May 23, 2006
Lecture given in the Biella conference on THE DIMENSION OF THE SHARED WORD - WHAT FUTURE FOR PALESTINE/ISRAEL? Italy, May 2006
the present, Western world seems still under the spell of the legend of
Ariel Sharon, who, so the story goes, has brought a gigantic change in
Israeli policy - from expansion and occupation to moderation and
concessions a vision to be further implemented by his successor,
Ehud Olmert. Since the evacuation of the Gaza Strip settlements, the
dominant Western narrative has been that Israel has done its part
towards ending the occupation and declared its readiness to take
further steps, and that now it is the Palestinian’s turn to show that
they are able to live in peace with their well intending neighbor.
did it happen that Sharon, the most brutal, cynical, racist and
manipulative leader Israel has ever had, ended his political career as
a legendary peace hero? The answer, I believe, is that Sharon has
not changed. Rather, the myth built around him reflects the present
omnipotence of the propaganda system, which, to paraphrase a notion of
Chomsky’s, has reached perfection in manufacturing consciousness.
magic that transformed Sharon in the eyes of the world has been the
evacuation of the Gaza settlements. I will return to this point and
argue that even this, Sharon did not do out of his own will, but
because of unprecedented pressure on him by the U.S. In any case,
Sharon clarified right from the start that the evacuation of the
settlements does not mean letting Gaza free. The disengagement plan,
published in the Israeli papers in April 16, 2004,
specified in advance that "Israel will supervise and guard the external
envelope on land, will maintain exclusive control in the air space of
Gaza, and will continue to conduct military activities in the sea space
of the Gaza Strip".
Let us look briefly at Sharon's other record.
During his four years in office, Sharon stalled any chance of negotiations with the Palestinians:
-In 2003 - the road map
period -the Palestinians accepted the plan and declared a cease fire,
but while the Western world was celebrating the new era of peace, the
Israeli army, under Sharon, intensified its policy of assassinations,
maintained the daily harassment of the occupied Palestinians, and
eventually declared an all-out-war on Hamas, killing all its first rank
of military and political leaders.
-Later, as the Western world
was holding its breath again, in a year and a half of waiting for the
planned Gaza pullout, Sharon did everything possible to fail the
Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected in January 2005.
Sharon declared that Abbas is not a suitable partner (because he does
not fight terror) and turned down all his offers of renewed
The daily reality of the Palestinians in the occupied territories was never as grim as in the period of Sharon.
-In the West Bank, Sharon
started a massive project of ethnic cleansing in the areas bordering
with Israel. His wall project robs the land of the Palestinian
villages in these areas, imprisons whole towns, and leaves their
residents with no means of sustenance. If the project continues, many
of the 400.000 Palestinians affected by it will have to leave and seek
their livelihood in the outskirts of cities in the center of the West
Bank, as happened already in northern West Bank town of Qalqilia.
-The Israeli settlements were
evacuated from the Gaza Strip, but the Strip remains a big prison,
completely sealed from the outside world, nearing starvation and
terrorized from land, sea and air by the Israeli army.
The question that preoccupied
the Israeli political and military elites since the seizure of the
Palestinian territories in 1967, was how to maintain maximum area of
land with minimum number of Palestinians. The Labor party's Alon plan,
which was realized in Oslo, was to keep about 40% of the West Bank, but
allow the Palestinians autonomy in the other 60%. However,
Barak and Sharon destroyed the Oslo arrangements. The model that
Israel has developed under Sharon is a complex system of prisons.
The Palestinians are being pushed into locked and sealed enclaves,
fully controlled from the outside by the Israeli army, who enters the
enclaves at will. As far as I know this imprisonment of a whole
people is an unprecedented model of occupation, and it is being
executed with frightening speed and efficiency.
At the same
time, what Sharon has brought to perfection was the manufacturing of
consciousness, showing that war can be always marketed as the tireless
pursuit of peace. He proved that Israel can imprison the Palestinians,
bombard them from the air, steal their land in the West Bank, stall any
chance for peace, and still be hailed by the Western world as the
peaceful side in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Sharon has now
retired from political life, but that alone does not bid any change.
