Memories of Ariel Sharon

FILE - In this Sunday May 16, 2004 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pauses during a news conference in his Jerusalem office regarding education reform. Sharon, the hard-charging Israeli general and prime minister who was admired and hated for his battlefield exploits and ambitions to reshape the Middle East, died Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. The 85-year-old Sharon had been in a coma since a debilitating stroke eight years ago. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

When former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon died today, after 8 years in a stroke-induced coma, I recalled the many times I had watched him first hand as a correspondent based in Beirut and Jerusalem.

Three memories stand out because they demonstrate Sharon’s long-term vision for securing Israel’s strategic needs, as he defined them. That vision ruled out a sovereign Palestinian state.

This larger-than-life character inspired both adulation and hatred, and a continuing debate over whether he helped or harmed his country, but there is no questioning his ability to adjust to changing circumstances and readjust his strategy when he saw the need.

My first recollection is of watching then-Agriculture Minister Sharon at a press conference in 1978 in Jerusalem, when he rolled out a huge map that showed a grid of Jewish settlements he intended to build all over the West Bank. His goal: to ensure that Israel would never have to relinquish this land (in later years when he was out of power, Sharon would carry a laminated copy of this map with him).  At the time – following Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, which sparked a global focus on the idea of a Palestinian state - it seemed highly unlikely that Israel could build such a grid.   

But despite U.S. and global pressure, the grid was built and is still being expanded. As Sharon envisioned, the grid rules out any prospect of a sovereign, contiguous Palestinian state. In later years, I recall several conversations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with top Sharon aide Raanan Gissin, who explained that – if the settlements and settler roads divided the West Bank into disconnected cantons - the Palestinians could link those fragments via “tunnels and bridges.”

Sharon’s concept, of Palestinian cantons separated by settlements, settler roads, and large areas controlled by the Israeli military, and minus East Jerusalem or the Jordan Valley, largely sums up what is on offer to Palestinians today in ongoing peace talks.   

My second memory is of attending another press conference, given by Defense Minister Sharon in East Beirut in the summer of 1982, after an Israeli invasion of Lebanon had forced Yasir Arafat and his PLO forces to quit Lebanon by ship.  Sharon’s triumph was short-lived.  His Lebanese Christian ally, then-president Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated soon afterwards and a massacre of Palestinian refugees on Sharon’s watch led to his temporary disgrace. The Israeli invasion and occupation of South Lebanon also provoked the growth of a radical Shiite militia, Hezbollah, which continues to threaten the Jewish state.

But by depriving Arafat and the PLO of a territorial base, Sharon effectively forced the Palestinian leader to enter peace talks with Israel, and recognize the Israeli state.

Of course, Sharon never trusted Arafat or the Oslo peace process entered into by Premier Yitzhak Rabin.  So my third vivid memory is of Prime Minister Sharon’s decision to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza and four isolated West Bank settlements – a process completed in 2005.  The Israeli leader had not undergone a conversion into a peacenik – as many analysts contended.  Rather, as his top advisor Dov Weisglass memorably told journalists, he “disengaged” from Gaza in order to cement Israel’s hold on the West Bank.

“The disengagement …”supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians,” Weisglass said, in a famous interview in 2004.  On a visit to Israel in 2005 I heard many debates over Sharon's intent. But as Weisglass made clear, it was to dull international pressure on Israel to leave other West Bank settlements or withdraw from more land.  Although Gaza subsequently became a haven for Hamas, this outcome has badly split the Palestinian leadership and undercut any subsequent movement towards Palestinian statehood.

Thus, Sharon has basically achieved what he laid out in that 1978 press conference; current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just announced new settlement expansion even as Secretary of State John Kerry is frantically trying to resuscitate a brain-dead peace process. And the chances for Kerry’s effort look dim.

Of course, the failure to reach a peace deal leaves Israel in control of millions of disenfranchised Palestinians – an untenable situation that undercuts Israeli democracy and promises future violence. But for Ariel Sharon – whose nickname was “the bulldozer” – this would no doubt be seen as a problem that can be managed in the future.  Time will tell if his outlook was correct.