US hopes Israeli hawk will turn into a dove
The State Department is looking to one of the least likely of Israelis to help get the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations on the Palestinian issue moving again.
Despite his reputation as a hard-liner on such issues, Gen. Ariel (Arik) Sharon is seen by the se American officials as a pragmatist who will grow in his new job as Israel's defense minister.
Sharon, a paratrooper and one of the heroes of the 1973 war with Egypt, was with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during his recent meetings with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He will be coming with Begin to Washington for the prime minister's first talks with President Reagan Sept. 8 and 9.
As agriculture minister, Sharon vigorously encouraged the establishment of new Israeli settlements on the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River. As defense minister, he will be in charge of West Bank security, and in an even stronger position to support the settlements program.
The total number of settlers is now estimated at 22,000 to 23,000, which is more than double the number of a little more than a year ago. Although they are still vastly out-numbered by the Arabs living on the West Bank, the Israeli settlers control much of the territory's water.
The Ford and Carter administrations considered Israel's West Bank settlements to be illegal under international law. After an initial period of confusion over its position, the Reagan administration has declared that the settlements are a "problem" which complicates the peace process.
But State Department officials caution that it should not be automatically assumed that the burly Sharon will continue to take a hard-line approach to West Bank issues. Sharon recently issued a set of guidelines which he claimed would eliminate some of the harassment and interference in peoples' lives which have gone on under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
State Department officials say they were not surprised at Sharon's action. But other observes of the West Bank note that other, more severe restrictions on political and economic activity are still in force. Gatherings are restricted, for example. Palestinian universities cannot be expanded. New wells cannot be dug.
The State Department assumes, however that General Sharon has political ambitions which would require him to broaden his political constituency beyond the zealous supporters of West Bank settlements.
Officials point to the example of Ezer Weizman, the former defense minister, who came to the defense post with a reputation as a hawk. Weizman developed a warm relationship with President Sadat. He resigned from his post in May 1980 as a result of disagreements with Prime Minister Begin, particularly over what he regarded as a failure by Begin to live up to the terms of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.
In his jsut published memoirs on the search for peace in the Middle East ("The Battle for Peace"), Weizman writes: "Alarmed by the peace treaty they had just concluded, Begin and his supporters had eroded their achievement by provocative settlement programs and unnecessary land confiscations. . . .
But Weizman also reveals how General Sharon helped bring about a breakthrough in the Camp David negotiations of 1978 which ultimately led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Negotiations with the Egyptians were stalled over Begin's refusal to give up Israeli settlemens in the Sinai. According to Weizman, General Sharon, the agriculture minister, called Begin and said he saw no military objection to the evacuation of the Sinai settlements and favored giving them up if they were the only remaining obstacle to a peace agreement.
Joseph Sisco, a former undersecretary of state, agrees that the Israeli general may surprise everyone.
"Don't make the assumption that this fellow will go for a Neanderthal policy, " said Sisco on Aug. 27 at a breakfast meeting with reporters. "He has ambitions to become the prime minister of Israel."