Sharon, the failed kingmaker

Voices in Israel, including within Ariel Sharon’s cabinet, are calling on their prime minister to crown his reconquista of the West Bank by naming a new Palestinian leader. If he does so, it will be his second exercise in Arab kingmaking. The first was 20 years ago in Lebanon. Eighteen years and thousands of dead later, Israelis were as happy to leave as the Lebanese were to see them go.

The parallels between the invasions of Lebanon and of the Palestinian Authority zones are too many to ignore. Sharon holds Arafat responsible for Palestinian violence in exactly the way Israeli leaders used to blame Lebanon. The Lebanese government, like Arafat, was too weak to stop a war whose roots go far deeper than whoever happens to be in nominal charge.

Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Palestinian commando movement came into being. And Israel hit Lebanon after every Palestinian raid organised in Beirut, waging a steady war on Lebanon’s cities, villages and infrastructure. In 1968, Israel destroyed 13 civilian aeroplanes of Lebanon’s airline at Beirut airport, just as this year it destroyed the Palestinian airport in Gaza. Israel’s raids strengthened the PLO in Lebanon then; Sharon’s destruction of Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters has restored some of the latter’s popularity now. In Lebanon, the Israel-PLO battles sparked a war that destroyed the Lebanese state. Israeli actions in the West Bank have crippled the PA.

When Israel failed both to control the PLO in Lebanon and destroy its popularity in the occupied territories, it invaded Lebanon twice, in 1978 and in 1982. In 1982, the defence minister, Ariel Sharon, played Lebanese kingmaker. After expelling 14,000 PLO fighters from Beirut, he forced the Lebanese parliament to choose as president the Christian militia commander Bashir Gemayel.

Sharon and Gemayel then plotted an assault on the Palestinian refugee camps in west Beirut that bears an uncanny similarity to Israel’s operations in the West Bank since March. The Israeli army would seize key buildings and roads. Gemayel’s militiamen would be transported to the refugee camps to root out “terrorists”, in violation of Israeli undertakings to the US to leave west Beirut unmolested. The Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote that the plan called for Gemayel’s Phalange to “do the dirty work in the refugee camps, carrying out arrests, interrogations, and demolition of buildings”.

When a Syrian agent assassinated Gemayel, Sharon put the plan into action. He told Gemayel’s lieutenant Elie Hobeika, as Israel’s Kahan commission discovered: “I don’t want a single one of them left.” Sharon said he meant “terrorists”, but there were no armed fighters in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Hobeika, whose men slaughtered civilians for 30 hours under the light of Israeli flares, took him to mean Palestinians. The distinction was lost, as it sometimes has been in recent Israeli attacks in the West Bank.

Hobeika was due to testify earlier this year against Sharon in a Belgian court examining the Sabra and Shatila massacres, but he was assassinated. Israel’s justice ministry, meanwhile, announced that Israel would not ratify the international criminal court treaty because the tribunal “could consider the settling of Israelis in the territories as a war crime”.

For Sharon to assassinate or remove Arafat and appoint a tame Palestinian in his place would repeat the mistakes of Lebanon. Israel occupied Lebanon and helped destroy the Lebanese state. Twenty years later, Sharon is reoccupying West Bank cities and dismantling the Palestine Authority infrastructure. Sharon named Lebanon’s president, as some in his cabinet want to choose a new Palestinian leader. He further demands that the next PA president do Israel’s bidding, as he and Menachem Begin ordered Gemayel to do theirs. The first policy was a catastrophe for Israel and Lebanon. It led to the creation of Hizbullah, Muslim fundamentalists who became the first guerrillas to drive Israel out of territory it had occupied. If Sharon disposes of Arafat and finds a quisling, what reason is there to suppose he will succeed with a policy that failed before?

The other question is what, in Sharon’s reckoning, would constitute the success of this week’s Operation Determined Path? If it is to assume military control and leave a Palestinian administration to collect the rubbish, he may succeed. If it is to increase the area of West Bank land under settler control from 42% and integrate it into Israel, he may succeed in that as well. But Palestinians will go on dying to oppose him, because such action negates their survival as a people. If the Determined Path is intended to achieve a peace for Israelis and Palestinians to live beside each other in dignity, failure is etched into its very bones.