The Three Faces of Sharon, a Man Alone

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

March 17, 2002

What is Ariel Sharon up to? Last week, ahead of U.S. presidential envoy Anthony Zinni’s third attempt at an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire, Sharon undertook a series of dramatic steps that seemed to contradict everything he had done immediately before.

He declared that Yasser Arafat was free to leave his virtual prison in Ramallah. He dropped his long-standing demand for seven days of complete quiet before implementing a cease-fire plan. And he let it be known that he was willing to accept American monitoring of a cease-fire. Sharon also endorsed a meeting between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian negotiators, instructed his son to reestablish contact with Arafat and held his own meeting with the Palestinian leader’s economic adviser.

Is this the same Sharon who had earlier deemed Arafat irrelevant and expressed regret that he had not killed him when he had him under siege in Beirut 20 years ago? How should we interpret the intentions of this Israeli leader who, while signaling flexibility toward U.S. cease-fire proposals, dispatches the Israeli army to occupy Palestinian cities and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, killingmore than 100 Palestinians and culminating in a full-scale armored invasion of the interim Palestinian capital of Ramallah?

To understand Sharon, we need to recognize that at any particular moment there are, in fact, three different Sharons competing for the mind of the Israeli prime minister: the general, the politician and the statesman.

Sharon the general is a familiar figure. He’s the Israeli who has fought terror all his adult life and who believes in the efficacy of force and in the importance ofterrain. He’s the defense minister who, in 1982, sent the Israeli army into Lebanon, confronted the United States, and was implicated in the Lebanese Phalangists’ slaughter of hundreds of Palestinian refugees. He laid siege to Beirut, destroyed the Palestinian state-within-a-state, and evicted Arafat. And he’s the leader who surely sees the advantage of doing that to Arafat again—this time in the West Bank. General Sharon was also the first to advocate that Jordan become the Palestinian state, and he was responsible for building many of the strategically located, outlying settlements in the West Bank, designed to render impossible the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state there. In these days of unremitting Palestinian violence and terror, General Sharon is surely telling Prime Minister Sharon to go and finish the job.

Then there’s Sharon the politician. He’s much less sure of the right course. He was elected with a mandate to stop the violence, and promised Israelis peace as well as security. He has delivered neither. Instead, the Israeli economy has tanked, and people throughout the country are living in fear of the next terror attack and in despair for the future of their children. As a result, Sharon the politician is losing popularity fast; more than 60 percent of Israelis now disapprove of the job he is doing.

Sharon the politician is being torn by opposing political forces. He is being pulled to the right by a formidable challenge from Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who now commands majority support in the Likud, Sharon’s own party. Netanyahu, a former prime minister, is gaining strength because he unabashedly advocates the destruction of the Palestinian Authority and the eviction of Arafat. And unless Sharon steals his thunder by acting resolutely against Arafat, Netanyahu could outflank Sharon and threaten his chances for reelection.

On the other hand, Sharon the politician is being pulled to the left. He knows that if he goes too far with force and reoccupies the West Bank and Gaza, he will lose the Labor Party from his coalition. Now that Avignor (Yvette) Lieberman’s ultra-right wing Russian party Yisrael Beiteinu has left the government, the departure of the Labor Party could cause the collapse of the coalition, precipitating early elections and a leadership contest in the Likud that Sharon would likely lose to his nemesis, Netanyahu. Thus, politician Sharon is caught in a no-win situation, accused by the left of going too far, by the right of not going far enough, and by the center of destroying their hope.

Finally, there’s Sharon the statesman, surprised to find himself inhabiting the prime minister’s residence at the very end of his controversial political career. He feels the full weight of responsibility for the well-being of the Jewish nation. He has been given one last chance to remove the stigma of the ill-fated war in Lebanon from his historical legacy. This Sharon does not intend to repeat the mistakes of Sharon the general. He will not be the one to send the Israeli army into the West Bank and Gaza to reprise the Lebanese quagmire. This is not just a matter of personal pride. Sharon the aspiring statesman is fully aware of the corrosive effect of reoccupation on a reserve army and knows that Israel cannot afford the signal of weakness that would be sent by another unilateral withdrawal in the face of Arab violence.

Statesman Sharon, unlike General Sharon, proposes an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, empathizes with Palestinian suffering, is ready to freeze all settlement activity (if the violence and terror stop), and even hints at dismantling some of them. He knows the limits of force and understands that Arafat can benefit more than Israel from an escalation that precipitates international intervention.

Sharon the statesman also knows the advantages of coordination with Washington. Indeed, he will do whatever he can to avoid letting any daylight show between the United States and Israel, knowing that Arafat, if given the chance, would do his best to drive a wedge between the Jewish state and its superpower patron. He is sensitive to President Bush’s interest in regional stability and has assured him that while he will fight terror, he will not do so in a way that causes broader instability. Sharon the statesman therefore prefers the option of American-led international pressure on Arafat to stop the intifada, backed by the threat rather than the use of massive Israeli force.

At any particular moment in this crisis, one or other of these Sharons is dominant. Last week, Sharon the General sent the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) into the West Bank and Gaza in a move that was reminiscent of his 1982 war for Lebanon. But Sharon the Politician quickly found himself in an argument with the Labor Party leader and defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, over the extent of the operation, and accepted its curtailment. Meanwhile, Sharon the Statesman found himself for the first time harshly criticized by President Bush, prompting his embrace of Zinni’s mission in order to close the gap with the United States and focus American pressure on Arafat.

Sharon is recognized in Israel for his tactical prowess. But the problem he now faces—and all three Sharons surely know it—is that he is fast running out of maneuvering room. The general is one step away from destroying the Palestinian Authority and reoccupying the West Bank and Gaza. The politician finds his position growing increasingly tenuous as his popularity sinks and the prospect of early elections looms. And the statesman has discovered that Phase II of the U.S. war on terror requires him to calm, rather than escalate, the crisis if he wants to stay on the right side of an American president who does not welcome the distraction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while he is preparing to topple Saddam Hussein.

So Sharon moves right in preparation for moving left. He sends the army into Palestinian cities and refugee camps in a draconian operation to prove his toughness and reassure an Israeli public shaken by the carnage of innocents in their streets. And then he readies himself for a U.S.-monitored cease-fire, an army pullback, a suspension of targeted assassinations, a political negotiation and even a settlements freeze.

He probably calculates that he can rely on Arafat not to fulfill commitments required by a cease-fire plan proposed last year by CIA Director George Tenet or the recommendations of a commission headed by former senator George Mitchell. Then, Sharon probably figures, he will not be blamed for continuing violence. But that will not resolve his dilemma. It may buy him a little more time but it will not be sufficient to extract him from the increasingly tight corner he is now in.

Sharon,who owns a ranch, once told me that he is haunted by the image of one of his cows bellowing as it finds itself being pushed through the ever-narrowing “corrales” to the slaughterhouse. And that’s how he sees himself, struggling to avoid the mounting domestic and international pressures that could force him into his own corral. But what Sharon may not understand is that this evasive maneuvering is leading him closer to the fate he fears.

As he begins to recognize what lies in front of him, we should expect the prime minister to become receptive to a U.S. initiative that not only aims to stop the terror and violence but also launches a political process. That is the only way that Statesman Sharon can assert himself over General Sharon. And it’s the only way that Politician Sharon can show his people that he can indeed deliver a process that holds out some hope of producing not just the security but also the peace he promised them.