One day at the Knesset in the early eighties, then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon passed a left-wing lawmaker in the hall and said hello, but the lawmaker pretended not to notice. Sharon confronted him and asked why he had not returned the greeting. The Knesset member replied that he did not greet murderers, referring to Sharon’s role in Israel’s bloody invasion of Lebanon (Sharon would later resign after an Israeli commission judged him “indirectly responsible” for Phalangist massacres at Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila). The two men spoke for several minutes, according to an account of the incident in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s 1997 memoir Through Secret Channels: The Road to Oslo, and before parting, Sharon uttered words that threw the left-winger for a loop: “One day you will see that it is I who will create the Palestinian state.”1
Sharon, who died Saturday at the age of 85, did not create a Palestinian state. But as prime minister from 2001 until his stroke in 2006, the onetime patron saint of the settlement movement stumbled into laying the foundations for one—both on the ground and in the political arena. He did so by withdrawing Israeli settlers and forces from Gaza (and by planning, as I reported last year, to carry out further unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank). He did it by building a fence in and around the West Bank that, to most Israelis, signaled the end of Greater Israel. And most significantly, he did it by turning the two-state solution from a left-wing position into one accepted in the center and even on the right, reframing the discussion about peace from one of the chimerical “new Middle East” once promised by former Prime Minister Shimon Peres to one of Israeli self-interest. As Elliot Abrams, former George W. Bush adviser and author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, recalled to me, Sharon adviser Dov Weissglass—resisting calls to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority—lectured the Americans, “[H]e needs to explain the withdrawal from Gaza in a language that you do not speak: Likudish. And in that language, you have to say, ... ‘We’re not doing this for the Palestinians, we’re not doing this with them. We’re doing it as part of our general hatred of them.'”
As Secretary of State John Kerry continues his push for a framework agreement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ghost of Sharon hangs over his longtime Likud rival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Unlike Sharon, who had no choice but to engage with the Palestinian issue because of the then-raging Second Intifada, Netanyahu spent his last term avoiding it. Complicit in his foot-dragging has been a global conventional wisdom, held by Israelis and Palestinians alike, that sees outside attempts to resolve the century-old conflict are fundamentally naive. And yet, according to the prevailing view quietly emerging among those privy to the current talks—that a framework agreement is not just possible, but likely—we may be on the verge of a historic paradigm shift, where Middle East peace re-enters the realm of conceivability. But progress will depend on whether Netanyahu is preparing to follow in Sharon’s footsteps—to confront the right wing in the face of new geopolitical realities—or is merely up to his time-honored games.
Kerry’s strategy is shrewd. Rather than forcing Netanyahu and Abbas to scale the full mountain at once, he is breaking the climb into two. First, get the sides to agree to the core principles of a deal, establishing momentum and changing the perception of preordained failure, and then fill in the details as he puts together a basket of international-community goodies that will make it difficult for the sides to say no. The core principles have not changed since Bill Clinton presented them in 2000. They include the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps; a demilitarized Palestinian state with various security guarantees for Israel (including some medium-term Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, along the Palestinian-Jordanian border); Palestinian abandonment of the right of return, with potential symbolic exceptions; and Jerusalem as the capital of two states. Kerry’s formula, bowing to a Netanyahu demand, is also expected to include some recognition of Israel as a Jewish homeland.
It was precisely this sort of international initiative that Sharon hoped to pre-empt when he proposed the Gaza withdrawal. The move, Weissglass once conceded, was intended to put the peace process in “formaldehyde.” And that was because though Sharon had come around to the view that Israel needed a territorial divorce from the Palestinians, he never accepted the Israeli compromises on borders and Jerusalem that would be necessary for a full peace agreement. For the past several months, Netanyahu has been in a similarly conflicted state, expressing fears that a continuation of the status quo will one day lead to a “binational state” and yet not enthusiastic about paying the price of an agreement. For Netanyahu, who has long vowed never to divide Jerusalem and who famously lectured President Barack Obama on the indefensibility of the 1967 borders, these will indeed be difficult pills to swallow. Abbas, meanwhile, will have a hard time stomaching an Israeli Jordan Valley presence of any duration, publicly accepting the notion that Palestinian refugees will not return to pre-1967 Israel, and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state (though the U.N.’s 1947 Partition Plan, which Abbas claims he regrets the Palestinians did not accept, did just that).
