Blogs > HNN > The End of the Sharon Era, A New Beginning?

Jan 9, 2006 2:02 am


The End of the Sharon Era, A New Beginning?



Mr. LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming books: Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil; and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948. He is also a contributor, with Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez, to Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation. Click here to access his homepage.

As Ariel Sharon clings to his life after suffering a major stroke, commentators across the globe are busy predicting the dire consequences of his removal from the Israeli political scene for the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Sharon wasn't perfect; far from it. In fact, he arguably has more Palestinian blood on his hand than any Israeli Prime Minister and was the primary author the post-1967 settlement project in the Occupied Territories. But at least he was willing to reach some kind of deal acceptable to a majority of Israelis, with a Palestinian leadership that few trust any longer.

Because of this, the likely end of Ariel Sharon's premiership in Israel will have a great impact on the elections due to be held in March, leading to a Likud victory under Bejamin Netanyahu instead of the victory for his new party, Kedima, that before his illness held a wide lead in the polls. But the end of the Sharon era will have little impact on the negotiations with the Palestinians.

This is because for all intents and purposes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over, and Israel has won, decisively. Since the beginning of the 1990s the whole point of the Oslo peace process, and then the the low intensity war that began in September 2000, have been to convince and then compel Palestinians on the street (rather than in the government) to accept the fact that not even their most minimal demands will be met in whatever agreement officially “ends” the conflict. Regardless of who has been prime minister during this period, Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak or Sharon, Israel's negotiating strategy and final positions have remained largely unchanged.

The problem through the last dozen years has thus been the growing disconnect between a Palestinian leadership whose very existence and freedom of movement has depended on gaining Palestinian acquiescence to a deal that few would accept under all but the most dire circumstances, and a people that still refuses to sign on despite a decade of largely unkept promises and violence. The fact remains, however, that for the foreseeable future no Palestinian leadership will be able to convince their people to accept what Israel is offering: a weak and disconnected “state,” bisected by settlements and Israeli-only roads, with its resources and economy remaining largely in Israel's hands, Jerusalem out of reach for most citizens, and refugees forced to return to "cantons" (too use Sharon's terminology) with barely enough room to sustain the existing population.

From Israel's perspective of “unilateral disengagement” begun by Barak and cemented by Sharon the Palestinian position is irrelevant. Israel has succeeded in crushing the al-Aqsa intifada; its withdrawal of settlers and forces from Gaza has freed up personnel, funds and political capital to continue a hard line on the issues that always mattered most to the Israeli Right and indeed, the majority of the Israeli public: 1) retaining the main West Bank settlements blocs in any final status agreement and forcing Palestinians to accept their legal transfer to Israeli sovereignty, 2) maintaining a "united" Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, with its present borders but without offering citizenship to the over one hundred thousand Palestinian residents of the city, and 3) ensuring continued Israeli economic power in the Palestinian state that will likely be declared in some form during 2006, as well as control over its natural resources (especially water).

These positions, along with the refusal to accept any significant number of Palestinian refugees into Israel, have in fact been the Israeli red lines in negotiations with the Palestinians since the very start of the Oslo process over a dozen years ago. As important, they have now been accepted fully by the US Government, which means that no power on earth will be able to force Israel to withdraw from a single settlement, change a single line on a map, or let in a single Palestinian refugee that its government doesn't want to. As has been the case since the beginning of the Oslo process, Israel will unilaterally decide the terms of whatever agreements it signs with Palestinians, and if it decides afterwards that it doesn't like the terms, it will change them with no opposition from the US.

Therefore, no matter who is elected Prime Minister in March, Israel's negotiating positions will not change, because Israel is in a strong enough position to maintain them while Palestinians are too weak to challenge them. Yet while Israel has crushed the intifada, it has not crushed Palestinian society to the point that it will accept a political agreement based on these red lines. Therefore, we can expect that the conflict will continue to cycle between periods of violence and negotiation while Israel strengthens its "facts on the ground" and Palestinians search for new strategies to prevent Israeli red lines from becoming their realities. As for the US, it will continue to back Israel, thereby ensuring the status quo of the last five years continues for the foreseeable future.

Most troubling, if a Palestinian leadership signs onto an agreement with Israel in these circumstances, an Iraq style dynamic will likely be created, in which a government presides over a newly established state against which a large and popular insurgency will inflict significant violence, yet will remain incapable of seriously threatening the occupying power. Most Israelis, like most Americans, will remain outside the bubble of violence, and most Palestinians, like most Iraqis, will remain inside without the wherewithall either to resist or transcend their sorry situation.



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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

I tend to agree with Professor LeVine’s conclusion that this phase of Arab-Palestinian/Zionist-Israeli conflict will, with (Kadima) or without Sharon and barring a major world (N Korea) or regional (Iran, Syria) upheaval , soon end with a resounding US/Israeli victory manifested by the “official” capitulation of the PA leadership and its acceptance of an imposed “settlement” along the terms he outlined .
Official PA submission, with or without a show down with Hamas, will mark the end of Phase Three , the Fatah/Arafat (PA)- Sharon phase , that succeeded Phase one (1948) and Phase Two(1967-1973) all of Part One of the conflict..
It will also mark the launching of Part Two; the decisive globalizing Islamization of the conflict.
Part Two could turn out to be as epoch making as was the fall of Constantinople or the Reconquista.
With the much greater number of people directly involved, the much larger theater of operations and the multiplicity of tools and methods of combat that it will afford the combatants Part Two of the conflict will most probably end up much more destabilizing of the world and hugely more expensive, in every sense, to all the combatants.
Any Zionist/US/Israeli rejoicing at the conclusion of this phase, Phase Three/Part One, will equally prove to be, in a historical context, short lived and shortsighted in the 100+ years War of the 20-21st centuries.