Sharon’s legacy is well alive. It has brewed for over a decade in the
Israeli military, which, in effect, is the dominant factor in Israeli
The military is the most stable - and most dangerous
- political factor in Israel. As an Israeli analyst stated it already
in 2001, "in the last six years, since October 1995, there were five
prime ministers and six defense ministers, but only two
chiefs-of-staff." Israeli military and political systems have
always been closely intertwined, with generals moving from the army
straight to the government, but the army’s political status was further
solidified during Sharon’s cadency. It is often apparent that the real
decisions are made by the military rather than the political echelon.
Military seniors brief the press (they capture at least half of the
news space in the Israeli media), and brief and shape the views of
foreign diplomats; they go abroad on diplomatic missions, outline
political plans for the government, and express their political views
on any occasion.
In contrast to the military’s stability, the
Israeli political system is in a gradual process of disintegration. In
a World Bank report of April 2005, Israel is found to be one of the
most corrupt and least efficient in the Western world, second only to
Italy in the government corruption index, and lowest in the index of
political stability. Sharon personally was associated, together with
his sons, with severe bribery charges that have never reached the
court. The new party that Sharon has founded, Kadima, and which now
heads the government, is a hierarchical conglomeration of individuals
with no party institutions or local branches. Its guidelines, published
in November 22, 2005, enable its leader to bypass all standard
democratic processes and to appoint the list of the party’s candidates
to the parliament without voting or approval of any party body.
Labor party has not been able to offer an alternative. In the last two
Israeli elections, Labor elected dovish candidates for prime
minister Amram Mitzna in 2003, and Amir Peretz in 2006.
Both were received initially with enormous enthusiasm, but were
immediately silenced by their party and campaign advisors and by self
imposed censorship, aiming to situate themselves "at the center of the
political map". Soon, their program became indistinguishable from that
of Sharon. Peretz even declared that on "foreign and security" matters
he will do exactly as Sharon, or later Olmert, and he only differs from
them on social issues. Thus, these candidates helped convince the
Israeli voters that Sharon’s way is the right way. In recent
years, there has never been a substantial left-wing opposition to the
rule of Sharon and the generals, since after the elections, Labor would
always join the government, providing the dovish image that the
generals need for the international show.
With the collapse of
the political system, the army remains the body that shapes and
executes Israel’s policies, and as is already obvious in the few months
since Sharon left office, the army is determined to carry out his
legacy, together with Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. For this, it is
essential that whatever Israel does be packaged as painful concessions.
Right now, we are at the dawn of a new "peace plan" promoted by Olmert.
Olmert may have coined the name of this plan, but the copyright
belongs to Sharon. On January 2nd 2006, shortly before Sharon left
office, the Israeli paper Ma’ariv disclosed the plan he intended to
present for the West Bank. The plan rests on US eventual acknowledgment
that the Road Map was stalemated - and that in fact it has always been
a "non-starter", given that (according to Israel’s official line),
there has never been a genuine Palestinian partner for peace. This was
still before the Palestinian elections that brought Hamas to power, but
from Israel’s perspective no Palestinian leadership was ever an
appropriate partner. Sharon argued that the PA under Abbas failed to
fulfill its obligations to combat the terror network. In the absence of
a suitable partner, Israel should set its borders unilaterally - that
is to say, decide for itself how much Palestinian land it needs to
take, and disengage from the rest. According to this plan, negotiations
with the U.S. should lead to a "signed agreement with Washington that
determines the final eastern border of Israel." The American-Israeli
agreement will include "fast completion of the fence [wall]... that
would become a real border fence."
On the eve of the Israeli
elections Olmert publicly unveiled the plan, which later became the
official plan of the new Israeli government, under the title consolidation, or convergence. He emphasized
that Israel’s new border would correspond to the route of the Wall,
which would be completed before the disengagement starts. To bring
the plan to fruition, the wall would have to move even further east
than its present route, and Olmert is explicit in outlining his views
on its final location. He wants to make sure that "Israel holds on to
[the settlements of] Ariel, Ma’aleh Adumim, the Jerusalem envelope and
Gush Etzion," as well as establishing Israeli control in the Jordan
Valley. A glance at the map would reveal that the areas Israel would
annex unilaterally under this plan amount to about 40% of the West
Olmert believes that circumstances are currently
favorable for enforcing this "solution" on the Palestinians, because
following Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian election it should become
even more evident to the world that there is no Palestinian partner for
peace negotiations. He said:
"There is now a 'window of
opportunity’ for reaching an international agreement on setting the
border, in the wake of Hamas’ rise to power and... support following
the Gaza pullout."