And yet, against all odds, the pair seems inclined to go along with Kerry, at least for now. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said Tuesday that Kerry has heard things from the two leaders that “perhaps no one else has heard.” Ha’aretz’s Barak Ravid reports that “some of Netanyahu’s closest and most trusted advisers are warning him against rejecting the framework agreement” and "that Likud Knesset members who spoke with him in recent days had the impression that he’s searching for a way to tell Kerry 'yes." He also cites a senior U.S. official estimating that Abbas “would accept the plan.”
Getting both sides to sign onto these principles does not guarantee a peace treaty, to be sure. The man who succeeded Sharon and preceded Netanyahu, Ehud Olmert, essentially accepted the above principles during the 2008 negotiations and nonetheless failed to ink a deal with Abbas. But the relatively popular and unimpeachably right-wing Netanyahu has something that Sharon also had and that Olmert—then mired in corruption scandals, with an unstable government and a single-digit approval rating—probably did not: the ability to muscle a deal through the opposition of Israel’s powerful settler lobby. And Abbas, who used Olmert’s political weakness as an excuse for his indecision in the face of Olmert's far-reaching peace offer, will need a more creative excuse should he face an equally serious Netanyahu. Abbas also knows that as he nears age 79, with the most sympathetic American administration in a generation, he is never going to get a better chance at Palestinian independence than he could get now.
Skepticism of Netanyahu-as-peacemaker is justified given his history of misdirection and “small ball.” As Israel’s Channel 2 political reporter Amit Segal likes to point out, Sharon and Netanyahu were temperamental opposites. Sharon, both as warrior and politician, was a man of dramatic gambits—from the Lebanon invasion to the Gaza withdrawal to the creation of the centrist party Kadima. Netanyahu—politically, diplomatically, and militarily—has proven himself a risk-averse incrementalist, launching limited military operations like last year’s Operation Pillar of Defense and signing half-hearted interim agreements like the 1998 Wye River Memorandum. But this analysis misses a key point: Netanyahu, even more than Sharon, sees himself in historical terms. Until recently, the common view was that Netanyahu would seek to cement his place in history as the prime minister who, in his telling, saved Israel from a second Holocaust by attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. But with the military option in deep freeze due to the ongoing P5+1 talks, Netanyahu’s only shot at historical greatness may lie in peace.
Over the coming weeks, Netanyahu will likely find himself in the difficult position that Sharon found himself in the run-up to the Gaza withdrawal: hard-pressed to explain to the right-wingers in his party and his coalition why he is abandoning the principles he stood by for decades. He will of course trumpet the achievements of Kerry’s framework agreement: the Jewish-state recognition, the security guarantees, and the belated Palestinian acceptance of reality on the refugee issue. He will say it in his best Likudish.
But Netanyahu will more likely emphasize what Israel faces should it not accept the Kerry plan: a jilted American administration, a ramped-up Palestinian U.N. campaign, European sanctions, a global-divestment campaign on steroids, a growing Palestinian binational-state movement, a brewing third intifada, and—oh, by the way—the likely collapse of his government. In other words, this time Netanyahu may find that the path of least resistance lies in crossing the rubicon.
Netanyahu did not have to deal with the above dangers in 2002 when, as a rebellious Likud Knesset member, he embarrassed Sharon by bringing a motion before the party’s central committee forbidding Palestinian statehood, or when he resigned from Sharon’s government in 2005 to protest the Gaza withdrawal. And they are dangers that coalition partner Naftali Bennett and the Likud hardliners do not have to contend with today as they raise hell over “Auschwitz borders.” But as Sharon famously observed, the world looks different through the eyes of a minister or opposition leader than it does through the window of the prime minister’s office. “The things you see from here,” he said, “you don’t see from there.”
Quote is from memory.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Dov Weissglass's last name.