E. Simon - 2/12/2006

It could be bad, but the "theater of operations" and "multiplicity of tools" of which Captain Apocalypse speaks have to account for 1) a Dar al Islam that can't manage to retain a shred of talent or brains in its emigrating population, and 2) governments that can only manage conditions that facilitate theft, barter and purchase of existing technologies, rather than actually creating the vastly superior weapons of war available to their adversaries.


William Candlish - 1/18/2006

I was away and unable to read the replies to my post, for the delay I apologize.

Mr Friedman.
I appreciate your thoughtful evisceration (I somehow doubt emoticons are appropriate here). I am not sure what I actually wrote in my reply that merits it, I made it clear that I was voicing a personal thought, rather than an analysis of the article per se.

When I wrote "good analysis" I thought it was clear that I meant both Mr Baker and Mr Levine. I cannot say I agree with either of them, and I did read what they said, clearly we just derived different understandings. Further, I resent your inferences that I am some sort of a close minded bigot and that I am not a valuable poster (unlike Mr Baker, about whom I said nothing untoward in this post, and in one other pointed out that both his and the article's author's views were biased (that was an awkward sentence, I apologize for that).

I have an open mind despite my cushy Canadian up bringing and hope to get a better understanding of all sides of a given situation. I will take your criticisms to heart and try to raise the calibre of my analysis, and appreciate the time you took to reply.


N. Friedman - 1/15/2006

Mr. Candlish,

You do not understand Mr. Baker's point. He does not speak primarily about settlements in land captured. By his reckoning, all of Israel is a settlement. Which is to say, he objects to Israel in its entirety and without regard to boundaries. If you do not believe me, ask him. I doubt he will disagree.

I might add: his view is the most common view among Arabs. So you might do well to hear what he says and not project Western notions of what is just onto the conflict.

Note: I am not here discussing Israeli motives or interests. They are also important but, frankly, it is also important to understand what the Arab side of the dispute wants rather than merely project what seems just to you and then assume it is what appears to be just from the Arab side's point of view.

I might add: as much as I disagree with Mr. Baker, he is candid and upfront about his views. So, he is a valuable contributor. However, you need actually to read his words.

As for what Mr. Baker says whem he writes Part Two could turn out to be as epoch making as was the fall of Constantinople or the Reconquista.
With the much greater number of people directly involved, the much larger theater of operations and the multiplicity of tools and methods of combat that it will afford the combatants Part Two of the conflict will most probably end up much more destabilizing of the world and hugely more expensive, in every sense, to all the combatants.
Any Zionist/US/Israeli rejoicing at the conclusion of this phase, Phase Three/Part One, will equally prove to be, in a historical context, short lived and shortsighted in the 100+ years War of the 20-21st centuries.
:

I think he is correct that the war will get worse and worse and that Israel's ceding land is irrelevant. Mr. Baker needs to consider that the cost of the war escalating is not worth the potential benefit, even to the Arab side. What is, in fact, needed is a compromise - just as the Arabs eventually, for the most part, backed off their claim to Andalusia and just as the Turks eventually realized that their future was not to hold onto Greece and the Balkans.

I await Mr. Baker's acceptance of the notion that there are legitimate rights on both side which need to accomodate each other. Do not hold your breadth.

You will note Mr. Baker's view that Zionism is, by definition, racist and barbarious. His unwillingness to accept the cause of the Other, frankly, is the reason there can be no settlement. And Mr. Baker is the paradigm for the view that there should be no settlement but only complete victory.

So, read him carefully if you want to understand the Arab view of the dispute.


William Candlish - 1/11/2006

A good analysis.

On a personal note, when Sharon first fell ill with the stroke, much of the media coverage in Canada focussed on angry Palestinians saying lovely things like "Sharon does not deserve and easy death." I was struck by how bizarre this sentiment is, anger when really the Palestinians should be terrified.

Sharon, in many ways represented the only leader in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with enough "street cred" to abandon the settlements. Without him, I come to the same conclusion as Mr Baker and the author Mr Levine, the Palestinians will have to face a hardline Israeli government that is now flush with resources, that does not have to worry about suicide bombers on buses.


Cary Fraser - 1/11/2006

Unfortunately, the rest of the world will not wait for things to get worse in the US in order to make long-term strategic decisions that have adverse consequences for American policy in the region. The Middle East and the Persian Gulf is simply too important to the international political economy for other major powers and regional actors to wait on the education of the American population.


Frederick Thomas - 1/10/2006


Mr. LeVine, with whom I have often diced on these pages, has written an open, balanced and nuanced piece. I have to share his lukewarn passimism. The following is precisely on mark:

"The fact remains, however, that for the foreseeable future no Palestinian leadership will be able to convince their (sic) people to accept what Israel is offering: a weak and disconnected “state,” bisected by settlements and Israeli-only roads, with its resources and economy remaining largely in Israel's hands, Jerusalem out of reach for most citizens, and refugees forced to return to "cantons" (too use Sharon's terminology) with barely enough room to sustain the existing population."

More like this one, please, Mr. LeVine!


Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 1/9/2006

i think things will have to get a lot worse--in the US--before any serious consideration of reformulating us policy towards the israeli-palestinian conflict occurs. there's simply too little to be gained politically in the present circumstances from doing so, and do much to be lost. it's up to the people of the country to better educate themselves to make such a change possible.


Cary Fraser - 1/9/2006

Given the increasing evidence of the limits of American military power in the Middle East, and the damage done by the war in Iraq to American diplomatic leverage in the region and the wider Islamic world, why is there an assumption that American policies on the Israeli-Palestinian issue will not be open to question and redefinition?