January/February 2001
Western Wall

Israel Under Sharon

A victory for the controversial Likud leader is not to be feared

by Neill Lochery

All indications are that Ariel Sharon, the leader of the opposition Likud party in Israel, is heading for victory in the country's prime ministerial election next month. This is regardless of whether the incumbent, Ehud Barak, manages to strike a last-minute deal with Yasser Arafat.

A Sharon victory is not to be feared. Granted, Mr. Sharon is controversial, but interestingly, there are striking similarities between the perception of Mr. Sharon today and that of Winston Churchill before he assumed office in Britain during the Second World War -- and before he went on to become one of the world's greatest statesmen.

Like Churchill, Mr. Sharon is a political outsider (even in his own party), and is considered a dangerous adventurer by large segments of the political and military elites. Conversely, it is generally accepted that like Churchhill, Mr. Sharon has a great tactical military brain, as shown in the Suez War (1956), the Six Day War (1967), but especially during his daring crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. However, both made terrible mistakes that blighted their careers -- in Mr. Sharon's case, with his pursuit of the Lebanon War in 1982.

For many Arabs and Israelis, the name "Sharon" still conjures up images of the "Sabra and Shatilla" Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut after the massacre of mainly women and children by Phalangist forces, allied to Israel. Mr. Sharon -- though not directly blamed for the massacre by the commission of inquiry -- was removed from his beloved position of minster of defence in 1983. It was presumed that from this point onward he was unelectable as a prime minister.

The related image of Mr. Sharon that is generally put out by the Israeli left and the Arab world in general is one of a warmonger and fanatic -- but his record does not correspond with the charge. It was Mr. Sharon, for example, who was instrumental in dismantling the Jewish settlements in the Sinai, which paved the way for a permanent peace between Israel and Egypt in 1978-82.

Within the Likud, he is considered to be a security hawk, but not an ideologue. Indeed, many in the party often refer to the fact that he started his political career in the Labour party and his first major political appointment was as national security advisor to the late Yitzhak Rabin (1974-76).

In addition, after the Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the PLO in 1993, Mr. Sharon was the first senior figure in the Likud to argue that a future Likud-led government would have to continue with their implementation. Between 1993 and 1996, Mr. Sharon was well known for walking around the Israeli parliament carrying maps of proposed final settlements with the Palestinians -- while the majority of his right-wing colleagues stuck their heads in the sand and stated never to negotiations with the PLO.

In 2001, Mr. Sharon's plans for peace are logical, but many argue unworkable, given the offers Mr. Barak has already made to Mr. Arafat at Camp David. Mr. Sharon wants to freeze the handing over of more land to the Palestinians, and develop Israeli settlement blocks in the West Bank.

Negotiations will continue with Mr. Arafat only when the violence is stopped -- Mr. Sharon argues Mr. Barak's major mistake was agreeing to carry on with negotiations even when there was Palestinian violence.

Publicly, under Mr. Sharon, Jerusalem will not be divided. Privately, this is simply not true. There will be some Palestinian presence in the city and Abu Dis (just outside the new municipal boundary of Jerusalem but inside the ancient boundary) will eventually form the capital of a Palestinian state. In short, Mr. Sharon will make concessions to the Palestinians, but not on the scale of those promised by Mr. Barak.

Indeed, there is a fear on the right that Mr. Sharon will turn out to be so keen to develop an image and a legacy as a peacemaker that he will give away too much. Should that happen, Benjamin Netanyahu is waiting in the shadows to strike.

Ultimately, the election of Mr. Sharon is likely to lead to Israel being isolated from the international community. Diplomats will not give him the same amount of rope they give to leaders of the left, such as Shimon Peres, despite the fact that in real terms the differences between the two are much smaller than people perceive.

For many Israelis, this fear of isolation remains a major concern about voting for Mr. Sharon. But the desire to remove Mr. Barak would appear, at present, to be much stronger than any long-term worries.

© 2001 National Post
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