The public debate about the coming war to be launched by Israel against Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority has escalated far more quickly than events on the ground itself.
The inevitable descent into a real war indeed appears to have both logic and history on its side. It is personified by Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who has a well-deserved reputation as a lifelong proponent of force over diplomacy in the never-ending battle for Jewish sovereignty in Israel.
The challenge posed to Israel by Palestinians today is unprecedented in the period since 1948, combining two principal elements--demography and armed insurrection--around which Israeli policy has been framed for generations.
“A Jewish majority within the sovereign state of Israel is the main thing as far as I am concerned,” explained the former Israeli foreign minister, Yossi Beilin. “The real question that I have asked myself every day for the past 10 years is what will happen when an Arab majority exists west of the Jordan River. We are just a few years from it .... That is what constantly preoccupies me.”
With the looming prospect of Jewish demographic inferiority and the first intifada not far from his consciousness, Beilin conceived of the Oslo formula almost a decade ago as “a Zionist act that was aimed at saving the Jewish nation-state.”
Today, Sharon confronts a combination of factors unprecedented in Israel’s short history. His policy horizons are framed not only by an imminent loss of the demographic battle west of the Jordan River within a few years but also by an armed Palestinian campaign to end the occupation. The history of the Zionist movement has been conditioned by willful blindness to the logic of demography. Man-made efforts enabled, in the words of Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, “the miraculous simplification of Israel’s task” of assuring a Jewish majority among the Arabs of Palestine.
Beilin’s sober comments suggest that the immigration of 1 million Soviet emigres, has, after a century, exhausted the stock of miraculous solutions.
Sharon, however, hails from a generation of true believers, warriors whose successful pursuit of land, power and demographic dominance has instilled in them a belief in the impossible.
This confidence was the foundation of Sharon’s strategic vision as he set about to remake the map of Lebanon and the Middle East in 1982. The installation of a puppet regime in Beirut, the destruction of the PLO and the forced exodus of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to Jordan, the reconstitution of Jordan as the Palestinian state and the destruction of Syrian power were all viewed by Sharon as necessary ingredients to enable Israel’s permanent rule over the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights.
Today, Sharon is still vulnerable to the seductive illusion of defeating the Palestinian presence in the Land of Israel that has nourished him for decades. Yet he, like most Israelis, also has been chastened by the inability of force alone to solve Israel’s problems with the Palestinians.
Unlike 1982, Sharon today has no grand strategy. Indeed, the status quo is in many respects the best of the bad options available to him. He has Arafat, the U.S. and most Israelis right where he wants them. To keep them in place, as long as it is tenable, he pursues a policy reminiscent of the old Labor Party program adopted after 1967: deciding not to decide.
He is modulating his battle against the Palestinians in a way that enables him to keep his left-and right-wing constituents in his Cabinet, to keep George Bush out of his way, to keep Arafat on the defensive and to enable the international community to maintain the fiction that the most recent cease-fire and the Mitchell panel’s plans are alive.
By taking small but increasingly significant bites out of the Palestinian Authority rather than unleashing in one gruesome wave the awesome power of the Israeli army, Sharon has fallen upon a formula that has served him well.
And unlike 1982, he has prospered politically as he never could have imagined in his wildest dreams. He presides over a unity government and fears no challenge except from Benjamin Netanyahu, who has decided that the path to his political renaissance lies in attacking Sharon from the right.
Sharon does not believe that there is either a military or a political solution to the conflict, and the Israeli public has rewarded him with an unprecedented level of support. After Sharon, defying expectations, refused to mount a crushing assault against the Palestinians in the wake of the terrorist attack on a Tel Aviv nightclub, his popularity among Israelis increased.
No Israeli prime minister in recent memory has embraced the public mood so expertly as Sharon. He appears to have understood that Israelis turned against Ehud Barak not because of Barak’s peace policies but because he failed to accomplish what he promised.
But Sharon, for all of his newfound acceptance, remains a creature of Israel’s right wing. Their unambiguous calls for vengeance and the destruction of the Palestinian Authority and the end of Arafat’s rule no doubt speak to him more emotively than do many of his own proclamations.
Yet to view this dimension of the current scene as the sole or even the predominant one risks mistaking Sharon’s past for his future, risks confusing the prospect of a general war with a more nuanced, incremental Israeli strategy that accomplishes the same purpose at far less cost.
“You’re all big heroes with your advice,” he scolded a ministerial colleague. “At the end of the day the responsibility is mine. This region is not going to war.”