The Legacy of Ariel Sharon

by Benjamin Studebaker

For all intents and purposes, Ariel Sharon died on January 4, 2006. That was when he suffered a stroke and entered into a persistent vegetative state. However, his body was kept running by machines until just yesterday, so even though Sharon has been politically inactive since the mid-aughts, it is an appropriate time to discuss what legacy he left behind, with the benefit of most of a decade to see what followed.  With the benefit of that perspective, Sharon represents a missed opportunity, a path not taken.

For most of his life, Ariel Sharon was among the hardest of hard line Israelis, mostly indistinguishable from current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the rest of the right-leaning Likud Party he was part of for most of his political career. Sharon only becomes a remarkable, interesting political figure at the very end of his political career, when he becomes Prime Minister in 2001, when he decided to pull a “Nixon goes to China”, withdrawing the Israeli military from the Gaza Strip and expelling nearly 10,000 Israeli settlers from that territory. This Sharon did because he decided that the two-state solution was in the Israeli national interest, and the two state solution requires a viable second state–in order for Palestine to work, it needs to control the West Bank and the Gaza Strip nearly in full. Large portions of Likud revolted against Sharon, and he was forced to create a new centrist party, Kadima. When he had the stroke in 2006, Sharon had plans to carry out a similar policy of withdrawal in the West Bank. Polls showed that he was expected to be returned to office with a narrow majority. Leadership of Kadima fell to Ehud Olmert. Olmert did not carry out a withdrrawal from the West Bank, but instead became bogged down in failed attempts to destroy Hezbollah and Hamas by bombing Lebanon and Gaza. These military mistakes destroyed Olmert politically, forcing his resignation. In the election that followed in 2009, Kadima was defeated by Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister, and there has been no serious talk of evacuating the settlements in the West Bank since.

What was the rationale for evacuating the settlements? Sharon rightly perceived that by settling the Palestinian territories, Israel was making it increasingly impossible for a viable Palestinian state to be created. This would mean that eventually the Palestinian territories would come to be part of a Greater Israel, and this poses a demographic problem for those wishing to maintain Israel’s status as a Jewish state.

At present, Israel has a population of about 7.9 million, 25% of which is non-Jewish, mostly Arab Israeli Muslims. Over time, this minority has been growing–a half century ago, non-Jews were as small as 12% of the population:

Israel’s Jewish majority is already being slowly eroded. However, by adding the Palestinian territories, Israel would greatly accelerate this process–the territories contain roughly 4 million people, with over 99% of them Arab Muslims. By adding Palestinians into Israel, Israel would find itself with about 6 non-Jews for every 5 Jews. The Palestinians also lead the Israelis in birth rate (24.5 to 21.4 births per 1,000 people) and have the lower death rate (3.58 to 5.52 deaths per 1,000 people). Israel benefits from a net migration rate of 1.81 immigrants per 1,000 people due to its “right of return” policy for the world’s Jewry, but this is too small a figure to make up the gap. So not only would a Greater Israel at present contain more non-Jews than Jews, but the Jewish portion of the population would only shrink in relative size with time. This would leave Greater Israel with limited options, none of which were appealing to Sharon:

  1. Bi-national Democracy–the Palestinians could be fully integrated into the Israeli state with the same legal rights Jewish Israelis retain. However, Israel would cease to be a Jewish state, and the Zionist ambition would be extinguished.
  2. Ethnic Cleansing–the Palestinians could be massacred and/or driven from the Palestinian territories by the Israeli military. This would irreparably damage Israel’s international reputation and would be regarded by many as a crime against humanity, but Israel has the military capacity to carry this out (albeit at significant resource cost) and has engaged in similar actions before, in 1948.
  3. Apartheid–rather than drive the Palestinians out, the Israelis could gradually settle the Palestinian territories, marginalize the Palestinians in ghettos and enclaves, deny them equal rights of citizenship, and oppress them in much the same way the South African minority white population oppressed the majority black population.

Sharon viewed all of these options as unpalatable, and decided it was preferable to abandon Greater Israel instead. By giving up the Palestinian territories, Israel could avoid having to accept the Palestinians as citizens or take action to prevent them from receiving the rights of citizenship.

What’s more, option #2 and option #3 are quite liable to devolve back into option #1. An apartheid regime is not likely to survive for very long in a world in which apartheid regimes are more or less universally reviled by the powerful liberal states that have been Israel’s traditional allies (Europe & the US). The most likely outcome of apartheid is the arise of a Palestinian Mandela, international sanctions, and eventual capitulation by the Israeli government. In 1948, Israel was able to engage in ethnic cleansing for two reasons:

  1. The Cold War–the Arab states were on the Soviet team, Israel was on America’s team, so the United States had to do whatever was required to ensure Israeli victory over the Arab states, even if that entailed Israeli ethnic cleansing.
  2. The UN Resolution–the attempt by the Palestinians and the Arab states (viewed as comparable, if not superior to Israel in military power at the outset) to prevent the formation of Israel in 1948 was viewed by Americans and Europeans as an attempt to disregard the UN resolution that had called for the creation of Israel in the aftermath of the very recent Holocaust, which was fresh in their minds.

The Cold War is over, eliminating the need for western states to retain Israel as a regional proxy or to view the Arabs as part of a global Soviet empire. At this point, the Israeli military not only far outclasses what resistance the Palestinians can muster, it dwarfs the power of the surrounding Arab states, many of which are currently in political crisis and pose no immediate threat to it. If Israel were to expel the Palestinians, it would be likely be viewed as unprovoked and morally indefensible. Israel’s western allies would likely cut off aid to it, and might even engage in sanctions. This loss of foreign support would be fatal to Israel’s strategic position in the long-run, as its population is too small and its reputation with its neighbors too poor for it to successfully maintain itself indefinitely without powerful allies.

Sharon rightly perceived that the three-way choice of bi-nationalism, ethnic cleansing, or apartheid really just offered different roundabout ways to the same thing–the end of Israel as a Jewish state. The only means available to Israel to prolong itself as Jewish state would only serve to discredit it internationally and galvanize opposition to it both in the region and further afield. If Israel was to remain a Jewish state, the only viable choice was evacuation.

Sharon’s successors have missed this, and as a result, since 2006, Israel has been on a default path that takes it in the direction of apartheid, which will eventually result in international condemnation, a Mandela-style equality movement that draws global support, and the eventual transformation of Israel into a bi-national state. The one state solution, not the two state, will prevail.

This is not to say that the Palestinians did not make errors as well in recent years–the 2006 Hamas election sweep in Palestine and its subsequent takeover of the Gaza Strip ensured that Israeli politicians who opposed evacuation could credibly claim that evacuation resulted in the  re-militarization of Israel’s enemies, and this made it harder for supporters of Sharon’s strategy to defend it to the Israeli public.  Nonetheless, despite the Hamas victory, Israel’s current policy of settlement expansion can only end in a one-state solution that puts an end to the Jewish state.

What fickle things human events are–if Ariel Sharon had so much as gone on a diet and managed to  avoid a stroke for a few more years, the West Bank might have been evacuated and the two-state solution made a reality. Instead, we are embarking on a replay of the South African scenario that may take decades to work itself out, and which will ultimately cause much pain and suffering for both sides.