NOTE: The following article was part of the September 1996 REPORT ON ISRAELI SETTLEMENT IN THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES -- A Bimonthly Publication of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Volume 6, Number 5, September 1996


By Geoffrey Aronson

Ariel Sharon is very good at two things. He knows how to make headlines . . . and he gets things done.

An early communique from his newly formed Ministry of National Infrastructures announced in late July that construction would commence before year's end on two new West Bank roads, the rehabilitation of a third, and construction of new bridges linking Israel and the Golan Heights.

Sharon does not like doing things quietly. As minister of agriculture after Camp David, he set up "dummy" settlements in Sinai to rattle the Egyptians. As Yitzhak Shamir's minister of housing, he e xasperated former U.S. secretary of state James Baker by building thousands of homes in West Bank settlements and creating new "Baker" settlements on the eve of the secretary's numerous visits. He has earned the nickname "bulldozer"--ignoring or brushing aside whatever obstructs his path.

Now under a new prime minister he is keeping to form and establishing for himself a mandate to expand Israel's civilian presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The very day that Benyamin Netanyahu , in a meeting with settlement leaders, counseled them that loud declarations to the press can be counterproductive. . . . Sharon's announcement produced headlines in papers around the world and was the subject of the first question asked at the joint White House press conference of President Bill Clinton and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A reluctant American president responded, "I don' t want to blame them for something they haven't done yet."

Dreaded by the Americans because he doesn't much care what they think, Sharon forces them to confront issues--like the proposed roads--that Labor leaders were expert at finessing. He is an object of almost equal concern in Netanyahu's inner circle, and even among some settler leaders who fear his penchant for headlines will put the spotlight unnecessarily on their expansion plans. As El ihakim Ha'etzni, a settlement leader close to Sharon, remarked, "If Netanyahu adopts an aggressive political line and a large-scale settlement campaign in the occupied territories, the last thing he needs is to write on his forehead is 'extremist.'" And Sharon has extremist written all over him.

Sharon's Agenda

At the top of Sharon's agenda today, as always, is creating physical and demographic obstacles to any Israeli retreat from territories captured in June 1967. Let the diplomats chatter, when the maps are drawn it will be the "facts" that Sharon has created in various posts since 1967 that determine the future. The Oslo II map, for example, is almost a mirror image of Sharon's "cantonization" plan, which envisages the creation of noncontiguous Palestinian cantons in the West Bank and Gaza Strip surrounded by Israeli settlements and roads.

The creation of Israeli settlements is the keystone of Sharon's strategy. "Were there not Jewish settlements today on the Golan Heights and Judea and Samaria," declared Sharon in an interview last y ear, "Israel would long ago have returned across the Green Line. The Jewish settlements are the only factor that has prevented the agreement of this [Rabin] government to withdraw and created difficulties for it in negotiations."

The new Ministry of National Infrastructures, with a 1996 budget of one-half billion dollars, was created especially for Sharon. The powers that he has already been able to concentrate there offer him an extensive platform to advance his vision for the future of the occupied territories. Most important, Sharon has wrested control of the Israel Lands Authority (ILA), which Netanyahu originally wanted under the direct control of the prime minister's office. The ILA, which controls over 93 percent of the land within Israel and tens of thousands of dunams in the occupied territories, provides Sharon with an enormous land reserve that he can allocate to suit his settlement objectives. Sharon has long considered the ILA a critical element of his executive power. As minister of agric ulture under Menachem Begin, and as minister of housing under Yitzhak Shamir, he fought for, and won, control of the ILA and the lands that it commands.

The ILA, Sharon explained, "Is not only a source of state revenue. As I see it, it is the main tool the government has to attain national goals"--foremost of which in Sharon's view is expanding control over land. Sharon's promotion of new roads is a consequence of his authority over the Public Works Department, formerly in the Ministry of Housing. He views roads as a key element, assuring Isr aeli control of the occupied territories as well as the expansion of the Israeli presence there.

In addition to the bypass roads, Sharon's ministry wrested control in July over the 1,500 km network of main and arterial roads in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from the civil administration. Sharon wants to tie the West Bank to Israel by creating a modern integrated road system of east-west and north-south highways, and he wants to establish a modern network tieing the Israeli settlements to e ach other--the "bypass" roads--and the metropolitan areas of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Extensive Powers

His assumption of the powers of the now abolished Ministry of Energy gives him authority over the provision of electricity to settlements, a key element in their ability to expand and accommodate industrial development, and it puts him face to face with Palestinians negotiators on this important subject. Sharon will also lead negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey on water issues. This power places him at the center of Netanyahu's diplomacy with Israel's neighbors.

Sharon has established a consultative mechanism with the important Ministry of Housing and Construction to prepare a comprehensive plan for development and construction in the occupied areas. The I sraeli press reports a renewed effort by Sharon associates to purchase thousands of dunams of land in the West Bank through companies established specifically for this purpose in Brazil, the United States, and Cyprus.

Control of land, water, electricity, and transport issues in a new ministry offers Sharon opportunities he will not fail to exploit--and dangers that may yet haunt Netanyahu. The new road construction, for example, was first conceived in a plan authored by Sharon in 1984. The two routes were supported in principle by Rabin and Peres but no monies were allocated to construct them. The Netanyahu government has also not provided Sharon with the $50-plus million budget specifically for their construction, but it is assumed that he will cobble together the necessary funds. The $10 million rehabilitation of the main road through the Jordan Valley was budgeted by the previous government.

The announcement that caused so much controversy was therefore first and foremost a political statement. Sharon was informing his antagonists in America and the Arab world that he is back. And he was firing a shot across Netanyahu's bow as well, declaring that he will operate as he always has, not quietly, but with guns blazing.