JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ehud Barak's overwhelming defeat by Ariel Sharon at the polls represents not a rejection of peace but a rejection of a failed political process that brought Israel the worst collapse of security in years. Yesterday was the culmination of a political free fall that began seven months ago at Camp David. There, Mr. Barak was willing to make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians that were unacceptable to both the parliament and the people of Israel and that broke the explicit promises he had made to the electorate when running for office 20 months ago.
Mr. Sharon, who has devoted much of his life to defending Israel, has offered to form a national unity government with Mr. Barak's Labor party. Mr. Sharon's immediate task is rebuilding Israel's negotiating strength, restoring the personal safety of its citizens and putting Israel back on a steadier, more certain path toward peace.
After Mr. Barak became prime minister, principles that he had vowed never to abandon — like keeping Jerusalem united, controlling the strategically important Jordan Valley, not returning to the indefensible pre-1967 borders and refusing to allow Palestinian refugees to return to Israel — were swept aside with a startling alacrity. Remarkably, even the Temple Mount, the focal point of the Jewish people's national and religious life for 3,000 years, was put on the negotiating table by Mr. Barak.
While the people of Israel are prepared to pay a heavy price for a genuine peace, we are not prepared to pay any price. As the 400,000 Jews who last month assembled in Jerusalem to protest any attempt to redivide their ancient capital can attest, our nation has some eternal values on which we will never compromise.
The violence and terror of the past few months came as no surprise to those who understand that peace with dictatorial regimes must be based on strength and deterrence. In the irresponsible manner in which he withdrew our forces from Lebanon, in refusing to respond adequately to terror and in negotiating under the threat of violence, Ehud Barak has projected weakness to our enemies — a weakness that only invited further aggression. Indeed, in his short tenure as prime minister, Mr. Barak's policies began to erode Israel's capability, built over decades, to deter aggression.
Above all, the Barak government failed to fulfill its primary duty to protect and defend the lives of Israel's citizens. In recent months, hardly a day went by without innocent civilians being murdered and maimed in acts of wanton terror. As the carnage continued to mount, the government's principal response was to beg our adversaries to accept concessions that would put the very future of our state in jeopardy.
Mr. Barak has lost this election not merely because of personal failings but because of failed policies. Unlike his government, the vast majority of Israelis have once again realized that our enduring conflict with the Palestinians is rooted in a dispute not over the borders of the Jewish state but over its very existence.
For years, Yasir Arafat has spoken out of both sides of his mouth. Paying lip service to the peace of the brave in front of Western audiences, Mr. Arafat has used his state-controlled news media to foment hatred against Jews and call for the destruction of Israel. While leaders like Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan sought to prepare their peoples to live in peace with Israel, Mr. Arafat chooses instead to praise suicide bombers as national martyrs and preach a holy war to end the occupation of Palestine in spite of the fact that nearly 99 percent of Palestinians no longer live under Israeli rule but are under his own despotic regime.
Mr. Arafat has long told a hopeful West that all he demanded in return for peace was a West Bank state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But by rejecting precisely this proposal at Camp David, he proved that what he really wants is not a state next to Israel, but a state instead of Israel.
During my time as prime minister, some in the international community saw my policies as the obstacle to peace. But the last few months have convinced most Israelis that the real obstacle to peace is the enduring refusal of many Arab leaders to accept a Jewish state in the Middle East.
Until our adversaries recognize not only Israel's existence but also its legitimacy, Israel can afford to make only agreements based on security and deterrence.
Benjamin Netanyahu was Israel's ninth prime minister.
© 2001 The New York Times Company