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February 11, 2002

Sharon should step aside–and away

Shalom Goldman is associate professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies.


Dear Prime Minister Sharon:

You have been prime minister of Israel for a year and have brought the region to the edge of disaster. But then, disaster is your field of specialization.

Many Israelis are now calling for your resignation. Last week, on the eve of the first anniversary of your election to office, 100 Israeli reserve officers and soldiers signed a declaration that they would no longer serve in the territories where your policies are so brutally enforced.

Many of these officers served under your command. Now their feeling is that generals do not make the most democratic or reasonable politicians; of the army’s recent actions, they wrote that “the price of occupation is the army’s loss of its human image and the corruption of all of Israeli society.” In the days after the officers released this declaration Israeli newspapers revealed that, since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, 400 regular Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the territories.

We first met in 1971, when I was serving as a medic in the Southern Command. The soldiers and officers in my unit, assigned to one of the Palestinian refugee camps of Gaza, protested a set of orders that struck us as excessive and unnecessary. Our argument, then supported by many educated Israelis, was that humiliation of the Palestinians was bad for Israel’s security. (That it was bad for the Palestinians was self-evident, and an issue we didn’t intend to raise with you.) Your reply was to upbraid us, reassign us—and to bring in a unit less concerned with the reactions or rights of the refugees. These and similar actions in the 1970s put you on the radar of human rights observers in Israel and elsewhere, and you have not failed to keep us very busy.

Before you were elected to the office of prime minister, you were sniping at the peacemakers, and in your government positions of the 1970s, 1980s and ’90s you did considerable harm to Israel and the neighboring states. Even when out of office or uniform you had considerable influence in the country’s right-wing constituencies, especially among the Orthodox. That you were flagrantly non-Orthodox didn’t seem to bother them at all. In ’82 you led (many in Israel would say deceived) Prime Minister Begin to believe that Israel’s problems with the Palestinians could be solved by invading Lebanon and laying siege to Beirut.

The results were an unmitigated disaster for Lebanon, and Israel’s introduction to a Vietnam-style quagmire, a quagmire from which Ehud Barak extricated Israel 18 years later. The casualty count—and here I speak of the Israeli side (the exact Lebanese casualty count is unknown. The lowest estimates are in the many thousands)— was more than 500 Israeli soldiers dead in the Lebanon War, and almost 500 more dead in Lebanon between 1983 and 2000.

While you may be a hero to your many wealthy and influential American admirers, you are a dark figure to hundreds of bereaved Israelis. For your involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, you were censured by the Israeli government’s Kahan Commission and had to resign your post as minister of defense. Your next move: to put your considerable energies and influence to bear in strengthening and growing the settlements of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The settlers were wary of you, for you had brutally enforced the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Sinai in 1981, but they were willing to work with you. You were the devil they knew.

With your help the settler population grew to more than 200,000 by the year 2000. The presence of the settlers will ensure that the vengeful violence of Israeli-Palestinian conflict will endure. Yes—it will outlast you and, to a considerable degree, will be the legacy of you and your most enthusiastic supporters, those who dub you “Arik, King of Israel.”

But perhaps, with the turn of the millennium, you weren’t yet assured that your legacy would endure. In September 2000 you payed an official visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. You were accompanied by close to a thousand policemen and border guards. For some inexplicable reason—might it have been that the full one-third of Jerusalem’s population that is Arab felt some unease at the implications of it?—your visit was followed by riots. These led to the second intifada. In the 16 months since then, and especially in the 12 months since the national hunger for security brought you to the prime minister’s office, the cycle of attack and retaliation has spiraled out of control, reaching new depths of ugliness every week.

Your résumé as a conflict fomenter is a long and distinguished one. While your current critics condemn you for the Lebanon incursions and support of the settlers, those of us with longer memories know of your first efforts, in the early 1950s, to bring the then-five-year old Arab-Israeli conflict to the boiling point.

In October 1953 you were the young commander of an Israeli strike force. Charged by the chief of staff to retaliate for the death of an Israeli family shot by infiltrators who crossed the Jordanian border near the village of Qibiya, you occupied the village with a force of 100 soldiers. Then, contrary to orders, you had the village houses blown up—while many of the villagers still hid in their homes.

Sixty-nine Jordanian civilians died. Israel was deeply embarrassed by the international outcry that ensued, and Prime Minister Ben Gurion was furious. In 1955 you led an attack on the Egyptian Army base in Gaza City, killing 38 Egyptian soldiers and wounding 44. Egypt’s President Nasser was convinced that this attack signaled a new phase in the conflict, and weeks later he negotiated the first Egyptian arms deal with the Soviet Union. The Cold War was soon to find an arena of conflict in the ensuing Arab-Israeli wars.

Israeli politicians despaired of controlling your vengeful impulses. From the private diary of Prime Minister Moshe Sharett: “We have let Sharon’s unit elevate revenge to a principle. In that unit revenge has become a sacred ideal. This can only lead to further reprisals.” Ben Gurion and Sharett made sure that you never rose to the job you coveted most, chief of staff of the army. They needed your comand abilities but were frightened of your ambitions. From Ben Gurion’s diary: “If I were to appoint Sharon chief of staff I would be constantly worried that I’d wake up to find the government offices ringed with tanks.”

The last time we had contact was at one of Tel Aviv’s premiere seafood restaurants. You were tucking into a large lobster with great gusto. Surrounded by an entourage of foreign visitors, you were expounding your theories of regional and global territorial imperatives.

Like the high-ranking generals of other countries (Latin American and Pakistani; for example) you have amassed great power and influence. Like them you have been able to indulge your whims and appetites, and over time your personal worth and influence have expanded. Today you are not only Israel’s prime minister, you are its largest single land owner. Your working ranch, “Sycamore Farms,” now functions on the Western White House model, allowing you to entertain lavishly out of the range of the highly vigilant Israeli print and electronic media. Like your sometime friend George W. Bush, you enjoy playing the cowboy.

For the sake of Israel and the other states of the Middle East, please leave the office you tread over so many to achieve, and play cowboy with your cowhands and admirers, not with the fate of the Israeli state, its Middle Eastern neighbors, and—in the post-Sept. 11 world, the fate of the world.