Ariel Sharon's Legacy of Separation

The Israeli prime minister, who died on Saturday, did more than any other contemporary leader to shape the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we know today.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon looks out over the wall between Israel and the West Bank City of Jenin, on January 8, 2003. (Reuters)

Few figures could unite Israeli settlers and Palestinians quite like Ariel Sharon.

“God gave him what he deserved,” one right-wing Israeli told me several years after Sharon fell into a coma. “A Jew should not force a Jew from Jewish land,” the man exclaimed, in reference to Sharon’s decision to unilaterally remove Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005. For many Arabs, the name “Sharon” is associated with the word “massacre”—specifically with the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, which occurred after Sharon allowed Lebanese Christian militiamen to enter a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, where they killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians.

So to some Jewish settlers, Sharon was a traitor; and to some Arabs, he was a butcher. Yet Sharon, who passed away on Saturday at age 85, after an eight-year coma, was also a political architect. More so than to any other contemporary figure in the region, the status quo in Israel and the Palestinian territories can be traced to Ariel Sharon.

Though Sharon helped form the hawkish Likud Party, he was never a right-wing ideologue. Born in 1928, Sharon joined a Labor Zionist youth movement and then the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that preceded the Israel Defense Forces. On the battlefield, he distinguished himself by playing a key role in the capture of the Sinai Peninsula in 1956, 1967, and 1973. He earned a reputation not only for his skill, pragmatism, and ambition, but also for his tendency toward insubordination and unpredictable behavior.

These traits also characterized his political career. He briefly left Likud but then joined the cabinet of Menachem Begin, Likud’s founder, in 1977, where he supported the settler movement. As defense minister, Sharon led the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. After reports of the Sabra and Shatila massacres surfaced, an Israeli commission determined that Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for not preventing the bloodshed; mass protests soon forced Sharon to resign from his post.

Yet his career eventually rebounded—17 years later, Sharon found himself at the helm of the Likud Party. In 2000, in an event some blame for igniting the Second Intifada, Sharon visited the Temple Mount complex with a massive police escort, declaring that the holy sites, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque, would remain Israeli territory. He defeated Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the 2001 elections on a platform that criticized Barak’s support for Palestinian statehood. Yet as prime minister, Sharon recognized that the status quo was unsustainable in terms of demography, diplomacy, and security. He thus endorsed the two-state solution and the international community’s “road map” for peace in 2003.

Still, the Israeli leader doubted that he could come to a lasting agreement with the Palestinians. Sharon’s plan ultimately involved circumventing the Palestinian Authority, not working with it; he became convinced that only a policy of “separation” from the Palestinians could secure Israel. Separation consisted of two stages. The first step was to build a massive barrier in the West Bank between the largest Jewish settlements and the bulk of the Palestinian population. Though this angered many on the Israeli right who opposed “abandoning” Jews in the West Bank, the idea enjoyed popular support. In an October 2003 poll, more than 80 percent of Israelis said they believed constructing fences and walls would significantly reduce or prevent suicide bombers from attacking Israeli cafes and buses.

Sharon had effectively sold Israelis on his policy of separation—the idea that Israel could insulate itself from the Palestinian problem on its own terms and according to its own security needs, without conceding to all Palestinian demands.

In 2004, Sharon announced that he was going to take separation—now termed “disengagement”—one step further. Israel needed to leave Gaza but, as he saw it, the Palestinian leader at the time, Yasser Arafat, was no partner for peace. Instead, Israel would unilaterally withdraw its forces from the territory and evict the 8,000 Jewish settlers who lived there among 1.3 million Palestinians. The plan elicited major protests on the right and forced Sharon to break away from Likud and form his own party, Kadima.

In August 2005, the Gaza disengagement plan was enacted along with the withdrawal from four settlements in the West Bank, but that was only supposed to be the beginning. According to a minister in Sharon’s government, during a December 2005 phone call the prime minister suggested, “Let’s divide [the West Bank] and take roughly one-third for ourselves, leaving two-thirds for the Arabs.” Sharon began to prepare for elections scheduled in March 2006, undeterred by a mild stroke. But on January 4, 2006, Sharon suffered a second stroke, a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He never regained consciousness.

Eight years later, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains at a stalemate. Whether as a result of Sharon’s policies or not, the number of Israeli civilians killed by Palestinians declined as his separation policies went into effect, decreasing from a high of 264 in 2002 to a low of seven in 2007, according to the Israeli NGO B’Tselem. When Israeli casualties have occurred, they have mostly stemmed from rocket fire from Gaza, not from suicide bombings. Yet during this same period, no tangible diplomatic progress has been made in the peace process. Sharon’s handpicked successor, Ehud Olmert, reportedly came close to an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, but negotiations collapsed as war broke out between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

The situation on the ground has been frozen ever since. The separation barrier that Sharon proposed remains standing, complicating the lives of Palestinians and sometimes separating them from their land. Sharon, someone who was always aware of how “facts on the ground” determined final outcomes, never said the barrier route would be permanent. But it doesn't appear to be going away any time soon.

Sharon’s most enduring legacy, however, can be found in the mindset of Israelis. Just as Sharon argued years ago, many Israelis now think that there is “no partner for peace“ on the Palestinian side—a conviction that only hardened when Hamas took power in Gaza in the wake of the withdrawal and fired rockets on Israel. Rather than pushing the government leftward toward a peace settlement or rightward toward annexation of the West Bank, some Israelis believe that security is possible with “separation” from the Palestinians but without a formal peace agreement. Instead of supporting parties on the left and far-right that have advocated decisive action on the Palestinian issue, the two most popular blocs in the country’s 2013 election—Likud-Beiteinu and Yesh Atid—downplayed the conflict and instead focused on Iran and domestic affairs.

Disengagement from certain Palestinian territories has spawned disengagement from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian uprisings that led both Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon to reevaluate Israeli policy do not threaten Israel today. Israel’s current leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, once critiqued Sharon’s separation agenda but now seems to have embraced the status quo that Sharon’s policies created. There have been no major diplomatic breakthroughs or significant Israeli concessions since Sharon lapsed into a coma, and the prospects for the current round of peace talks led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appear dim.

The paradox of Sharon’s legacy is that he was a man of action whose policies made complacency possible. The withdrawal from Gaza and the construction of the separation barrier diminished the threat of suicide bombings. But by acting unilaterally, Sharon undermined the Palestinian Authority and facilitated the rise of Hamas in Gaza. The divisions among Palestinian leaders have made Israelis doubt the ability of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to deliver on a peace deal, while rockets from Gaza have led many Israelis to question the wisdom of withdrawal. Considering that all is relatively quiet on the Palestinian front, Netanyahu may feel that the risks of action outweigh the costs of further stagnation. Whether Israel will remain in “Sharon’s world” now depends on which lessons the current prime minister has learned from his late predecessor.