What policy is Israel's new Defense Minister Ariel Sharon really planning for the occupied Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip? This is the question Israeli analysts and Palestinians have been asking since the controversial general took office in early August.
General Sharon, who has a reputation here for toughness, singlemindedness, and unorthodox methods, startled erst-while critics by immediately issuing new liberal guidelines to create an atmosphere in the West Bank and Gaza more conducive to Palestinian-Israeli dialogue.
Israeli political analysts are busy debating how the general will react if his overtures do not bear fruit: Some expect the harsh tactics he used to crush Palestinian resistance in Gaza in 1970, while others predict that his basic pragmatism -- and his reputed ambition to become prime minister -- may produce new formulas.
General Sharon would like to convince Palestinian "moderates" on the West Bank and Gaza to join negotiations for Palestinian autonomy as Israel perceives it, a limited administrative control of their local affairs which rules out ultimate Arab sovereignty. Autonomy negotiations, an integral part of the Israeli-Egyptian peace process, have bogged down because no Palestinians will participate.
General Sharon's new guidelines, for the most part as yet untested, would bar Israeli troops from entering Palestinian schools -- scene of past demonstrations and violence -- unless absolutely necessary; curb collective punishment -- such as putting whole villages under curfew for the security offenses of some their residents; and limit security road-blocks to locations least irksome to the local Palestinian population.
While the defense minister has not publicly criticized the military occupation administration, his directives are seen as an implicit slap at past policies. He has also made it clear that after a year without a full-time defense minister he intends to take full charge.
The new guidelines, however, do not spell out an overall policy. General Sharon holds the strong view that Israel must keep the West Bank and Gaza for security reasons, and he was the architect of the Israelis' large-scale Jewish settlement drive in the territories.
"Anyone who deludes himself that Sharon the maximalist has changed his spots can rest assured that this is not the case," wrote Hirsh Goodman, military correspondant of the pro-Labor Party daily, the Jerusalem Post. "His desire to make life more tolerable for the inhabitants of the territories could be seen more as a means of perpetuating Israeli rule over these people than as a means of working toward a political solution granting independence."
In the past General Sharon has advocated that Palestinians should seek sovereignty east of the Jordan River within the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, where they comprise a majority of the population. "My view is that the Palestinians should be allowed to take over Jordan," he told the paper The Australian last year, revealing that he had opposed intervention by Israel and the United States in 1970 to keep Jordan's King Hussein on the throne.
Recent articles in the Israeli press have speculated that Sharon would like to persuade the US to give a green light for a large-scale Israeli invasion of Lebanon to "clean out" the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), thus leaving West Bankers no option but to coexist under Israeli rule.
Sharon is said to believe that a moderate Palestinian leadership, amenable to Israeli views, will emerge if it is freed from fear of assassination by the PLO. Of the five Palestinian leaders -- all considered moderates -- that he has reportedly met so far, however, three have made it known that they oppose his concept of self-determination.
Two of these are elected mayors -- Hilmi Hanoun of Tulkarm and Rashad Shawa of Gaza, and one, Anwar Khatib, is the former Jordanian governor of the West bank. The other two, Mustafa Dudin of Hebron and appointed major Farah Araj of Beit Jala, are supported by Israel but do not have popular backing on the West Bank.
It is not yet clear what General Sharon will do if he cannot find Palestinian leadership amenable to his ideas. Informed Israeli sources stress General Sharon's innate pragmatism, noting that he was raised on a cooperative farm in the Labor Party tradition. These sources say he recently has been playing down his views on a "Jordanian solution."
"He is a newcomer to the West Bank issue," said one observer, "and he will hold everything open to examination. He will soon understand who are the Palestinian leaders who count -- even if they support the PLO -- and he will contact them."