Sharon was no De Gaulle

To get out of the West Bank Israel needs a politician with the energy and reputation of Sharon and the political skills of De Gaulle. Whether such a figure exists is a different story.

By Thomas Mitchell

Ariel Sharon was Israel’s most politically successful military politician. His political career was a full decade longer than those of Yitzhak Rabin, who entered the Knesset at the same time as Sharon, and Dayan, and a half-decade longer than those of Yigal Allon and Ezer Weizman. But what have Sharon and Israel to show for it?

Sharon’s political career had four major accomplishments in terms of deeds: the disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, the crushing of the Al-Aksa Intifada from 2002 to 2004, and the Gaza disengagement of 2005. The Gaza disengagement, unilateral rather than negotiated, led to Hamas rule and the Palestinian duality that has let Israel off the hook from negotiating seriously with the Palestinian Authority on statehood. The settlements remain on the West Bank. Sharon settled the territories as agriculture minister while Begin and Shamir gave him political cover. And as prime minister he gave cover for a massive expansion of the settlements during his five years in office.

When contemplating withdrawal from Gaza in 2003 Sharon already had many models to choose from accomplished by other military politicians in Israel, South Africa, and even France. Dayan, Allon, and Rabin all negotiated with Anwar Sadat for political agreements that allowed Israel to withdraw from the Sinai and still retain security. Defense Minister Magnus Malan, like Dayan and Rabin a former chief of staff, negotiated with the Angolans and the Cubans an agreement that allowed South Africa to pull out of Namibia, which then gained independence, in exchange for a Cuban withdrawal from Southern Africa and the closing of the African National Congress’s guerrilla training camps in Angola. This deal then gave President F.W. de Klerk so much security that he felt able to negotiate an end to apartheid and the start of majority rule in South Africa. But Sharon did not trust the Palestinians so he ignored these examples.

There is one other example that is relevant and I will detail it in much greater depth. In May 1958 part of the French army in Algeria revolted and demanded with the backing of the pieds noirs settler community that General Charles de Gaulle be appointed prime minister of the Fourth Republic. De Gaulle then demanded before agreeing to take office that he be given carte blanche to write a new constitution. The politicians of the Fourth Republic agreed because the Republic was mired in the mud of Algeria—Algerie francaise. An insurgency headed by the National Liberation Front (FLN) had broken out in November 1954 only months after France had managed to extract itself from Indochina.

Because Algeria was legally considered a part of France overseas rather than merely a colony — somewhat similar to the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, no politician had been willing to agree to the FLN’s terms for peace — complete independence. De Gaulle, who had led the Free French from London during World War II and then wrenched control of France from the largely Communist resistance in 1944, held a special place in French politics. It was similar to that of Yigael Yadin in Israel before Yadin spoiled it by entering Begin’s coalition in 1977. De Gaulle, who had briefly been minister of war in June 1940, founded the Fourth Republic in 1944 and then retired from politics to write his memoirs in January 1946. Most Frenchmen in 1958 thought of De Gaulle as a figure of the Right, rather than of the Left, just as most Israelis thought about Sharon in 2003.

The first thing De Gaulle did was write a constitution from his village of Colombey les Deux Egleses that transformed France from a parliamentary democracy into a semi-presidential system in which the president was in charge of foreign affairs and the prime minister was in charge of the economy and other domestic matters. It was designed for his own temperament. Once De Gaulle was installed in the presidential palace in early 1959 he began figuring out what to do about Algeria by interviewing the experts: the generals, the party leaders, the administrative heads within Algeria, etc. When he made public statements they were masterpieces in ambiguity so that the Right was convinced that he intended to defeat the insurgency and retain Algerie francaise and the Left hoped that he was open to other paths.

De Gaulle also went ahead in conjunction with Israel scientists to build a nuclear weapon. This was tested in the Algerian desert in 1960. Now the French nationalists would have status compensation for the lost empire when he began to decolonize. In early 1961 the French army in Algeria revolted and this time De Gaulle crushed the rebellion and cashiered the rebels. He then began feelers to the FLN about opening negotiations towards independence.

The actual peace negotiations took about six months. Algeria was granted independence in May 1962. The bloodiest year of the war was that final year between the revolt and the peace agreement as members of the Secret Army Organization (OAS) carried out acts of pro-state terrorism against ordinary Algerian Arabs and Berbers in Algeria and France in an attempt to destroy the peace process and prevent independence.

Sharon was quite aware of the Algerian precedent. Probably more aware of it than he was of the Namibian independence negotiations that occurred while he was a minister in the Israeli government. He explicitly rejected comparisons between the French in Algeria and Israeli control of the Palestinian territories. But he was also rumored to sleep with Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace, the leading English-language account of the Algerian war, by his bedside while he was prime minister.

Sharon would not have lasted as prime minister long enough to carry out a withdrawal from both Gaza and the West Bank a la de Gaulle, but the fact that he never made any serious move to reform Israel’s dysfunctional electoral system with its low two-percent entry barrier indicated that he was not interested in taking De Gaulle’s route. For twenty-two years from 1989 until 2011 every time that a peace plan was seriously put forward a government crisis would either topple the government or destroy the forward momentum.

Sharon with his status as a war hero of both the 1967 and 1973 wars was probably the last Israeli with the status to single-handedly reform the electoral system. This was a goal that eluded Ben-Gurion as Rafi leader in 1965 and Yadin as the leader of Dash in 1977. There were already plans in existence worked out by Israeli politicians like Gad Ya’akobi and Israeli academics on how to do it through a mixed-franchise system that would either mix regional multimember constituencies with the existing PR-list system or mix single-member constituencies with the PR-list system. All Sharon had to do was review the various plans, pick one, put his weight behind it and push in the Knesset for its adoption.

Why was the architect of the Battle of Abu Agheila in 1967 unable to design a plan to get Israel out of the territories in 2005? There are several reasons. First, there is no indication that Sharon wanted to withdraw from the West Bank. The Gaza disengagement was designed to allow Israel to retain the West Bank and not lose its demographic majority in the short term. Second, Sharon was only 39 in 1967 and only 45 in 1973. He was at the height of his intellectual creativity when he was a general in the IDF.

De Gaulle was in his early fifties when he was the Free French leader in London battling with his senior allies to prevent them from making more expedient alliances with Vichy figures prior to the invasion of North Africa in 1942 and the invasion of France in 1944. In this challenging political environment De Gaulle developed his political skills that would later serve him in exiting from Algeria two decades later.

Sharon by contrast had a relatively easy operating environment while leading the settlement effort in the late 1970s and 1980s. Sharon’s main strengths as a politician were his military past and his energy. He would charge straight ahead earning himself the nickname “the bulldozer.” By the time that he really needed to be both devious and diplomatic it was too late to learn how. He used deception in Operation Peace for the Galilee in June 1982, but his deception was soon uncovered and it cost him his job months later when the cabinet voted to support the findings of the Kahan Commission.

To get out of the West Bank Israel needs a politician with the energy and reputation of Sharon and the political skills of De Gaulle. Does such a figure exist? Is such a combination possible?

Thomas Mitchell is the author of Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution (McFarland, 2013) and the forthcoming Mr. Security: Israeli Military Politicians from Dayan to Barak (McFarland, 2014).