Sharon Draws a Line in the Hills

By Aluf Benn
Sunday, February 8, 2004

TEL AVIV - Latrun is the midway point along Israel's main artery, the highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Its hills -- the site of a ruined Crusader castle, a monastery surrounded by vineyards and a former British police fort -- dominate the passage from the coastal plain to the Judea Mountains. During Israel's War of Independence in 1948, some of the fiercest battles were fought over this strategic ridge. Five times Jewish forces tried and failed to capture it. The area remained under Jordanian control until the Six Day War of 1967, when Israel conquered it along with the rest of the West Bank.

Among those who survived the bloodiest attack on Latrun, on May 25, 1948, was a young platoon commander, Ariel Sharon. Sent into battle unprepared and without enough water, his unit got trapped under enemy fire from the hills above. It was the formative experience of Sharon's life. After losing many of his men, he vowed never again to let the Arabs control the high terrain.

The hills of Latrun have changed considerably since 1948. The highway was relocated, the British fort was turned into an Israeli memorial site, and the Palestinian villages were razed and converted to parkland. The only things that remain the same are the monks, who still produce fine wines, and Sharon, who now, as Israel's prime minister, is still fighting the Arabs over the borders of the Jewish state.

Political borders are artificial creations. Drawn by diplomats and military officers, they often have more to do with administrative needs than with demographic harmony or geographic contours. With the passage of time, however, they acquire semi-sacred status. Africa's borders are still bound by an 1885 conference that European colonial powers held in Berlin. Iraq's neighbors are eager to preserve its "territorial integrity," even though its boundaries, like most in the region, were designed by British and French officials who divided the spoils of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Israel's borders, though, remain unsettled. Last week, Sharon, who is struggling to save his job amid a corruption investigation, surprised many Israelis by announcing his intention to close down almost all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and leave the territory captured in 1967 to the Palestinians. While exiting one territory, he moved to reinforce Israel's position in another: Sharon wants to move Jews from Gaza to expanded West Bank settlements and to continue to construct a West Bank security fence, which largely ignores the pre-1967 lines. Later this month, an international court will debate whether those lines are, in fact, legal borders violated by the fence.

Political expediency may have been a catalyst for Sharon's Gaza move, but Latrun is still his guiding principle.Gaza is a low-lying area of little strategic value. The West Bank fence and settlements keep many strategic hilltops under Israel's control.

A bit of history explains why drawing a solid border between Israelis and Palestinians is so difficult. Palestine had no independent status during the Ottoman Empire. As European powers expanded their foothold in the region and as Zionism brought Jewish immigrants to their ancestral homeland, no one could define Palestine's contours. A picture emerged only in the early 1920s under the British Mandate, which extended from the Jordan River to the sea, from the upper Galilee to the Gulf of Aqaba. When Palestinian Arabs clashed with Jewish immigrants in the 1930s, a new concept emerged: partitioning Palestine between its two rival communities.

Back then, Jewish and Palestinian positions over partition were the reverse of today's. The first Zionist leader to advocate partition was David Ben-Gurion, then head of the pre-state Jewish Agency, who embraced the British Peel Commission's plan in 1937. The Jewish right wing rejected the idea, though, and so did the Arabs. In November 1947, when the United Nations approved a partition with a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine and an "international" region around Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion took the offer, proclaimed the state of Israel and became its first prime minister. The Arabs said no.

The 1948 war created a de facto partition, but no Palestinian state. Jordan took the West Bank, and Egypt grabbed the Gaza Strip, filled with refugees from Israeli areas that now included 78 percent of the British Mandate territory. The armistice line of 1949, known as the "green line," separated the foes but was honored in its breach: Infiltration by Palestinians led to terror attacks and Israeli cross-border retaliations commanded by Sharon.