At the level of declaration,
the plan includes potential evacuation of settlements east of the new
border. However, unlike the Gaza disengagement plan, no time table is
set for this intended evacuation, and no list of the settlements to be
evacuated was published. In any case, should a scenario of evacuation
arise, the plan is to keep the West Bank Palestinian enclaves under
full Israeli control, as happened in Gaza. Olmert was explicit about
this in the public announcement of his plan. The arrangements after the
disengagement will "provide the Israel Defense Forces with freedom of
action in the West Bank, similar to the post-disengagement situation in
the Gaza Strip."
Olmert's plan, then, is to turn Sharon's
legacy into reality annex to Israel 40% of the West Bank and
apply the Gaza model of prison to the remaining Palestinian enclaves.
But Olmert is Israel's new man of peace.
These are difficult
times, when Sharon's legacy seems to be winning, with no barriers of
international law or justice on its road of destruction.
then two years ago, on July 9 2004, the International Court of Justice
(ICJ) issued its ruling on the "Legal Consequence of the Construction
of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory". The court found the
current route of the wall to be a serious and egregious violation of
international law. The first reactions in Israel were of worried
concern. In mid August 2004, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz presented
the government with a report stating: "It is hard to exaggerate the
negative ramifications the International Court ruling will have on
Israel on many levels, even on matters that lie beyond the separation
fence. The decision creates a political reality for Israel on the
international level, that may be used to expedite actions against
Israel in international forums, to the point that they may result in
sanctions." Israel hastened to clarify that the wall is a temporary
security barrier, which in no way would determine facts on the ground.
But in the current political atmosphere, Israel declares it intends to
make this wall its border, and no European government even blinks.
a year ago, the Western world was celebrating the dawn of democracy in
the Middle East. Following Arafat's departure, the Palestinians were
engaging in a real election campaign. Hamas
declared its intention to participate in the elections, and to shift
from armed struggle to working in the political arena. One would think
that this would be viewed as an encouraging and positive development
after years of bloodshed. Indeed, the U.S. insisted on the
election taking place, despite Israel's objections. But alas, the
Palestinians have elected the wrong party. How natural it seems to the
Western world that the Palestinian people should be collectively
punished for their wrong understanding of democracy. The U.S. dictates,
and Europe agrees that all aid to Palestinians should be cut, leaving
them close to starvation, with the remaining infra-structure and health
Nevertheless, the last few years were not
just years of victory for Israel’s expansion. From the long run
perspective of maintaining Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the
evacuation of the Gaza settlements was a defeat.
view in critical circles is that Sharon decided to evacuate the Gaza
settlements because maintaining them was too costly, and he decided to
focus efforts on his central goal of keeping the West Bank and
expanding its settlements. But, in fact, there is no real evidence for
Of course, the occupation of Gaza has always been
costly, and even from the perspective of the most committed Israeli
expansionists, Israel does not need this piece of land, one of the most
densely populated in the world, and lacking any natural resources. The
problem is that one cannot let Gaza free, if one wants to keep the West
Bank. A third of the occupied Palestinians live in the Gaza
strip. If they are given freedom, they would become the center of
Palestinian struggle for liberation, with free access to the Western
and Arab world. To control the West Bank, Israel had to stick to
Gaza. And once it is clear that Gaza needs to be occupied and
controlled, the previous model of occupation was the optimal
choice. The Strip was controlled from the inside by the army, and
the settlements provided the support system for the army, and the moral
justification for the soldiers’ brutal job of occupation. It makes
their presence there a mission of protecting the homeland. Control from
the outside may be cheaper, but in the long run, it has no guarantee of
Furthermore, since the Oslo years, the settlements were
conceived both locally and internationally as a tragic problem that,
despite Israel’s good intentions to end the occupation, cannot be
solved. This useful myth was broken with the evacuation of the
Gaza settlements, which showed how easy it is, in fact, to evacuate
settlements, and how big the support is in Israeli society for doing
Although I cannot go into the details here, I argue in l'heritage de Sharon, that
Sharon did not evacuate the Gaza settlements out of his own will, but
rather, that he was forced to do so. Sharon cooked up his disengagement
plan as a means to gain time, at the peak of international pressure
that followed Israel’s sabotaging of the road map and its construction
of the West Bank wall. Still, at every moment since then, till the very
end, he was looking for ways to sneak out of this commitment, as he did
with all his commitments before. But this time he was forced to
actually carry it out by the Bush administration. Though it was kept
fully behind the screens, the pressure was quite massive, including
military sanctions. The official pretext for the sanctions was Israel's
arm sale to China, but in previous occasions, the crisis was over as
soon as Israel agreed to cancel the deal. This time, the sanctions were
unprecedented, and lasted until the signing of the crossing agreement
in November 2005.
