The New Middle East

The Return of Ariel Sharon

by Charles Krauthammer
Posted on 02/12/2001

Imagine General Douglas MacArthur, come back to life in, say, 1980, defeating Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination and going on to become president, crushing President Jimmy Carter more resoundingly than either George McGovern or Barry Goldwater had been beaten. Well, the equally improbable has just happened in Israel, minus the resurrection.

To be sure, Ariel Sharon, who won the prime ministership in a landslide, did not quite rise from the dead. After his disgrace in the Lebanon war in the early 1980s, he slowly worked his way back to political viability. Within a few years, he had been appointed to minor ministerial posts in various Israeli administrations. His final rehabilitation came when he was appointed foreign minister by Benjamin Netanyahu in 1998 and participated in the Wye River negotiations with King Hussein, Yasser Arafat, and President Clinton.

But he was still considered unelectable. Not only because of his age (72) but because of his history. As a young commander in the Suez campaign of 1956, he sent his paratroopers into the Mitla Pass against orders; 38 of his men were killed, a terrible toll in a war in which total Israeli casualties were only 231. Sharon's military career was seriously damaged.

In 1973, he redeemed himself on that same peninsula. With Israel reeling from the surprise Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal, he led a courageous and risky reverse-crossing of the canal that encircled the Egyptians and led to their surrender. True to his bold and erratic form, however, just a decade later he was disgraced again, leading Israel on its ill-fated Lebanon invasion and found indirectly responsible for a massacre carried out by Lebanese Christians.

In fact, one of Barak's campaign slogans stressed that he was the man who had gotten Israel out of Lebanon, while Sharon was the man who had gotten Israel in. The problem for Barak, however, is that while he got Israel out of Lebanon, he also imported Lebanon into the heart of Israel: The endless guerrilla warfare, the daily killings, the roadside bombings, the drive-by shootings, the constant fear that had been the life of the soldiers rotating through Lebanon is now the life of all Israelis who live anywhere near their Palestinian neighbors.

Sharon's accession to power was the direct result of this catastrophic political failure by Barak. It began last July with the diplomatic debacle at Camp David. Barak surprised not only the Palestinians but the American mediators, and indeed his own close associates, with his astonishing concessions: offering to divide Jerusalem; to give up Israel's sovereignty over its holiest site, the Temple Mount; to yield more than 90 percent of the West Bank, including the strategically crucial Jordan Valley. Not only were these concessions unprecedented, they were in direct contradiction to the campaign promises he had made just a year earlier. Why, even Leah Rabin, widow of Barak's mentor, said that Yitzhak would be "turning in his grave" upon hearing what Barak had offered on Jerusalem.

But unlike his mentor Rabin, who also betrayed his campaign promises but at least brought home a piece of parchment signed on the White House lawn, Barak brought home nothing. Worse than nothing. Sensing Barak's weakness and desperation and pressing for even better terms, Arafat soon launched the low-level guerrilla war now plaguing Israel.

The betrayal of his allies, the humiliation at Camp David, and finally the ongoing war-which led a wobbly Barak to offer even greater concessions-totally undercut whatever support he had in the public and in parliament. By late 2000, his government had collapsed. Going into this election, he had the support of a mere one-quarter of the Knesset.

Here is where Sharon got lucky. Polls showed Barak trailing very badly against Benjamin Netanyahu, who had come back from a self-imposed political exile and was preparing to run for prime minister. Barak was 30 points behind. Barak knew he didn't have a chance. But he thought he might have a chance against caretaker Likud leader Ariel Sharon (who took over the party when Netanyahu resigned after his 1999 defeat), since Sharon's checkered past had for decades made him politically unacceptable to a large number of Israelis.

