The day after the 1977 elections, Ariel Sharon, Agricultural-Minister-to-be, meets Hanan Porat of Gush Emunim, the settlers’ movement. They lean, shoulder to shoulder, over maps and draw the future settlement map in Judea and Samaria. Everything they have drawn, and more, now exists on the ground.
Sharon’s Settlement Plan in Samaria and Judea aims to keep the high important strategic terrain that is overlooking the coastal plane in Israeli hands. He aspires to blend the Arabs of the West Bank and the Jewish settlers in a way that it would not be possible to separate them in the future by a border. For that end, Sharon and Begin adopt the Settlers, a religious ideological movement which believes that the territories Israel has occupied since 1967, the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, belong to the Biblical Land of Israel. Over the next twenty years, Sharon holds various ministerial portfolios and uses them all to sponsor more than a hundred settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza, a home to some 200,000 Israeli citizens.
Daniela Weiss, West Bank Settlement Mayor, says: “Ariel Sharon can definitely be considered historically as the ‘Daddy of the Settlement movement’. There is ‘Father of the settlement’ and there’s Daddy. I use the term Daddy because he accompanied us, taking us by the hand from one hill to the other.”
On November 19, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat lands in Israel and begins the negotiations for peace between Israel and Egypt.
On December 13, 1977, Prime Minister Begin and Minister of Foreign Affairs Dayan introduce to the government the peace plan that was submitted to Egypt. The plan includes a complete withdrawal from Sinai over a few years. Sharon opposes the plan, but when Begin and Dayan make it clear that there is no chance that the Egyptians would surrender even one inch of Sinai, he says: “Three times I fought in Sinai, but I’m ready to completely surrender it for peace.”
After the peace talks with Egypt begin, the Israeli government freezes the establishment of new settlements in the occupied territories, in fear that it would sabotage the peace process. Sharon, however, does not give up his desire to implement his settlement plan. On January 3, 1978, in a special government meeting called by Sharon, the government decides to authorize the establishment of three new settlements in Judea and Samaria and to further develop the exiting settlements in the northern Sinai by increasing the number of settlers and expanding the agricultural lands.
On March 1978, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman goes to the United States in an attempt to overcome a crisis in the peace talks, which are conducted through US mediation. While in Washington, Weizman hears about the preparations to build new settlements in Samaria. He threatens Prime Minister Begin that if the works are not immediately stopped, he would resign. Begin orders to stop the work, much to Sharon’s dismay.
On August 1978 the peace talks between Israel and Egypt are stuck. Sharon, on his part, pressures the government to authorize the establishment of five new settlements in the Jordan Valley.
Years later Sharon explains his settlement policy as follows: “In my opinion what determines our fate for many generations to come are the Jewish settlements. Without underestimating the importance of war and military combat in the defense of our country, I think that in establishing settlements in the Galilee, in the Negev, in the Golan Heights, in Judea and Samaria, in the Jordan Valley and in the Gaza Strip I had the privilege as the chairman of the Settlement Affairs Ministers Committee and as the Defense Minister to decide about the establishing 230 settlements all over Israel, more than 60 of which in the Galilee. To me, the settlements are the most important thing.
“Even back when I was on the banks of the Suez Canal, at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, after my division fought and broke the Egyptian formation in Um Katef, I sent a telegram to the Infantry School in Israel ordering to move it, or units of it, to the nearest Jordanian base in Nablus. Later, when I returned to the General Headquarters in my position as Head of Training Department, I moved other bases as well… This was the foundation of the Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria… It started under the Labor government of Rabin and Peres, with Kedumim and Elkana. Moving the army bases was indeed what created the settlement map. Part of Nahal’s Basic Training Camp to Mevo Dotan, Infantry School to a base near Nablus, Horon Military Base, Military Police HQ was moved to Kadum, which is now Kedumim, Artillery Basic Training Camp was moved to Dir Sharf, which is now Shavey Shomron, Basic Training Camp 4 was moved to Beit El, Paratroopers Base to Beit Sahur near Beit Lehem, Engineering Base to Gush Etzion, Engineering Basic Training Camp to Adorayim, between Hebron and Dahariya, and to the Jordan Valley. This is how the map was created. Later, in 1977, when the large settlement campaign began, in that night when 12 settlement groups of Gush Emunim began building their settlements, each group was directed according to the settlement map which was based on the location of those army bases. Those army bases were the first places to which Gush Emunish’s settlement groups entered.
“The most important motive for settlement is historic. It was a mistake, of mine too, that for 30 years I did not stress enough the historic significance of establishing settlements in Judea and Samaria. This is indeed the birthplace of the Jewish people, and feeling your rights, which is a crucial component of security, depends first and foremost on the fact that you live in a place that’s yours. To think that only the security factor is important was a mistake. Throughout the years, when I explained why Israel should keep Judea and Samaria and other regions, I emphasized only security reasons. While it is true that there’s no alternative to the minimal depth problem, there’s always the possibility that someone would say: ‘To solve this security problem we grant you such and such aid or guarantees or means to cope.’ The security issue is of a temporary nature and a moot point, while the historic issue, which is the real issue, if far stronger than anything else. It was a mistake. Not a personal, but rather a Zionist one. The center of attraction to Israel is the Bible stories. The holidays, the seasons, the landscapes – everything is historic. Mearat Hamachpela (Tomb of the Patriarchs) – what nation in the world has such a monument, of almost 4,000 years, where the forefathers are buried, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah? We come to the United States and see Jefferson’s tomb and the Lincoln Memorial, and millions of people come and observe with excitement a thing that is 200 years old. And here we see sites that are thousands years old. This element gives power and a feeling that you have a right.”
