Sharon's Wild Cards

By David Ignatius

Friday, May 31, 2002; Page A31

TEL AVIV -- It was hard to find an Israeli here this week who wasn't applauding Ariel Sharon's recent crackdown on Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. For a country that was beginning to be spooked by suicide terrorists, it was obviously a relief to take military action -- even one that some of Sharon's supporters conceded lacked a coherent long-term strategy.

Always a man for surprises, Sharon is now adding to that popularity through two unusual moves he has made during the past 10 days -- attacking some sacred cows of the Israeli right wing.

Sharon's first wild card was his decision last week to fire the ultra-Orthodox Shas party from his coalition government after it refused to back his emergency economic program. That move cheered secular Israelis, who have long disliked the deals that various Israeli governments have offered to, in effect, buy the votes of right-wing religious parties such as Shas.

Enough, said Sharon, as he sent them packing. Hooray, said many (probably most) Israelis, who are tired of the religious restrictions and special favors the religious parties have won for themselves over the years.

No sooner had Sharon attacked the rabbis than he did another surprising thing: He took the first steps toward giving Israel a defensible border, by allowing his defense minister to begin planning a security fence along the West Bank like the fence that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip.

Building a fence to keep out suicide bombers may sound like the most obvious step imaginable, but it's one that Israeli governments have refused to take for three decades. That's because the Israeli right wanted to maintain a claim to a greater Israel that might stretch all the way to the Jordan River, rather than accept a peace deal that would push Israel back toward its pre-1967 borders. Building a fence is important because it implies that what's on the other side doesn't belong to you -- or, at least, that you can't protect it. And that's of crucial importance to the thousands of Israelis who live in the West Bank settlements that would be on the other side of the security fence. As Israeli analyst Zeev Schiff wrote this week in the Israeli daily Haaretz, it is clear that dozens of settlements will remain on the other side of the West Bank fence.

Sharon is less a strategist than a tactician, and I doubt that he has fully worked out a plan for how to deal with the settlements over the long run. To abandon them altogether would trigger a virtual civil war in Israel. The settlers tend to be rightists, many of them recent arrivals from the United States, and they form a politically potent movement that Sharon himself has often courted.

But Sharon also knows that most Israelis don't live in settlements; they live in the areas running from Tel Aviv northward along the coast. That's where the suicide bombers have been attacking recently, and Sharon recognizes that he must protect this core Israeli population -- which now, quite understandably, has the jitters. When people eat lunch in an Israeli restaurant these days, they seem more attentive to the security than to the food.

Sharon's cabinet hasn't officially endorsed the fence, but according to Schiff, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer held discussions on Monday about hiring contractors to begin construction immediately. The existing Gaza fence has largely prevented terrorist infiltration from there, another top Israeli military official told me this week, saying that a West Bank version is inevitable.

"At the end of the day, there is no other choice than to build the fence," this Israeli general said. "Sharon realizes we need to do our best to save lives."

And what about the political consequences for the settlers who live on the other side? "The only consideration that's dominant now about the fence is security," the general said. "The settlements will be handled in a different way -- by the army going in, by intelligence, by other ways."

If Israel can build a fence, then it can have a defensible border. And if it has a border, then perhaps it can make peace with a Palestinian state that's on the other side of that border. That's wishful thinking right now, at a time when Israelis and Palestinians are still boiling with rage and frustration. Each lacks confidence in the other as a reliable partner.

Sometimes crises force people to think about what was previously unthinkable, such as a security fence along the West Bank. Too many people are dying to ignore this need any longer. But any move by Sharon to protect the Israeli heartland will also begin the serious debate about what would happen to the settlements if a Palestinian state ever came into being. That's a debate that needs to begin now -- not least because it would encourage Palestinians that people are finally taking this issue seriously.

By tackling two sacred cows of the Israeli right -- the border issue and favoritism for the ultra-orthodox parties -- Sharon has enhanced his standing with the ordinary Israelis who make up this country's version of the silent majority. He couldn't have done so without backing from the Israeli Labor Party, which must have promised it would back him if the right pushed for a no-confidence vote in the Knesset.

The deck is being reshuffled these days in Israel, as well as in Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. And Sharon, the gambler, hasn't yet played his last hand.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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