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June 02, 2003

Sharon Has a Map. Can He Redraw It?

David K. Shipler of The New York Times here tries to assess Sharon the man
[...]Mr. Sharon was once described to me as a man with "no moral brakes." His record suggests as much. As commander of the army's infamous Unit 101 in 1953, he replied to a guerrilla attack on Israeli civilians by assaulting a Jordanian border town, Qibya, blowing up 45 houses and killing 69 Arab villagers. He said later that he had no idea that the houses were occupied. As defense minister during the Lebanon war of 1982, he permitted Lebanese Christian militiamen to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, where they massacred at least 700, women and children. He said that he had no idea such a thing would happen. An Israeli commission ruled that he should have known and that he bore indirect responsibility. He was forced to resign.

He is known for deftly pretending not to be doing what he is doing, or pretending to be doing what he is not. He took the invasion of Lebanon far beyond where his prime minister, Menachem Begin, thought it would go, by trying to rid the country not only of Palestinian guerrillas but also of Syrian troops, and by trying in vain to install a pro-Western government in Beirut. Now his manipulative skills may be in play as he holds mildly productive meetings aimed at getting Mr. Abbas to crack down on Palestinian groups that breed suicide bombers — the major current threat to Israelis' security.

Mr. Abbas is just beginning to gather internal political support, and to bolster his moderate posture he will need visible compromises from Mr. Sharon to reduce military roadblocks, searches and assaults. Even if such steps are taken to ease tension, core issues will remain: conflicting claims on Jerusalem and Palestinian demands for the right of return to Arab villages inside Israel — as well as the Jewish settlements. That a solution requires the chief architect of those settlements to agree to their withdrawal may seem to guarantee failure.

Nevertheless, I keep remembering another conversation with Mr. Sharon, at his ranch in early 1982, when I asked him what would happen to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if, as he had argued, Jordan became the Palestinian state. Ah, he said, then the conflict would be just a border dispute. A border dispute? Would he be willing to change the border? Would he relinquish parts of the West Bank he was so aggressively settling? He smiled impishly. As defense minister, he said reasonably, he could not negotiate a border with me.

I thought, though I wasn't sure, that he meant to leave the impression of a pragmatist who would be willing to cut a deal someday if the time was right, if Israel could be secure. I wonder whether the time is drawing nigh.[more]