[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]

January 6, 2006

This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin

The end on an era


Since the end of May 2003 I have added a quote of Ariel Sharon as part of my email signature.  This is quite significant for me as no one more than Sharon personified almost everything that I was opposed to in Israel. This quote marked the real shift that Sharon underwent in the past few years.


In 1988 I launched the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information – IPCRI, based on the idea that the two-states for two peoples solution was the ultimate fulfillment of the national strategic interests of the Jewish people and the Palestinian people. At that time, less than 5% of Israeli supported this solution and many Israelis, particularly in the government and military, related to me as a traitor. The final rejection of the occupation by Sharon was my final vindication from the accusations of being a traitor. The quote reads as follows: “I think the idea that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation - yes it is occupation, you might not like the word, but what is happening is occupation - is bad for Israel, and bad for the Palestinians, and bad for the Israeli economy. Controlling 3.5 million Palestinians cannot go on forever. You want to remain in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem?"   Ariel Sharon, May 26, 2003

On the podium of the United Nations General Assembly, this past September, Sharon went one step further, becoming the first Israeli leader who not only spoke of the Israeli interest in creating a Palestinian state, he spoke about the right of the Palestinian people for a state of their own.  The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel does not mean disregarding the rights of others in the land. The Palestinians will always be our neighbors. We respect them, and have no aspirations to rule over them. They are also entitled to freedom and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own”. (September 15, 2005)

Several years ago during the height of the intifada, an Israeli tank was blown up in Beit Lahia in Gaza. The army entered the agricultural cooperative of Beit Lahia, which just before the intifada was labeled by an Israeli General as “the village of peace” and demolished hot houses, irrigation equipment and fields under cultivation.  The army then posted notices that the residents of Beit Lahia had two weeks to remove whatever agricultural assets remained and then Israel would take possession of the land. Most of the land to be confiscated belonged to one farmer who happens to be a friend of mine.  He told me the story, he told me that the tank was not blown up on his land but on a piece of land outside of the cooperative and that no one from the cooperative had anything to do with planting the explosives.  In fact he told me that several of the members of the cooperative had been threatened by Hamas for trying to prevent Hamas people from entering their lands.

I presented the case to the army at various levels, reaching the General in charge of the Southern Command.  All of my pleading with the army to re-examine the facts produced no results.  The army had made up its mind, it said that the case had been fully investigated, that the tank blew up on my friend’s land and that the people of the cooperative were assisting the terrorists. With no where to go, I wrote a personal letter to Sharon and asked a friend in his office to make sure that he reads it.  I explained the situation and I explained that I couldn’t get anyone from the army to re-examine the evidence that I provided.  The following day I received a phone call from the Prime Minister’s military attaché telling me that the case was being investigated.  Two weeks later, my friend received his land back.

No illusions

In February 2005 I gave a lecture at the Middle East Institute in Washington sponsored by the Foundation for Middle East Peace.  In my lecture I tried to give an assessment of the political situation and the prospects for the future.  By February the Prime Minister’s office, the IDF and the National Security Council were in full gear planning for the Gaza disengagement.  Prior to my lecture I spoke with various people engaged in that planning and I included their remarks in my assessments in the lecture.  At one point in the lecture, I had to stop myself, take a deep breath, and apologize for sounding too much like a spokesperson for Sharon.  By that point, while many people were still skeptical about Sharon’s plans, I was convinced that Sharon was 100% intent on carrying out the disengagement and the dismantlement of all of the settlements in Gaza.  Many people argued about his motivations and intentions.  My position was that it doesn’t matter.  Politicians’ intentions and motivations might be important in terms of planning what they do, but very often they have little to do with the reality that develops after they implement their plans.  In my view, the most important thing was to get out of Gaza, and the sooner the better.

