by Robert E. Hunter
Ariel Sharon, the former Defense and Prime Minister of Israel, who died last week, was one of the most controversial leaders in Israeli history. I met him several times, including when I was the White House representative on the US negotiating team for the West Bank/Gaza Autonomy talks (1979-1981). I can’t say I knew him well; but well enough to know two things: his fundamental commitment was to Israel’s security as a military man, not as an ideologue, and he was immensely complex.
We all speculate about the “what might have beens” of history, and I am no exception. In fact, I will go far out on a limb and argue that tragedy took from Israel the two Prime Ministers who might have done the most to help it move beyond the decade’s long stasis in its relations with the Palestinians. This was so in major part because both men came out of the military and neither could be considered “soft” on security. Both were seeking to create change in Israeli-Palestinian relations. In November 1995, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli right-wing fanatic; Ariel Sharon suffered an incapacitating stroke in January 2006, 4 months after Israel completed its Sharon-inspired withdrawal from Gaza. The work of both men in trying to build peace with security for Israel was thus cut off in mid-flight.
Let us consider Gaza. Israel’s withdrawal left a political vacuum. But it is not at all obvious that this vacuum had to be filled by Hamas, the movement that then and since refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist and to seek compromises to bring about some reasonable relationship with the Jewish state — not to say that Israel was prepared to reciprocate had there been such a Hamas initiative, much less to take the initiative itself.
In January 2006, at the annual gathering of the West’s leading defense personalities, in and out of government — the Munich Security Conference — I made a proposal during a session on the Middle East. I suggested that Ariel Sharon’s courage in withdrawing from Gaza be honored by a bold step to try creating there a chance for positive developments, beginning with a massive infusion of aid and investment to provide the people of Gaza with some hope and promise in their lives and, not incidentally, to help the relative moderates under Mahmoud Abbas, then and now President of the Palestinian National Authority, gain political traction in Gaza and against Hamas. I pulled a figure out of the air and proposed a $6 billion plan: $2 billion from the US; $2 billion from the EU; and $2 billion from the Arab states — the last-named, I thought, a challenge to those rich Arabs who have profited politically from keeping the Palestinian issue alive to “put up or shut up.”
I was surprised when my proposal was not simply ignored. Indeed, the chairman of the panel immediately endorsed the idea and said that he had his $2 billion to commit, provided that the other two parties I had named would do likewise. That person was Javier Solana, whose set of titles boiled down to his being in effect the Foreign Minister of the European Union. We were “off to the races.”
Unfortunately, the beginning was also the end. The rich Arab states did not respond. Israel opposed any such aid and investment plan and, not surprisingly, the US Congress thus only responded with what could be called “chump change.” The moment — and the opportunity — was lost; the chance, however slim, was never tested to see whether helping to improve the lives of people in Gaza could have provided political strength to the PNA as opposed to Hamas which, as has often happened with radical groups elsewhere (e.g., Fidel Castro’s “barefoot doctors” in Central America), was acting as the provider of social benefits, food, etc. to the trapped people of Gaza.
Thus it was not surprising that Hamas subsequently won the March 2006 parliamentary elections in Gaza. As I argued at the time, the failure of outsiders even to give Abbas and his people a chance to compete was a mistake that would never have been made by Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago or Karl Rove on the Republican side. Abbas would have had at least what is called, in ward-heeler politics, “walking around money.”
Notably, President George W. Bush at first endorsed the results of the Gaza elections; but a day later changed his pitch to oppose the accession of Hamas to power. Even then, it was arguably not too late. Gaza under Hamas was declared off limits and was effectively blockaded economically — political punishment, but, as so often in the imposition of sanctions, a political gift to Hamas. It would face no challenge to its rule, especially in deciding how what meager economic benefits came to Gaza would be distributed. And the rest is history.
WWSHD? That is, “What would Sharon have done?” We can’t know, any more than we can know what Rabin would have done, or have been able to do — though we do know the inclinations of both men at the moments in time when they were each struck down. Nor can we know whether, had Sharon followed through on his decision to withdraw from Gaza with the approach I proposed in January 2006, there would have been an adequate response from non-radical Palestinians; nor whether, had my proposal (or others like it) been followed, Hamas would have been weakened sufficiently to keep it from power.
But it all does make one think; especially to think about yet another missed opportunity — however “untested and untestable in retrospect” — in Arab-Israeli relations, missed opportunities by both sides, with which the history of that conflict has been littered.