Barak maneuvered. He resigned, calling a snap election. Netanyahu would be legally excluded from running on a technicality, because he was not a member of parliament. Even the jaded Israeli political system could not stomach so cynical a move. The Knesset quickly moved to change the law to allow Netanyahu to run, but Netanyahu wisely decided not to because the Knesset would not dissolve itself, and the current Knesset is so fractured as to be ungovernable. Netanyahu stepped aside. Sharon became the improbable challenger. He then won by the largest margin in Israeli history, an unheard of 25 points.

He won because of Barak's incompetence and cynicism. He won because of Netanyahu's caution. But most of all, he won because of Yasser Arafat.


Arafat made a fool of Barak. He proved, even to much of the Israeli left, that the entire theory of preemptive concessions, magnanimous gestures, rolling appeasement was an exercise in futility. Israelis were shocked by how far Barak had gone. Dividing Jerusalem was something that no Israeli government even considered for 35 years. Equally unthinkable was giving up the Jordan Valley, Israel's buffer against tank attack from the east. Barak's own Labor party for 35 years maintained that it should never be given up. Barak's own army chief of staff said giving it up threatened Israel's very existence.

It didn't stop there. By the end, just days before the election, Barak was offering 94 percent to 96 percent of the West Bank-plus pieces of Israel proper to make up the full 100 percent. He was prepared to give the Palestinians not only their own state but control of the border crossings with Egypt and Jordan. Previous Israeli governments had refused to countenance that because there could then be no controlling the flow of weapons into Palestine and thus no possibility of a Palestinian state being demilitarized.

Working with an equally lame-duck Bill Clinton, Barak tried desperately in the final weeks of his administration to wrap up a deal and save himself politically. Arafat reacted with characteristic cunning (always misinterpreted in the West as indecision): He equivocated, pocketing concessions, offering nothing, letting Barak twist in the wind.

Arafat did all this knowing that it would bring on Sharon. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority broadcast instructions to Israeli Arabs to boycott the election, thus assuring Sharon's victory, even had the election been close. With Sharon, Arafat will meet resistance. And that resistance may spark international pressure on Israel and, perhaps better, a regional war.

As pointed out by Ehud Ya'ari, a leading Israeli journalist who has known and studied Arafat for over 30 years, a regional war has long been Arafat's fondest dream. He knows the Palestinians will always be too weak to fight the Israelis head on. And he knows that the best he can get from any peace agreement is a small Palestinian state, perhaps with part of Jerusalem. The only way to achieve the real dream of conquering all of Palestine, which would make him Saladin, would be to trigger a replay of 1948 with five Arab states invading Israel, but this time with modern armies, modern weapons, modern leadership, and massive oil wealth behind them.

That is his ultimate strategy. But he has more limited interim strategic objectives as well. These less cataclysmic calculations center on the new administration in Washington. The Arabs have a rather romantic view of George W. Bush, remembering that his father, and particularly his secretary of state James Baker, were quite tough on the Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir in the early 1990s. What they see now is the perfect alignment of the stars: a hard-line Bush administration clashing with a hard-line Likud administration. No Israeli government can long afford a breach with America. Tension between Israel and its one ally would undermine its international position and make it far more susceptible to Palestinian demands.

True. Nonetheless, Arafat is probably misreading the younger Bush. Baker is not back. The Bush team is hardly eager to get near the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, the chief objective of Bush's national security advisers is to extract themselves as much as they can from the negotiating morass into which Bill Clinton, with his frenetic legacy-hunting, inserted the United States. And ironically, the one Israeli George W. Bush probably knows best is the man who took him on a helicopter tour of the territories in 1998 and whom he subsequently lavishly praised: Ariel Sharon.


Whether intended or not, Arafat will now face Sharon. And he is counting on Sharon's reputation, his very name, to cast Israel as the heavy in the inevitable coming crisis. Sharon carries baggage, most famously Sabra and Shatila, the Palestinian villages that suffered a massacre at the hands of Christian Phalangists during the Lebanon war. An Israeli commission found Sharon, Israel's defense minister at the time, "indirectly responsible" for not anticipating and thus preventing the massacre.

Sharon's indirect responsibility, however, is often inflated into more. For example, consider a front-page article by Lee Hockstader in the Washington Post (February 3, 2001): "At the time, Sharon was leading Israel's invasion of Lebanon and made no attempt to stop the militiamen from attacking the refugees." This implies that Sharon knew that the massacre was taking place. The fact is that he did not. Allegations that he had discussed it in advance with Phalangist leaders led Sharon to file a libel suit in New York City. The court unequivocally found the allegation to be false.

Moreover, it is remarkable that Sharon's indirect responsibility for a massacre that occurred 18 years ago should be constantly cited and held up as a disqualification for leadership, while Arafat's direct responsibility for a myriad of terrorist massacres both predating and postdating 1982 (including the cold-blooded execution of the U.S. ambassador in Sudan) seems to concern no one. It has been consigned to the memory hole. Israelis have accepted Arafat as a negotiating partner. Americans too. Bill Clinton had him to the White House more often than any other leader on the planet. Yet Sharon, uniquely, is considered damaged goods.

Moreover, this is the same Ariel Sharon with whom the Palestinians negotiated quite freely at Wye River in 1998. Everyone seems to have forgotten that Sharon, then Netanyahu's foreign minister, helped negotiate the agreement, ending in a White House ceremony in which a dying King Hussein spoke movingly about peace and the progress they had just made. Abu Mazen, Arafat's number two, subsequently gave a rather favorable Thatcher-on-Gorbachev assessment of Sharon as interlocutor.

The other charge against Sharon is that his visit to the Temple Mount at the end of September 2000 is responsible for the current fighting. It was a phony excuse at the time and it remains a phony excuse today. Abu Mazen himself said on Palestinian radio that the visit was "only a pretext." It was after the Camp David summit-when Arafat refused Barak's offers and President Clinton publicly blamed Arafat for the failure of the talks-that the Palestinian leadership decided it needed to renew the conflict to regain its international footing. "We decided on this [the intifada]," explained Abu Mazen, "to demonstrate our rejection of the ideas and plans offered by Israel at the Camp David summit."


Ironically, it is Sharon's very reputation as a tough and ruthless warrior that gives hope in some quarters that he can be the man to make peace. Sharon was important in securing peace with Egypt. He is the defense minister who forcibly evacuated and destroyed the Israeli settlements in the Sinai in compliance with the Egyptian-Israeli treaty.

Is he going to be Nixon in China?

No. And not because he might not want to. Sharon has a history of unpredictability. He might be tempted. The problem is, there is no China to go to. If the Palestinians rejected the abject appeasement Barak offered them, where is there for Sharon to go? After the Israeli electorate spoke so resoundingly in repudiating Barak, no one in his right mind, not even what is left of the Israeli left, will go much farther.

What Barak demonstrated for all but the most deluded is that there is no partner on the other side. The Palestinians don't want a final peace, because, being the weaker party, they would at this point in history achieve only half a loaf at most, and they have been raised from infancy to consider that surrender. Arafat's strategy is clear: continued agitation, continued unrest, continued guerrilla war that over time will either (1) demoralize Israel into caving in, or (2) spark an Israeli military reaction that will, at the least, alienate the United States, and, at the most, ignite a regional war that the Arabs might once and for all win.

In a recent campaign meeting with "Russians," as the million new immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union are known, Barak justified his concessions as having unmasked the true face of Arafat. At which point an audience member said, "Yes, you unmasked him, but then you continued with appeasement as if you had not."

Barak never faced the logical consequence of the unmasking. He wavered and equivocated. He issued his Yom Kippur ultimatum-stop the violence within 48 hours or else-then withdrew it. He called "time out" in the negotiations when the Palestinians did something particularly hideous-like lynching two Israelis in Ramallah-and then returned to negotiations as soon as the dead were buried. He proved a negotiator with no red lines, no point beyond which he wouldn't go.