I had no illusions that Sharon had suddenly joined the peace camp. I never believed that Sharon would enter into a negotiated process with the Palestinians because he never accepted them as equals and partners who could be invited to the negotiating table.  Sharon rejected the basic concept of Oslo that asserted that security would come as a result of peace.  Peace would be achieved through political agreements which would then bring economic benefits and security.  Sharon never accepted the Oslo logic.  Until his last day in office, he always held the position that peace would come only after security is achieved.  He firmly believed that until the Palestinians fought against terrorism, thereby demonstrating that they were committed to peace, could real peace be negotiated.  He didn’t believe that there was any point to negotiating peace agreements while keeping the option of violence and terrorism in the back pocket. 

Anwar Ibrahim, the former Vice President of Malaysia was jailed and tortured by the Malaysian regime for fighting for democracy and human rights. Anwar Ibrahim is a religious Muslim and an expert on Islam and democracy.  I had the pleasure of meeting Anwar twice during November 2005 and spending some time with him.  I asked Anwar Ibrahim what should the Palestinian Authority do with Hamas and should Hamas be allowed to participate in the coming elections.  Anwar Ibrahim was decisive and more than explicit – he said that a pre-condition for any party to participate in democratic elections must be to disarm.  Armed militia or parties should not be allowed to participate in a democratic process because it makes a mockery of democracy and the notion of freedom.   Sharon would have liked that answer and would have agreed 100% with Anwar Ibrahim, who if he was a Palestinian could have been a partner for negotiations in Sharon’s view. Mahmoud Abbas, while seen by Sharon as a gentleman and much more likable than Arafat, has still not risen to the position of being considered a partner.  Sharon had no intention of negotiating with Abbas. Sharon had no intention of leading a negotiated peace process with the Palestinians at this time.

What then were his plans?

No one knows for sure what the real plans of Sharon were for the coming year. The majority of the one-third of Israeli adults who planned to vote for him believed that Sharon would continue the disengagement plans in the West Bank as well.  The majority of Israelis want Israel to withdraw from the majority of the West Bank.  They would prefer this to take place as part of a negotiated process, but they have also accepted Sharon’s assessment that there isn’t a ripe Palestinian partner for negotiations. 

Sharon’s biggest political achievement was the reshaping of the political map in Israel.  The distance between right and left in Israel shrunk considerably under Sharon forcing the rise and the significance of the center of the map.  Sharon and his Kadima party captured the center ground which is where the majority of Israelis reside today.  Kadima may have been perceived as a one-man party, but in reality, the need for the party that was created by the “one man” remains even after the one man is no longer available to lead it.  Perhaps that explains why the polls in the immediate aftermath of Sharon’s exit from the political arena still show that one-third of the public intends to vote for Kadima, even if under the leadership of Ehud Olmert. 

Olmert has been one of the least popular politicians in recent polls, yet nothing affects public opinion polls like changing realities.  Olmert, as acting Prime Minister, will be a lot more popular in the eyes of the public than as the Finance Minister who would like to become the Prime Minister.

I think that Olmert is a very capable, knowledgeable and experienced politician.  He could use some lessons in mediation because he is also known to be very conflictual.  He is most known for his razor sharp tongue and wit.  He is not someone you would like as an enemy. Olmert is not a former general, in fact he finished the army with the rank of sergeant and served as a journalist in the Army news magazine Bemahaneh. Olmert is a lawyer by profession and often uses legalistic arguments to make his case. Olmert was the primary backer of Sharon’s disengagement plans and has been on the record stating that the disengagements must continue in the West Bank.  He has no fears about taking on the settlement leaderships for the final battle, so there are probably still reasons for optimism that future withdrawals from the West Bank will take place.

Final words

It is really sad that Sharon is not witness to the overwhelming outpouring of good wishes that he is receiving from all over the country and the world.  Sharon was one of the most hated politicians in the last decades both in Israel, the region and around the world.  He is now regarded as a great statesman and leader.  He certainly gained my respect for what he did this past year.  His history will not be forgotten but he did leave the political arena with a different legacy – one that has brought new hope to the region.