All aboard the Sharon bus

By Christopher Walker, January 24, 2014

Before a mammoth stroke in 2006 halted Ariel Sharon’s plans to shepherd Israel into an uncertain new dawn, the clearest insight into his thinking about the future of the occupied West Bank was displayed during the bizarre day-long bus tours he hosted there for opinion-formers.

Typical of these seats-of-the-pants drives through some of the most dangerous territory in the Middle East was one organisedfor 50 members of the Foreign Press Association.

It was clear from the moment we were asked to be patient and wait for 30 minutes, while Israel’s Egged bus company changed our coach for an armoured version, that this was going to be no ordinary tour.

“I am sorry about the delay, but it just shows that whatever you might think, the state of Israel does care about your security,” joked the “guide” as the newly-delivered vehicle eventually made its way to the Green Line, dividing Israel from the Arab land seized from Jordan in the 1967 war.

One look at the burly former general speaking gruffly into the microphone, his age belied by his boyish enthusiasm for the task at hand, was enough to convince us that this was no ordinary tour guide either.

This was no ordinary tour guide, we learned

We were about to embark on one of what had become known as “Sharon’s Tours,” one-day propaganda trips through land crucial to the future peace of the region, conducted by the cabinet minister, the second most powerful man in Israel after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Similar outings, protected from front and rear by Jeeps carrying nervous-looking border police and security agents fingering the triggers of their automatic rifles, had been undertaken by foreign diplomats, members of Netanyahu’s cabinet and even Arab members of the Knesset (who ended up eating an incongruous picnic under an olive tree, hosted by Sharon, the architect of the hated 1982 Lebanon war.

One European journalist commented: “It’s like being taken on a conducted tour through the bandit country of South Armagh — by Ulster Loyalists.”

On all the trips, the message was the same: “This is a very small country and in order to protect our security, there are large areas of the West Bank that we can never, and will never, hand back to the Palestinians.”

Since he had first joined the Likud government of Menachem Begin in 1977, the so-called “King of Samaria” had been the main driving force behind the inexorable expansion of the settlements, regarded by Palestinians as the main obstacle to any lasting peace.

Proudly pointing out the red-roofed communities (“colonies” to their opponents) dotting every strategic hilltop in the West Bank, Sharon described them as a front-line defence against any new Arab threat.

We had only been on the road a few minutes when he stopped at the settlement of Beit Arieh, one of those places he vowed would never be given up. ”From here you can see two-thirds of Israel’s total Jewish population, like it was in the palm of your hand.”

Aware that many of the journalists, like many Western statesmen, were deeply sceptical about his argument, Sharon underscored his concern by pointing to a distant strip of asphalt wrapped in the morning mist — the main runway at Ben Gurion International Airport, only three miles away.

“Imagine if a terrorist with a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile were to shoot an airliner with 400 to 500 people on board,” he said. It was a novel way to drive home a controversial territorial claim which Arab critics argue are in flagrant breach of UN resolutions.

Not all the “tourists” were impressed when Sharon outlined on a map (a copy of that on which he first outlined his settlement dream to the Begin cabinet on October 2, 1977) a blueprint of his plans. Security zones up to 20km wide were carved out on either side of the West Bank already in Israeli hands, cut from an area which Palestinians claim as their future state.

“It seems General Custer is only willing to allow the Indians a few reservations,” an American TV man whispered. Later, another reporter concluded: “The Palestinian bigwigs are not going to get much more [out of negotiations] than the gardens of their villas.”

Despite the scepticism, there was a feeling at the end of the five-hour tour (self-provided packed lunches eaten on laps between stops and calls of nature anxiously observed through the dark glasses of the gun-toting escorts) that Israel’s security concerns had been powerfully conveyed.

Last week I was reminded of what Sharon once said in support of his much-derided claim to be a supporter of a durable peace: “I know that generals are sometimes suspected of liking war. But I went from private first class to general. I participated in the heaviest battles and was severely wounded twice. I lost my best friends. I understand peace better than many politicians.”

Unfortunately, it is not a boast that can ever again be tested.

Christopher Walker was Jerusalem bureau chief of The Times 1979-1985 and 1994-1999.

Last updated: 5:45pm, January 24 2014