Ariel Sharon’s death has reignited the debate over his strategic legacy. The question is not just theoretical; comparisons and contrasts between Sharon and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are being fashioned at a moment of acute national security tension over the Iranian threat and the Palestinian conflict.
Will Sharon be remembered as a security hawk who morphed into a political dove? Did Sharon’s insistence on establishing the security fence in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria near the pre-1967 lines reflect his intention to establish Israel’s eastern border? Did Sharon’s commitment to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza reflect a “new” concession-driven prime minister – who some argue was also ready to concede some 90 percent of the West Bank, pacing him in the political company of his predecessor, Ehud Barak, or his successor Ehud Olmert? An initial answer comes from two of Sharon’s close advisers, who spoke of their former boss following his death. Col. (res.) Danny Tirza, former IDF chief of regional strategic planning and the architect of Israel’s Judea and Samaria/West Bank security fence told Army Radio on January 12 that Sharon never intended the fence to be a political border. Rather, Sharon considered the security barrier a last line of defense against terrorist infiltrators.
Tirza added that the former prime minister had far more complex security considerations in determining Israel’s eastern border in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank.
One of these security considerations was Sharon’s commitment to defensible borders and retaining the Jordan Rift Valley, including the Judea/Samaria hill ridge. Dr.
Raanan Gissin, Sharon’s former media adviser and longtime friend, told this writer on January 12 that many observers and analysts confuse what he called Sharon’s tactical moves, such as the Gaza withdrawal, with his strategic commitment to Israel’s security. Gissin said, “Sharon knew that Israel would need to keep the Jordan Valley and the West Bank hill ridge, because that was a strategic necessity to defend the country.”
Gissin’s recollections notwithstanding, some opinion- makers have painted Sharon as having been willing to concede most of the West Bank after Israel’s 2005 Gaza pullout. Sharon’s former political strategist, Kalman Gayer, told Newsweek in December 2005 that Sharon would accept a Palestinian state on 90% of the West Bank and compromise on Jerusalem. While Sharon denied the Newsweek report, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer read Sharon similarly, writing a few months after the Gaza disengagement, “On the other front, the West Bank, the separation fence will give the new Palestine about 93% of the West Bank. Israel’s 7% share will encompass a sizable majority of Israelis who live on the West Bank. The rest, everyone understands, will have to evacuate back to Israel.”
Other leading commentators interpreted Sharon differently.
Udi Segal, Israel’s Channel 2 diplomatic correspondent had disclosed in a report on January 6, 2006, that Sharon had told him privately he intended to hold on to eight settlement blocs in the West Bank, as opposed to the frequently mentioned three settlement blocs – Gush Etzion, Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel – that make up the 10% of the West Bank that some commentators had mentioned, and which Barak had included in his offer at Camp David in 2000.
Segal also emphasized that some of these settlement blocs were situated east of the West Bank security fence.
He added that according to Sharon, the Jordan Valley was not to be evacuated but held as a security zone to protect Israel from threats from the east. Sharon had made the same point to Haaretz in mid-2005, saying, “the Jordan Rift Valley is very important, and it’s not just the Jordan Rift Valley we are talking about [but].... up to the Allon road and a step above the Allon road.”
It’s true that Sharon had also spoken of the strategic importance of the Gaza Strip for years before he pivoted and called for Israel’s unilateral disengagement from it.
However, Sharon’s fight for defensible borders would climax in one of the most tangible diplomatic achievements of his career as prime minister: the presidential letter of assurance he secured from president George W.
Bush in April 2004 regarding Israel’s vital interests in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank as a quid pro quo for quitting Gaza.
Sharon’s diplomacy with the United States at the time is central to understanding Sharon’s territorial strategy and strategic legacy. Convinced that a deal with the Palestinians was impossible, he made the US his diplomatic partner. He told Yediot Aharonot in mid-2005: “I prefer a deal with the Americans to a deal with the Arabs.”
“The Bush letter,” as it came to be called, reiterated the US’s “steadfast commitment to Israel’s security including secure, defensible borders,” recognized the need for Israel to establish borders to the east of the 1949 armistice lines and incorporate “existing major population centers” there into them.
In pocketing the Bush letter, which was overwhelmingly approved by both the US House of Representatives and the Senate, Sharon had received the first written US presidential guarantee that Israel’s vital national interests and security requirements in Judea and Samaria were supported by the world’s most powerful nation. The Obama administration’s policy shift does not lessen the magnitude of Sharon’s achievement at the time. It may also be reconsidered as a key point of reference in the future.
Despite his well-known modesty, Sharon’s achievement was not lost on him either. Upon his signing the exchange of letters with Bush, Sharon immediately called one of his senior advisers to inform him that Israel’s requirement of defensible borders was included prominently in the Bush letter. And within several days, upon his return from the Washington summit, he repeated the defensible border assurance in English from the Knesset podium to the full parliamentary assembly.
The current impasse in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations will likely punctuate the debate over Sharon’s strategic legacy in the months ahead. Notwithstanding the ongoing debate over the strategic price and risk-reward calculus that the government and military leadership continues to assess regarding the Gaza disengagement, Sharon viewed the move as paying a tactical price in Gaza for a strategic gain in the West Bank, as his adviser Gissin had suggested.
Sharon understood the high-risk proposition as a mechanism for exchanging land with a dense Palestinian population, for lightly populated land in the Jordan Valley that was crucial to Israel’s national security and strategic defense. Sharon told the Knesset, “I am convinced that this disengagement will strengthen Israel’s hold over territory which is essential to our existence.”
There is little question that he had the Jordan Rift Valley in mind, from the riverbed up to the 915- meter eastern slopes of the West Bank hill ridge, facing the Jordan River where Israel maintains bases and defensive positions to fend off any terror or conventional threat from the east. Sharon, like generals Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin, and Israeli prime ministers since 1967, would pass on the legacy of defensible borders.
The writer is a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter Terrorism at IDC Herzliya, and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. This column is based on an analysis he wrote for the Jerusalem Center when then-prime minister Ariel Sharon ended his political career upon falling ill in 2006.