On September 1978, Prime Minister Begin and President Sadat meet in Camp David for a crucial round of talks. Sadat is not willing to sign a peace treaty without an Israeli obligation to fully withdraw from Sinai, which entails the dismantling of exiting settlements. Prime Minister Begin is torn. On one hand, he does not wish to miss the rare chance for peace, but on the other hand he publicly gave his word to the settlers in the Yamit region in northern Sinai that he would not dismantle settlements. Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, who is willing to pay the price of dismantling settlements in order to gain peace, asks his assistant, Avraham Tamir, to call Ariel Sharon and persuade him to influence Prime Minister Begin to consent to the dismantling of settlements. When Sharon realizes that an agreement has been already achieved on all issues but this one, he agrees. He then calls Begin and tells him that peace is better than maintaining the settlements. Eventually Prime Minister Begin agrees to dismantle the settlements in Sinai, due to both Sharon’s support and to the ‘escape route’ that is offered by members of the Israeli delegation, namely that the decision to dismantle settlements would be made by the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and not by the Israeli delegation at Camp David.
Ariel Sharon further facilitates the peace talks in the final stages before the actual signing of the peace treaty. On March 1978, in a government meeting, Sharon supports a compromise suggestion for some articles which enables Prime Minister Begin to reach an agreement with US President Jimmy Carter. When Carter arrives in Israel to remove some last minute obstacles, Sharon is among the Israeli team assigned to find solutions to the issues. However, when the peace treaty is brought to the Knesset, Sharon is among the only two ministers who oppose it. He objects because Prime Minister Begin did not accept his demand to hold a government meeting to discuss the nature of the Palestinian Autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon also refuses to go to the signing ceremony in Washington.
Many years later Ariel Sharon describes his relations with President Sadat as follows: “President Sadat mentioned the Canal crossing when he got off his airplane in Ben Gurion airport on November 1977. I learned about it directly from Mr. Begin, who waited for Sadat near the airplane. Begin told him: ‘Everyone’s here, waiting for you.’ And Sadat asked: ‘Is Sharon here too?’ When he passed near me he shook my hand and said: ‘I tried to catch you when you were on our side of the canal.’ I replied: ‘Well, Mr. President, now you have a chance to catch me as a friend.’ This was the conversation. Sadat was a man of vision, therefore conversations with him usually focused on the future. Very little was said about things of the past.
“We talked about agriculture. He expressed his desire to develop new agricultural areas in Egypt. His Agriculture Ministry officials who attended the meeting said, ‘Yes, we would really like to do that.’ He hushed them, though gently, and said, ‘We have land, we have water, and Sharon is at our disposal, now go to work.’ And as soon as he finished saying the words he clapped his hands. Then a door opened and a young officer peeked in. Sadat ordered him: ‘Go bring the map.’ The officer quickly brought a map. First he held it and then laid it on the floor which was covered with carpets. Seconds later, both of us, me and the president, were on our knees in front of the map. He showed me the agricultural areas he wanted to develop. Sadat asked me if I was willing to go for a tour in his jet to see those areas. I immediately said yes.
“Two months prior to this conversation a special top secret operation took place. One day I received a message from the late Egyptian Agriculture Minister, Dr. Daud. He asked if I can implement modern irrigation systems within days in some farm in Egypt. I didn’t ask many questions, and anyway they wouldn’t tell. I said yes. It took me one night to organize a little group of experts, which left to Egypt the next day. By evening they arrived to President Sadat’s home village where a buffalo still circled a well to draw water. The expedition stayed there for one day and conducted a survey. There were several irrigation experts in this group. The next day they returned to Israel and prepared for the mission. They asked if there are tools in Egypt. I said, ‘Listen, there’s everything in Egypt, but I’m not sure you’ll be able to find it. Take everything from here.’ I was the Agricultural Minister back then. Everything was done in complete secrecy. Two days later two Israeli trucks, packed with irrigation gear, left for El Arish… The expedition crossed the canal on board a raft and immediately began working.
Within ten days, they installed in Sadat’s village all the agricultural equipment. They brought state of the art irrigation facilities, and on top of that they prepared a plot of land for planting of vines. And then we found out why the big rush. It was the end of vine planting season. Mrs. Sadat arrived to the farm for a visit and was very impressed. We left there an Israeli expert to operate the systems, and the expedition returned to Israel. Sadat was amazed to learn that the project was completed so fast. A short while later the Egyptian President invited the Egyptian press to his farm, showed them around and said: ‘You see all this modern equipment? This is what Israel has done in a few days time.’ So these were the events that preceded the said kneeling near the map in the Presidential Palace in Cairo, where he showed me those areas near the Sudanese border and in the western desert that he wanted to go to.