The story of the Gaza evacuation shows that international pressure can force Israel into concessions. I argue there (l'heritage de Sharon)
that he reason the U.S. exerted pressure on Israel, for the first time
in recent history, was because at that time, as the U.S. was sinking in
the mire of Iraq, it was impossible to ignore the widespread global
discontent over Israel's policies and unswerving US support of them.
(For example, in a comprehensive European poll, the majority viewed
Israel as the country most threatening to world peace.) The US had
to yield to public opinion.
From the U.S. perspective, its goal
of appeasing international pressure had been achieved with the
evacuation of the Gaza settlements. Western leaders and media were
euphoric over the new developments in the Middle East. As long as
international calm is maintained, Palestinian suffering plays no role
in US calculations. The U.S. administration has made it clear "to its
friends in Europe and the Arab world that Israel has fulfilled its part
of the process, and now it is time to leave Israel alone and expect the
Palestinians to do their part."
Nevertheless the fact that
pressure was put on Israel even for a short while, also shows the
limits of power and propaganda. Despite the apparent success of pro
Israeli lobbies in silencing any criticism of Israeli policies in
Western political discourse, the Palestinian struggle for justice has
penetrated global consciousness. This begins with the Palestinian
people, who have withstood years of brutal oppression and through their
daily endurance, organizing and resistance, have managed to keep the
Palestinian cause alive, something that not all oppressed nations have
managed to do. It continues with international struggle
solidarity movements that send their people to the occupied territories
and stand in vigils at home, professors signing boycott petitions,
subjecting themselves to daily harassment, a few courageous journalists
that insist on covering the truth, against the pressure of acquiescent
media and pro-Israel lobbies. Often this struggle seems futile, but
still it has penetrated global consciousness. It is this collective
consciousness that eventually forced the U.S. to pressure Israel into
some, albeit limited, concessions. . The Palestinian cause can be silenced for a while, as is happening now, but it will resurface.
Tanya Reinhart is Professor of Linguistics at Tel Aviv University
 Section III, Security reality after the evacuation, clause 1. The published plan is available at: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=416024&contrassID=1&subContrassID=1&sbSubContrassID=0&listSrc=Y.
 Amir Oren, Ha’aretz, October 19, 2001.
 Ora Coren, Israel ranks among most corrupt in West, Ha’aretz, April 8, 2005.
 Gil Hoffman, 'National Responsibility' name of PM's new party, Jerusalem Post ,November 23, 2005.
 Amnon Dankner and Ben Kaspit, The road blast Sharon’s new initiative, Ma’ariv, January 2 2006 (Hebrew; www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART1/027/938.html).
 Aluf Benn and Yossi Verter, "Olmert to Offer Settlers: Expand blocs, cut outposts," Ha’aretz,
March 3 2006..  Olmert said: "I believe that in four years’ time,
Israel will be disengaged from the vast majority of the Palestinian
population, within new borders, with the route of the fence - which
until now has been a security fence - adjusted to the new line of the
 Yuval Yoaz, Hague fence ruling may lead to sanctions, Ha'aretz, August 19, 2004.
L’Héritage de Sharon, Détruire La Palestine, Suite, La Fabrique, Paris,
April 2006. An extended version will appear in English as The Road Map to Nowhere Israel/Palestine since 2003, Verso, July 2003.
 Thomas Fuller, Herald Tribune, October 31 2003.
 Aluf Benn, "Leaving Gaza - The Day After," Ha’aretz, September 12 2005.