Sharon and Gaza

"I'm Backing Sharon" -- Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian, 10/27/04:

If you can judge a man by the enemies he keeps, then Ariel Sharon is someone in urgent need of a reappraisal. Reviled for two decades as the Bulldozer, the embodiment of the intransigent Israeli right, yesterday he became something else - the unlikeliest standard bearer for those who yearn for progress in the Middle East.

You only had to look at those denouncing him, as he won an emphatic 67-45 vote in favour of his planned pullout from Gaza in the Knesset last night. The most zealous of the settlers, parading their children in their thousands outside the parliament, condemning the prime minister for the treachery of giving away land that, they insist, was bequeathed to the Jews by the Almighty Himself; the theocratic rabbis, ruling that all those who believe in the Torah are divinely compelled to oppose the PM; the nationalist politicians, heckling Sharon from the back of the Knesset chamber, telling this hawk of all hawks to "go home".

Ariel Sharon has become public enemy number one to Israel's far right, which is why, if only temporarily, he deserves the support of the left - in Israel and beyond. In Israel, they gave it. It was not just the decision by Labour's 19 Knesset members, joined by the left-wing Meretz party, to back Sharon, in a bid to cancel out the almost equivalent number - nearly half - of his own Likud MKs who voted against him. It was also the sentiment of the wider peace movement, believing that - bizarre as it may seem - Sharon was, in this specific contest at least, their champion. The result was some surreal politics: witness the Peace Now demonstration addressed by Ehud Olmert, none other than Sharon's deputy.

There is more to this than the simple calculus of "my enemy's enemy". By pushing for a Gaza withdrawal, whatever his long-term motives, Sharon is finally beginning a process which Israel's doves - to say nothing of the outside world - have sought for nearly four decades. At long last, Israel is proposing to rid itself of part of the territory it won in 1967. Not all of it, not even most of it, but some of it. And that, after 37 years of policy in the opposite direction, constantly tightening Israel's hold on those lands, is one of the most significant moments in the country's history.

It is true that Sharon's destination is not the same as that of the Israeli peace camp. He wants to give away Gaza in return for keeping large chunks of the rest of the occupied territories. He said as much on Monday: his aim was to "strengthen Israel's grip over the land that is crucial to our existence" - in other words, parts of the West Bank.

He may even believe, as his chief of staff said in an interview earlier this month, that this is the best way to put the peace process with the Palestinians into "formaldehyde", putting off the prospect of a genuine Palestinian state "indefinitely".

The peacemaking left see things differently. For them, the Gaza withdrawal is the first move in a process that would see the bulk of the 1967 territories handed to the Palestinians. Put simply, the peace camp's plan is Gaza first. Sharon's plan may well be Gaza last.

Despite that vast difference in long-term objectives, progressives understand they have to be on Sharon's side for now. His destination may be A, theirs may be Z, but the first step is the same - and, right now, he is the one with the power to make it. If only for this first step, the Gaza pullout, Sharon and the doves must walk together.