In his zeal to push forward the "disengagement" plan, it seems at times as if Sharon is going out of his way to tear Israeli society apart.
Every step of the way, he has avoided working gently to build a consensus behind the program. He has rarely expounded on the plan's rationale. He has scoffed at opposition in his own Likud party, even though the plan is the opposite of Likud's platform from the last elections. He has fired or threatened to fire anyone opposing the program. He even turned down a proposal to hold a referendum on disengagement in exchange for an opposition promise to accept the verdict quietly if it passed.
He has contributed to the venomous rhetoric against the plan's opponents, accusing them of destroying Israeli democracy and threatening his life and those of his allies. He and his advisers have apparently unleashed the full fury of the state's police power to suppress demonstrations against the plan, brutally at times. He has rejected calls for the IDF to be sensitive to reassign soldiers conscientiously opposed to the plan, forcing them to choose between their principles and their uniforms.
On the practicalities, he has given residents of 30-plus years a bare few months to shut down their old lives and organize anew. He has, at least initially, offered utterly inadequate compensation for people's homes and businesses, and apparently considered it a concession to postpone the decree's implementation until after Tisha B'Av.
Sharon is no fool. He has decades of experience in Israel politics, and has an insider's knowledge of the right wing factions. Surely he could have herded disengagement along more gently? Is he suddenly such a novice that he makes every possible political mistake? Is he so caught up with the zeal of conviction that he is oblivious to the damage he's causing, so long as the program moves forward? Is he the hapless victim of bad advice from political advisers who care only about tactical success, not long-term societal harm? Is he so convinced the right will never back down willingly that he feels severe confrontation is inevitable, and there is no gain to be had from dealing more tenderly with them? Is this just Sharon the Bulldozer, letting nothing get in his way?
All these explanations are plausible, some more than others, but I'd like to propose another, more charitable one.
Sharon's moves to aggravate Israeli social unrest could be deliberate.
I hear you ask: This is a charitable explanation?
I suggest that Sharon may be implementing a conscious strategy to protect Israel's long-term interests.
Sharon believes - as do many on the Israeli right - that in the long run it is not tenable for Israel to maintain control of Gaza. The demographics are against it, the cost in military deployment is way too high, and the long-term social friction involved in defending a few thousand Israelis surrounded by millions of hostile neighbors is debilitating. Sooner or later we'll have to withdraw, and the sooner the better, all else being equal. (I won't try to rebut these arguments here.)
The same is not true for the "West Bank". Judea and Samaria are far more heavily settled by Jews, and less densely settled by Arabs, especially outside the six main towns. They are the historic heartland of the Jewish nation, and bear an emotional attachment Gaza cannot compare with. They are the strategic backyard of all of Israel's major cities, and are directly contiguous with Jerusalem. Sharon has never even suggested withdrawing from them, beyond perhaps some minor adjustments (such as the current handful of small villages in northern Samaria, a sop to the Americans).
No pain, no gain
How do you withdraw from Gaza without leaving the clear impression that the natural next step is to withdraw from Judea and Samaria? Isn't that the greatest risk of disengagement - that it will naturally be perceived as phase one in a unilateral Israeli Plan of Phases?
The answer: You make the withdrawal from Gaza as painful as possible. You goad your opponents into radical acts of civil disobedience and refusal of military orders. You know some hotheads on the margins will even get violent. You plant - or at least tacitly support others who plant - phony accusations of assassination plots. You let the police preemptively board buses of protestors headed to a demonstration declared illegal. And so on and so on.
And you ask the Americans for a couple billion dollars in aid to finance the massive cost of redeployments, reconstruction and compensation. Let them feel the pain too.
And when, a year or two down the line, the Arabs or the Europeans or the Americans call on Israel to take the next logical step and pull out of Hebron, or central Samaria, you can point to the social devastation left in the wake of the Gaza "disengagement". Impossible, you say. Look what Gaza did to us. We can't take any more, and no government will dare even try.
Is that really Sharon's thinking? I hope so, since otherwise I can't conceive of a rational explanation for his behavior.
Will it work? No, not in the least. At most, it might give us a reprieve for no more than a decade.