A Dove for Prime Minister Sharon: Why Gaza Plan Is Right for the Left
By Rabbi Eric Yoffie
The following article is from the Forward and is reprinted with their permission and Rabbi Yoffie.
When it comes to Israel and the Middle East, I am a dove and a peace activist. And my hero right now is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. It is not easy for me to say this. For most of my adult life, I have been convinced that Sharon's passion for settlement-building makes him an enemy of peace. In an article I wrote in 1990, I suggested that Sharon was an unprincipled demagogue, and I referred to him as "Israel's false messiah."
But 2004 is not 1990. Displaying cool pragmatism and unexpected courage, Sharon has defied the Israeli far right and called for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and at least some of the West Bank. He has shrewdly won over the American government, which was originally suspicious of his plan. And as opposition grows within the military and his own party, he is now engaged in a high-profile battle to win a referendum on the withdrawal among rank-and-file Likud members. This is a significant gamble; if he loses, his political career could be over. But if he is victorious, most Likud hardliners will have little choice but to support him.
The prime minister's plan is hardly ideal. I would be much happier if the withdrawal took in far more of the West Bank. But Sharon's proposal is nonetheless a momentous step that, if implemented, will end the occupation of 1.3 million Palestinian residents of Gaza. More importantly, the withdrawal will signify a newfound willingness by the Israeli right to dismantle long-established Jewish settlements in order to advance Israel's security interests and to assure her future as a Jewish state. This is a change of historic proportions.
Many of my friends dislike Sharon and refuse to believe that he can be trusted to carry out the withdrawal that he has promised. But I remind them that commitments made so publicly and dramatically to the American government are not easily broken. I remind them as well that there are no other political options on the horizon and no possibility whatsoever that the parties on the Israeli left could do what Sharon proposes. The left is in shambles. Even if Sharon falls, it has virtually no chance of returning to power. And in the exceedingly unlikely event that it might win a very tight election, it would lack the mandate and the courage to dismantle settlements.
Sharon has emerged as a master politician, far more in touch with the pulse of Israel's citizenry than any other political leader. Slowly and grudgingly he has come to accept the long-held conviction of the left that the occupation must ultimately end because the price that Israel is paying is simply too high. To say this is to recognize that, in some measure at least, terrorism has won a victory; it is infuriating to acknowledge this, but it is true nonetheless.
Yet more important than the impact of terrorism is the simple fact that Israelis are a moral people who cannot forget the images of Israeli tanks facing off against stone-throwing children or the stories told by their soldier sons and daughters of the indignities they must impose on Palestinians at Israeli roadblocks. Israelis have had enough; the occupation has become intolerable to them, and not worth the sacrifices they are called upon to make. Far-right Cabinet ministers Benny Elon of Moledet and Effi Eitam of the National Religious Party may not yet grasp this, but Sharon understands it full well.
At the same time, the prime minister knows that the right was correct in asserting that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. To say this is not to claim that there are no moderate Palestinians; clearly there are. The problem is that there is no conceivable scenario that would put the reigns of power in moderate hands. Yasser Arafat may be preferable to Hamas, but he is still an evil man who turns to terrorism at the slightest provocation. Yossi Beilin and others on the left continue to claim, against all evidence, that "there is someone to talk to," but the great majority of Israelis-- including those who have consistently supported a peace process and a Palestinian state-- long ago gave up on this idea.
Sharon's contribution at this critical juncture has been to offer a centrist synthesis of right and left that is the only option with the potential to garner broad public backing. He will not talk to Palestinian leaders who continue to embrace terrorism but he will begin to dismantle settlements unilaterally when such a withdrawal serves Israel's political and security interests. Poll after poll indicates 60-70% support among Israelis for the Sharon plan.
Support in polls does not mean, of course, that the prime minister can count on a victory in the Likud referendum. Internal Likud politics are heated and intensely personal, and the Likud hawks who oppose Sharon are well-organized and well-financed. Furthermore, it is impossible to know what impact the corruption indictment that is hanging over Sharon's head will have on the vote.
But even a Sharon defeat would not necessarily signal an end to the course he has charted. Even Benjamin Netanyahu, his likely successor, knows that that the demographic clock is ticking, that Israel cannot forever maintain the Gaza settlements, and that good relations with the United States remain Israel's highest priority. Since Netanyahu is hardly likely to negotiate with Arafat, he will ultimately have no choice but to follow Sharon's lead with some type of unilateral withdrawal. But Israel cannot wait for Netanyahu, who does not possess the daring, the political skills or the credibility of Sharon. The likely result would be a much delayed withdrawal for which Israel would pay a considerably higher political and economic price.
What is the best case scenario? My hope is that the referendum will pass and the Gaza withdrawal will be quickly affirmed by the Cabinet and Knesset. The far-right parties will then leave the government and will be replaced by Labor. Both Labor and Likud will suffer defections from those who oppose the plan, but they will be few in number. At that point, Israel will have a government that joins the sane right with the sane left, and that, led by a determined prime minister, will carry out the withdrawal as quickly as possible in close coordination with the United States.
Following the American election in November, the president -- whether Democrat or Republican -- may be in a position to take a more activist role and to encourage either Israeli negotiations with a new Palestinian leadership or further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. In my opinion, Ariel Sharon is the Israeli politician most likely to make this scenario a reality.
Sharon deserves no blank check, of course. If he defaults on his obligations or assumes that withdrawing from Gaza permits him to stand pat in the West Bank, he should not get a free ride. But the fact remains that Sharon and the disengagement plan that he has put forward offer the best possibility right now of helping to end the occupation and reducing the chances of war. My hope is that the citizens of Israel and the Jews of America will rally to his side.
At this moment, I stand with Ariel Sharon.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism