Like his friend George W. Bush, who seems to have come into office determined to use the U.S. military to oust Saddam Hussein in short order and remake the Middle East in America's image, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon assumed power apparently convinced that he could use his army to pound the Palestinian diaspora into submission, thus making Israel's borders secure.
History is still being written on Bush's crusade, but we know already that Sharon's quest is Quixotic. The surest sign of Sharon's failure is the prime minister's about face - at least in words - on settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Remember that Sharon is the father of the Jewish settler movement.
Unlike his ultrareligious supporters, Sharon did not back the movement simply because he saw the occupied territories as the biblical home of Jews. He led the movement for the more pragmatic goal of protecting the geography and, therefore, the identity of the state.
As a longtime opponent of Sharon's policies, I must say here and now that I support the proposal to remove the settlers from the Gaza Strip.
"I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza," Sharon told the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz.
No Jews in Gaza?
Obviously, the settlers are up in arms, and the extreme factions of Sharon's right-wing Likud Party are angry, some threatening to bolt from the coalition government. Why Sharon made the proposal at this time is anyone's guess.
Some say he did it to deflect attention from the legal problems that may force him to resign. Others argue that, as a pragmatist, Sharon finally realizes that Palestinians soon will outnumber Jews in the region and that the only way to maintain Israel's Jewish identity is to give the Gaza Strip and the West Bank back to its Arab neighbors and establish permanent borders. The Palestinians, then, will have their own state.
With its economy wrecked by the two-year-old intifada, Israel squanders precious money - some of it U.S. tax dollars - sends soldiers to their death and angers Arabs to protect the 7,500 settlers living among 1.2-million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the 230,000 settlers among 2-million Palestinians on the West Bank.
Israel needs to end the crusade to subdue the Palestinians by force. Removing 17 of the 21 settlements from Gaza by the end of the summer would be a good beginning. The other four also must go. Then, doing the same in the West Bank over a reasonable span of time would change the face of the region.
In addition to saving lives, money and other resources, Israel would, for the first time in many years, gain moral respectability in the eyes of the rest of the world.
But removing the settlements would do something more important: It would rob Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other violent groups of much of their self-righteousness and their rationalization for suicide bombing.
The removal would make Israel an honest partner in a peace process tainted by the blatant, cozy relations between the Bush White House and U.S. Congress and the Israeli government. It would radically improve the lives of ordinary, impoverished Palestinians and give them fewer reasons to hate Jews.
Removing the settlements would make suicide bombers appear as hindrances to prosperity rather than as martyrs as they are now seen.
Because the settlements are the major source of Palestinian frustration and reflect Israel's apartheid proclivities, removing them would greatly aid in breaking what New York University professor Neil Altman refers to as the "vicious circle of humiliation, retaliation, and violence that has become entrenched between the two peoples."
Sharon took office vowing that he would not reward terrorists by negotiating with them, that he would crush them and make Israel safe. With the settlements as a large part of their justification, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militants had their own challenge for Sharon.
"The Israeli government," Altman said, "seems to believe that direct and inevitable retaliation for Palestinian suicide attacks will break the will of Palestinians to engage in such violence, and further, that failure to engage in such retaliatory actions will communicate weakness and lead Palestinian militants to believe that they can realistically achieve their goal of destroying the Israeli state. On the Palestinian side, the idea seems to be that terrorizing the Israeli population will lead Israelis to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza."
For the last three years, Sharon has said he is prepared to make some "painful concessions" for Israel's security. Had the architect of the settler movement been referring to removing the settlements all the time? Why did Sharon wait so long to act - after the loss of so many lives?
I hope that his proposal is not a ruse to deflect attention from bribery allegations but a genuine effort to bring some sanity to the region by reversing the violence and self-destruction.