The most astonishing fact about Barak's year and a half of negotiations is that Arafat never made a counteroffer. The talks were always about Israeli concessions. By the end, Barak had moved the goal post 90 yards down the field to the other side. Arafat had hardly moved an inch from the original maximal demands enunciated when the Oslo peace process began in 1993.

Sharon's election was a referendum on precisely this "peace process" and constitutes a national rejection, by an overwhelming majority, of Barak's new and supremely dangerous concessions. The day after his election, Sharon declared he was not bound by any of them.

Nonetheless, the damage is done, and it is lasting. Israeli policy can change, but the change Barak wrought in American policy may be irreversible. For 35 years it was American policy to support an undivided Jerusalem. That support is now in ruins. In his final speech on the Middle East, President Clinton called for the division of Jerusalem. Can the Bush administration turn back the clock? Can it be more pro-Israel on Jerusalem than a recent Israeli government?

The Palestinians are well aware of the gift that Barak has bequeathed them. Within hours of Sharon's election, the Palestinian Authority issued a statement after its weekly cabinet meeting in Gaza calling on the new government in Israel "to resume the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations from the point they have reached."


Fat chance. Sharon's election is a decisive statement by the Israeli people that they reject the new baseline. Sharon's task is to resist the inevitable pressure-diplomatic pressure from abroad, violent pressure in the territories-to pick up where Barak left off. His mission is not to get a final peace. There is no final peace to be had, unless it is the peace of the grave. His mandate is to restore the relative stability and security of the Netanyahu years-there's no hope of returning to the comparative nirvana of the pre-Oslo years-when Arab expectations were kept low, and negotiations were about the margins.

Above all, his mandate is to restore Israel's deterrent. Barak responded to Palestinian violence by continuing negotiations and offering more concessions. Not surprisingly, a recent poll of Palestinians found that an overwhelming majority believed that the additional concessions Israel made at the last-ditch preelection negotiations at Taba, Egypt, were a result of the violence. The Palestinians also look at Barak's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon and conclude: If the Lebanese could get all they wanted from the Israelis by violence without negotiation or compromise, why can't we?

Sharon needs to give them an answer: For Israelis, Lebanon was not home. Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley and the Galilee are home. Restoring Israel's deterrent does not mean an all-out war with the Palestinians, but it does mean making the Palestinians pay a higher price for violence: No negotiations without a cessation of violence; no lifting of the closure of Palestinian territory; no work within Israel. (It is rather odd for people to claim that, while they are making war, the enemy is obliged to give them employment.)

Deterrence also applies, even more dangerously, to the Lebanese front. When Barak evacuated Israeli troops from Lebanon, he warned that any cross-border attack would be met by Israeli retaliation not just at Hezbollah and Beirut but at the puppet master itself, Syria. True to form, he flinched. Hezbollah is now dug in all along the northern Israeli border, with Katyusha rockets capable of reaching the suburbs of Haifa.

It will be Sharon's job to make good on Barak's threat if and when Hezbollah tests his resolve. And that is where the danger lies. An emboldened Hezbollah could easily trigger an Israeli retaliation that could in turn bring Syria actively into war-that could spark a regional conflagration.

Fear of such escalation made Barak helpless in the face of Lebanese cross-border provocations and attacks. Sharon understands that Israel cannot sustain this position of non-deterrence because in the end it is only deterrence-not goodwill, not pieces of paper, not even the friendship of the United States-that keeps Israel secure.

For the last quarter-century, the general Arab consensus was that any attack on Israel would render the Arabs worse off. That consensus has dangerously eroded. It is Sharon's task to restore it.

Following Barak in the prime ministership is a blessing and a curse. It is not hard to follow the act of the worst leader in Israel's history, probably the worst leader in the West since Chamberlain. On the other hand, Barak has left his country in a condition of insecurity and vulnerability not seen since 1949. Given the instability of the Israeli political system, and the narrow majority he'll have in parliament, Sharon's tenure may not be long. But it could be one of the most decisive in Israeli history.

©2001 - The Weekly Standard

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