are those who have despised the man who, in 1982, led Israel into a bloody quagmire in Lebanon that turned out to be Israel’s Vietnam (and a preview of sorts of America’s Iraq). More recently, there was a tendency for some, including those who did not like him and blamed his policies—in particular, the establishment of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza—for setting obstacles on the way to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, to reassess their attitude toward the Israeli prime minister (especially after his decision to remove some of the settlements he helped to build). Indeed, one analyst even compared him to Charles de Gaulle, the liberator of France from German occupation who also presided over the French withdrawal from Algeria. The hope among the born-again Sharonites has been that the new Sharon could mobilize the support of the Israelis to produce a rerun of the Algerian scenario in Palestine.
I didn’t know Charles de Gaulle; Charles de Gaulle wasn’t a good friend of mine; but Sharon is no Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle once said that “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first. Nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.” If you accept these definitions, Sharon, unlike De Gaulle, is a nationalist. If anything, he has always reminded me of the nationalist figures who emerged in Central and Eastern Europe during the interwar period of the 20th century. Poland’s Marshall Josef Pilsudski comes to mind. Sharon’s mother, who was born in Byelorussia, was an ardent Zionist, and she imprinted that “organic” nationalist worldview on her son’s consciousness. Decades of fighting and bloodshed, as well as the lessons of the holocaust, only reinforced the whole-world-is-against-us sentiments.
In short, and to put it mildly, Sharon did not trust and certainly did not like the Arabs. A slogan that would capture his main political goal would be “More land for the Jews; fewer Arabs on this land.” Indeed, a straight line runs through his “extremist” policies (settling the West Bank and Gaza and invading Lebanon) and his “moderate” ones (the withdrawal from Gaza and the uprooting of these settlements). In the early 1980’s, he had hoped that ejecting the Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon would devastate the Palestinians and create the conditions for the establishment of a Palestinian state in Jordan to which most of the West Bankers could be “transferred.” In recent years, he adopted brutal steps to suppress the second Palestinian Intifada, and, by erecting a “security fence” and removing some Jewish settlements from populated Arab territories, he wanted to create the conditions in which a Jewish state would encompass most of the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean—but with the smallest number of Arabs possible.
So there never really was a “liberal” Sharon. Nor was there any “peace process” going on when Sharon suffered his debilitating stroke. There was an effort to create the foundations for a well-protected ghetto-like Jewish state on the shores of the Mediterranean. Sharon had learned his lesson from the 1982 Lebanon misadventure: This time, he made sure that his nationalist project would be backed by the majority of Israelis and that it would win a green light from Israel’s patron in Washington. And, indeed, the collapse of the Oslo process and the start of the Al Quds Intifada (to which Sharon contributed by taking a “peaceful” stroll on the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock) ensured that even patriotic Israeli peaceniks would devolve into hardy nationalists, while the Bush administration, sinking gradually into its Iraqi misadventure, was willing to contract Sharon’s services to impose law and order in the Holy Land while placing the “peace process” on the diplomatic back burner. At the same time, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza helped the Bushies manage their spin by creating the impression that Washington was “doing something” in Israel-Palestine, that there was a “momentum” to advance the “Road Map” to peace.
When one of those media schedulers asked me if Sharon’s departure would change all of this, I responded by suggesting that, even if Mickey Mouse were elected as the next Israeli prime minister, there would not be any major change in the current Israeli approach. Most Israelis accepted Sharon’s nationalist agenda as an alternative to the two competing fantasies—on the one hand, the messianic Greater Israel in which the Jews would be able to maintain forever their control over the entire land between Jordan and the Mediterranean, and, on the other, the New Middle East vision, according to which the region was to enter the postnationalist age of globalization in which Israelis and Palestinians would do “cool stuff” together on the internet and forget about insignificant “old” issues, such as religious sites, territories, and refugees. According to the latest statistics, there is already a non-Jewish Arab majority in the area that encompasses Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and the majority of Jewish voters in Israel recognize that perpetuating Israeli control over the occupied territories, or Greater Israel, would mean that their state would either be transformed into a Middle Eastern South Africa or cease to be an exclusive Jewish state and become a binational one. Israelis have concluded, in the aftermath of the second Intifada and September 11, that the New Middle East has remained the same old Middle East. That is why the majority of Israeli voters, bidding farewell to Greater Israel and the New Middle East, were planning to vote for Sharon’s new party, Kadima. And that is why the party, even under the leadership of the less charismatic Ehud Olmert, will probably win the coming parliamentary election.
There is something comforting in the nonromantic nationalist vision that Sharon has projected and which Olmert and his political allies want to implement: a compact Israeli state, protected by a security fence, a strong military, and a few nuclear bombs, that has a clear Jewish majority and is supported by the United States and the West. In a way, it is an “isolationist” vision that assumes that Israel could “disengage” herself from the old Middle East and all those crazy Arabs, including the angry but weak Palestinians who will reside in a congested Gaza and in a few Bantustan-like small and dispersed cantons in the West Bank, which could perhaps become once again part of Jordan. According to this least-bad scenario, the Jewish commonwealth will live in security—but not in eternal peace—and focus its energy on building a sophisticated economy that could one day become an associate member of the European Union.
The problem is that, while the United States could disengage from the Middle East, and the Europeans, notwithstanding their large Arab immigrant population, have the luxury of a Turkey and the Mediterranean separating them from the Arabs, Israel is an integral part of the Middle East, located smack in the center of the Arab world. Even if the Israelis were to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank, as they had done in the Gaza Strip, the Jewish state would still have a large minority of close to 25 percent, consisting of Palestinian-Arab citizens (as well as about a half-million “other” non-Jews, including Russian immigrants and foreign workers). These Arab citizens make up a majority in such areas as Galilee and have very high birthrates—“Ahmed” is now the most popular name for Israeli babies—and will insist on maintaining their cultural and political autonomy and will perhaps even attempt to secede from Israel. And will the more than two million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza just disappear into the Middle Eastern sunset? Against the backdrop of growing economic desperation, political chaos, and rising crime, the militant Hamas is gaining more and more power among the Palestinians (as demonstrated by their recent election victories); as it gets closer to power, Israel will discover a ticking time bomb right next to her security fence.
While the scenario drawn up by the “Sharonists” suggests that the withdrawal from Gaza and most of the West Bank is a process aimed at consolidating the Jewish state and ensuring its viability as a political entity in the Middle East, a more depressing scenario advanced by the Palestinians and mirroring the fears evoked by Sharon’s critics on the political right sees these withdrawals as a sign of the weakening resolve of the Jews in the Holy Land and the first stage in the crumbling of their state. Sharon was confident that all the Israeli Jews need in order to avoid that tragic fate was strong military power. But Sharon’s successors should ask themselves whether security fences and nuclear bombs alone can guarantee Israel’s long-term survival.