The "green line" has always reflected necessity rather than acceptance. The 1949 armistice specifically said it was not a formal boundary. Only when weak would either side recognize the line's legitimacy. In 1953, when Israel faced American and British pressure to give away territory, it told the United States: "The armistice lines should be seen as permanent borders, with both moral and political validity, until changed by agreement." But after the Six Day War in 1967, which left Israel in control of all Palestine, Israel changed its mind. Its current position states that the West Bank and Gaza are "disputed areas" that were never ruled by a recognized sovereign. The Palestinians, for their part, didn't accept the pre-1967 war borders until 1988.

Sharon's declaration last week appears to many as a reversal of his position. After all, he once said that the fate of the small Gaza settlement of Netzarim was the fate of Tel Aviv.

More than any other Israeli, Sharon worked to erase the green line from the maps and the ground. Immediately after the Six Day War, as head of the Israel Defense Forces training department, he moved military schools -- the forerunners of civilian settlements -- to abandoned Jordanian camps in the West Bank. As agriculture minister in the late 1970s, Sharon launched an ambitious settlement plan based on "strategic topography." In his 1989 autobiography, "Warrior," he explained the logic: "To keep the dominant terrain in our hands now and in the future so that it could never be used militarily by anyone else."

For the secular Sharon, the ideology and religious fervor that inspired many settlers have always played a secondary role to military topography. Though he talks about the Bible before Israeli right-wingers or American evangelicals, for him settlements boil down to this: Either you control the high ground or the enemy does. Time and again, Sharon has proposed West Bank partition plans. Under different titles, they all had the same elements: encircling the Palestinian population centers with Israeli "security zones." He clung to the same ideas upon taking office in 2001, proposing a Palestinian state on 42 percent of West Bank territory.

But the more Sharon struggled to kill the green line, the more it came back to haunt him. The Palestinians and Americans were ready to swallow the large settlement blocks near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in exchange for land in less populated areas, but the settlements in general never gained international legitimacy.

Realizing that no Palestinian leader would accept his plan and that the wider world supports the green line as the future border, Sharon avoided meaningful negotiations. Faced with a wave of suicide bombings, Israel gained American support. When pressed to accept Palestinian statehood, Sharon proposed a staged process, based on "interim borders" compatible with his age-old plans. And when terror attacks and public pressure forced him to abandon his initial objection to a security barrier between Israel and the West Bank, its planned route followed approximately the old Sharon map.

Paradoxically, the Israeli security fence has given new political life to the green line. The very nature of the fence -- an ugly scar through Palestinian farms and neighborhoods -- has helped create a united international front against its route. The U.N. General Assembly has asked the International Court of Justice in The Hague for a legal opinion about the "Israeli Wall." The real issue is not the wall itself, but the legitimacy of the 1949 armistice lines. Are they the recognized border of "occupied Palestinian territory," as the Palestinians claim, or a disputed no-man's-land, as Israel asserts? Israelis expect the court to rule against them.

Faced with international pressure, broken consensus at home and a defunct Palestinian Authority, Sharon came out with the newest, and politically boldest, version of his plan. In a policy speech in December 2003, he proposed "unilateral disengagement," creating political turmoil in Israel with his willingness to evacuate some settlements and to turn his back on his own creation. Last week he specified the price tag: dismantling 17 settlements in Gaza and three small ones in the West Bank. To the right wing, this was heresy from Sharon , who only recently warned that unilateral withdrawal was a recipe for more terror.

But Sharon has not abandoned his strategic vision of Israel's borders. His plan for disengagement is built upon two pillars -- "relocation" of isolated settlements and "strengthening the hold" over others.

In the coming weeks, the battle over the borders will come to the fore. The international court will open its hearings and Sharon will travel to Washington to ask for President Bush's consent to Israel's hold on about half the West Bank until "a new Palestinian partner emerges" to discuss the final deal. Washington is hesitating for fear of giving a kiss of death to its "roadmap" for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. At the same time, Sharon must fight desperate legal and political battles at home against possible indictment and opposition to settlement removal. Given the level of public disappointment over his job performance, this could be the last fight of his professional life. But true to his long record, he may escape defeat this time as well.

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic correspondent of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company