The Sharon Landslide

February, 07 2001

Ariel Sharon has already written an autobiography, but if he had not an apt title might be "From Pariah to Prime Minister." Sharon's extraordinary rehabilitation as political figure is still conditional, however, on his performance in the final and most fateful chapter of his remarkable journey.

The tempting and most hopeful analogy to apply to Sharon's incredible comeback is to the career of Winston Churchill. The British leader, perhaps the most important Western leader of the 20th century, was also considered a quirky and militant extremist before being ushered into power in a time of crisis.

The circumstances of Churchill's rise to power in 1940 were similar to the present moment, in that the public seems to have made an abrupt about face. Churchill's replacement of Chamberlain reflected disillusionment with a policy of appeasement, policies that Churchill called in April 1938 "buying a few years of peace." It is impossible to interpret the massive public rejection of Ehud Barak as solely a rejection of him personally; the landslide was a rejection of what the public believed to be a false road to peace.

Though the world may interpret the Israeli electorate's choice as a rejection of peace, the voters themselves disagree. A poll taken by the Steinmetz Center of Tel Aviv University last week found that 68 percent of the public believed that, in order to reach a peace agreement, Israel should be less conciliatory with the Palestinians. The poll also found, by a margin of 53 to 27 percent, that Israelis felt that Sharon was more able than Barak to "advance the peace process with the Palestinians while protecting the State of Israel's vital interests." In other words, Israelis have not given up on peace but, like the people of Britain in 1940, they have given up on what had for some years been billed as the only path to peace.

It is yet to be seen whether Sharon's leadership abilities will approach those of Churchill; what can already be said, however, is that the political challenge facing Sharon is different and arguably even more formidable.

When Churchill became prime minister, Britain was already at war. Israel has not decided whether it is at war or not, and even if Israel were to defend itself against Palestinian attacks as if at war, the goal of the war would not be victory for its own sake but a means to a wide set of peace agreements.

For Sharon, the challenge of ending the sporadic terrorism that has continued over the past few months is inseparable from the challenge of unifying the nation behind a new approach to peace to replace the one the public has so soundly rejected. It is here that Sharon's political interests and his strategic understanding dovetail completely: without unity, both security and peace are virtually unachievable.

Today, the day after the election, the two familiar camps in Israel have been replaced by a more relevant division of the political landscape: those for unity and those against. This new division crosses party and ideological lines. Within the Labor Party, there are those who believe deeply in the need for a unity government, and those who are equally vehemently opposed. Within the Likud, the preference for a narrow right-wing government is also not negligible.

Feeding the forces against unity is the mantra that this election was a meaningless exercise, nothing but a way station to another contest a few months from now. Such deterministic, self-fulfilling thinking must be rejected on its face: This country is doomed to squander its best opportunity for unity only if its leaders choose to betray the popular will.

Let there be no mistake: Those who oppose unity are at best attempting to perpetuate dead and discredited ideologies at the expense of the national interest. At worst, they are pursuing craven personal interest at the expense of Israeli lives.

If we as a people have learned anything over the past four months and past seven years, it is that the Right's vision of a peace without Palestinian self-determination and the Left's vision of peace based on satisfying Palestinian demands are both fundamentally flawed. Further, we have learned that successive attempts of narrow right- and left-wing governments to pursue peace without fundamentally reconciling these two visions doomed them to political and practical failure.

Sharon wants a unity government. Barak deserves credit for stating clearly in his concession speech that Labor should not rule out the possibility of a unity government. But given the scope of his defeat and his swift retreat from public life, Barak is unlikely to be a decisive factor in the struggle within Labor over whether to join a Sharon government.

Whether Sharon succeeds in his quest for unity, then, will depend primarily on the patriotism of one man: Shimon Peres.

Netanyahu and Barak spent their short tenures looking over their shoulders at Sharon and Peres for legitimacy within their own parties. Sharon and Peres, as the ideological lodestones within their respective parties, have the power to create a synthesis between what remains of the ideologies of their respective historic camps. The election was a landslide for Ariel Sharon, but the burden of history lies no less heavily on Shimon Peres.

These two men, the most experienced in Israeli politics, can make history together, or let Israel's internal divisions continue to sap the national will and dash the prospects for either peace or security.

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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