Ariel Sharon planned Israel’s settlements as bulwarks for defending the state and preserving Jerusalem, as his youngest son recalls in a new biography
My father, from the moment he was appointed minister of agriculture in 1977, always did his utmost to aid the kibbutzim and farming villages, especially the ones far from the center of the country. The number of politicians who understand the importance of settlement and its unique needs is dwindling. Civilian settlements are what determined the contours of our borders, and today it is civilian settlements that protect our open spaces. They are far more important than their numbers would indicate. Kibbutz Nir Am, established in January 1943, for instance, situated close to the north of the Gaza Strip, does more for the security of this country than a neighborhood in a large city, even though the total population of the kibbutz could fit into two or three city buildings.
My father understood this and helped whenever he could. There are agricultural communities, he used to say, “that I cradled in the palm of my hand.” This never stopped our kibbutz neighbors, all of whom belonged to the Labor Party, from coming out to protest outside the gate of our farm, armed with angry placards. He used to remind our friends from the nearby kibbutzim, the ones who came to our house, “During the day you stand outside the gate and protest, and at night you sneak inside and ask for help.” He would say that with a forgiving fatherly smile. But then he would come to their aid, always, and even when he was in the opposition and their people, Labor, were in power, they still came to him. The difficulties of agricultural communities such as kibbutzim or farming villages, quite frankly, don’t interest the members of either party.
My father’s other role in Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s government was as chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Settlements. In this role he put Likud policy and his own beliefs into practice. He founded many dozens of settlements in Judea, Samaria, the Gaza Strip, Galilee, the Golan Heights, the Negev, and in the Arava. If somebody was needed to speak about our rights to the land of Israel and the security need for settling different areas in Judea and Samaria, there was no better man than Begin. The history of his movement is filled with flaming speeches and ideological directives, but those stand in stark contrast to their record of actual accomplishments.
My father was born into a different culture, pragmatic Zionism, which believed in simply getting things done: establishing another village, laying another water pipe, planting another orchard, tilling another furrow of earth. Political Zionism, which Begin and his people believed in, attached great power to words, to each comma in their ideological constitution, and far less importance to the actual execution of those ideologies. It was only natural, then, that my father would be the one to translate Likud ideas into action.
My father began to consolidate his thoughts on the matter of settlement in Judea and Samaria during his service as Yitzhak Rabin’s adviser. He believed that Israel could not under any circumstances afford to return to the June 4, 1967, lines. Living within those borders, Israel was attacked by Jordan and suffered for years from Palestinian terror. Pre-1967, Israel’s width along the coastal plain at the country’s center, where the majority of the population lives and where the national infrastructure such as power plants and the airport is housed, is only a few miles across. That is not a defensible border. The plan that my father drafted and brought before the government for approval offered solutions to several problems—Israel’s lack of depth along the coastal plain, its vulnerable eastern front, and the safeguarding of Jerusalem. Holding a large map, he presented his vision to the ministerial committee in September 1977, three months after being appointed minister of agriculture. What he showed them was a line of settlements along the high ground that looms over the coastal plain. In that way Israel was given depth at its most vulnerable point and it secured control over the dominant terrain, which could no longer be occupied by hostile forces.
Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia all waged war against Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973. They constitute what is known as the eastern front. Even Labor governments have recognized the need to create a line in the Jordan Valley, which is nearly entirely empty of Palestinian villages. A Labor government had already erected a thin line of settlements along the Jordan River. My father’s plan called for fortifying the hills to the west of the Jordan Valley with additional settlements, building a cross-Samaria road that would be protected by settlements and serve in a time of need as emergency routes for troops heading to the eastern front.
The third element of his plan was Jerusalem. The question was how to secure Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people, especially in light of the post-1967 wave of Palestinians flocking to the city. In the decade following the war, the Arab population increased by more than 50 percent.
The solution my father presented was a ring of Jewish settlements around the city. This would preserve the demographic character of the city and would prevent the threat of making Jerusalem a part of an urban Arab bloc stretching from Bethlehem in the south to Ramallah in the north.
On Oct. 2, 1977, the Cabinet authorized the plan, putting it into motion. My father and his aide Uri Bar-On, a brigadier general in the reserves who was also a close friend, began surveying the terrain, mountain by mountain, hill by hill.
The points chosen were state-owned lands that were untilled and uncultivated. These lands had been the property of the Ottomans during their rule, then the British, followed by the Jordanians and then Israel. He worked with the Ministry of Justice, accompanied by Plia Albeck, the head of the civil department of the state attorney’s office. As Albeck explained, “My job in regards to the settlements was to make sure that the land upon which they want to build a settlement is state land and that no individual rights are infringed upon.”
My father would laugh when recalling his trips with her on helicopters and on rocky hillsides, her hair covered according to Orthodox tradition in a kerchief and her feet in boots. Her rulings regarding state land all stood up under appeal to the Supreme Court.
During the following four years my father spearheaded the effort to found 64 new settlements in Judea and Samaria. But the rise of the Likud to power and the fact of his service in government were not enough to get the project off the ground. They needed people willing to settle the land, too. These were found in the form of the Gush Emunim loyalists. These God-fearing religious nationalists felt that settling in the biblical land of Israel was a commandment of supreme importance. Years later, my father would remark with a smile that they viewed him as “the Messiah’s donkey,” the man who would help them realize their ideals and faith.
Excerpted from the book Sharon: The Life of a Leader by Gilad Sharon. Copyright © 2012 by Shikmim Agricultural Farm Ltd. English translation copyright © 2011 by Mitch Ginsburg. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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