“The next morning Sadat’s pilots waited for me. First we headed south-west and then south to the Sudanese border, and I noticed that red land. The pilots introduced themselves as combat pilots and told me that they had participated in the heavy air raid on my division on October 18, 1973. One of their fighter planes was shot down and the pilot parachuted. I sat between them on a chair, instructing them with a map on my lap and a pilot-headset on my ears: ‘increase altitude, decrease altitude, make a turn so I can have a look,’ and this is how peace seemed to me back then. I told myself, here are two combat pilots who participated in the air raid on the forces that were under my command, crossing the canal, and here I am, sitting between them, talking to them, and we are in a mission to locate new areas for desert agriculture, in a mission to produce food. What can express peace more than that? If we have reached a stage where an Israeli who was a commander in that horrible war now flying with Egyptian combat pilots who mercilessly bombarded him and his forces, and they are now roaming the desert sky in search for a land to grow food in, for the benefit of the Egyptian people, than for me this was the real meaning of peace.
“Sadat was an Egyptian patriot. Everything he did was not for the good of Israel but for the good of Egypt, and I respect him for that. But Sadat, in my opinion, realized that with the help of Israel he would be able to achieve progress in areas that were important to the Egyptian people: in technology, and mainly in agriculture. So I think that his vision to improve the life of the Egyptian people and the power and wisdom he had would have brought him to increase cooperation in certain fields more than was actually done without him.
“It is possible that such a development would have created a greater interest in larger sectors to strengthen the relationship with Israel. And if we had broader common interests, the peace could have developed in a more positive way, and would turn from a cold, though very important, peace to a peace that includes more cooperation. Many of the conversations I had with him focused on the how, how to connect between Egypt, that has excellent agriculture experts, and Israel, that has excellent agriculture experts but also an advanced knowledge in agriculture research and development and the latest technology, and then to link them to potential markets in the Persian Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, and in countries that import enormous quantities of food world-wide. I thought that this cooperation could be very good and that it might facilitate the signing of peace treaties with other Arab countries and create an atmosphere of common interests so that even if tension arises, it would always be in the best interest of both parties to keep the peace. “Therefore, in my opinion, if Sadat was alive there was a better chance of deepening the cooperation.
“I would stress again that Sadad was, above all ,a proud Egyptian patriot, and that was the most important thing to him… When President Sadat and I talked about, say, the agriculture development, and we discussed the option of Israeli investments in Egyptian agriculture, he kept saying, ‘As long as it’s about sharing knowledge, it is possible and desirable. But there will be nothing that we can do to allow Israeli ownership of Egypt land of any sort, not even as a partnership with an Egyptian investor.’ He kept saying, ‘You must know, there is one thing that is sacred to us, and that is the land of Egypt.’ He repeated this later, in the hard negotiations in Taba, saying, ‘The land of Egypt is sacred.’ I felt envy. Deep envy. For we, the Israelis, lack this kind of passion for the land of Israel, which should be a natural emotion. Instead there is often belittlement of something that was sacred in the history of our Jewish people for more than four thousand years. A lack of respect for the flag, for the national anthem, for the land, which is not a piece of real estate property but a historic expression of belonging, of a bond. This is the sore evil.”
After the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is signed, Sharon keeps promoting the establishment of new settlement in a greater pace. At the beginning of 1980, Sharon transfers funds to private people and institutions for purchasing Arab land in Judea and Samaria. The purchase of the lands is made through Arab mediators, in order to bypass the Jordanian law according to which an Arab who sells his land to a Jew is punishable by death. Sharon is furious when the Israeli press openly criticizes this campaign of land acquisition and tries to silence it in fear that it would jeopardize the process. Sharon explains that he wishes to purchase the lands in order to expand the Jewish settlements and that it’s better to purchase the lands than to confiscate them.
Sharon is extremely angry at reporters who cover his activity in the occupied territories in an unfavorable fashion. On April 1980 an Israeli television crew records Sharon talking to one of the settlers’ representatives from Gaza, who is on strike in front of the Prime Minister’s office. Sharon loses his temper and angrily says to the TV crew: “You are a gang of terrorists. I fought against terrorists in the army and won, and I will fight you and win as well. You have destroyed the country. Look how it is being destroyed. It is your fault.”
Prime Minister Menachem Begin generally supports Sharon in his settlement policy, and this position ultimately brings Foreign Affairs Minister Moshe Dayan and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman to resign. They argue that the settlements prevent the implementation of the autonomy for the Palestinian people, as was agreed upon in the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
Ariel Sharon now desires to be appointed defense minister and says he’s the most suitable person for the office. Prime Minister Menachem Begin is far from being eager to hand Sharon the office and the tension between the two arises. On August 1980, Sharon threats Begin that he would resign if he’s not appointed defense minister. He claims that Begin acting both as prime minister and as defense minister adversely affects the national security of Israel. Begin does not give in. Sharon remains the Agriculture Minister.