Ariel Sharon's victory in the recent election has evoked fears of a dangerous regional escalation. The international press holds this view, often portraying Sharon simplistically as a warmonger. Such perceptions were also reinforced by Ehud Barak's election campaign that warned of the dangers of a general large-scale war unless Israel reaches an agreement with the Palestinians. Fortunately, such fears are unfounded.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has maintained a clear position, which precludes any threats of war being issued against Israel. Despite Egypt's diplomatic support of Arafat, it is extremely reluctant to be dragged into a costly war because of the Palestinians. Moreover, as long as Cairo holds on to its pro-American orientation, it will, in all likelihood, refrain from a blatant violation of the peace treaty with Israel.
Similarly, Jordan has no interest in a war against Israel which might turn its territory into a launching base for Iraqi forces. A war might cause much internal turmoil that might put great strain on the ability of the Hashemites to continue to rule over the Palestinian majority of their kingdom.
Actually, Jordan, though unable to say so publicly, is quite happy that Sharon has won the election because the danger of transferring the Jordan Valley to the Palestinians, which would allow easier access by the Palestinian Authority to the Palestinians in Jordan, has been removed. The Jordanian ruling elite understands well that a Sharon-led Israel serves as a better insurance policy than a Labor-led Israel that has a pro-Palestinian orientation.
Syria, as well, is not likely to engage Israel in a full-scale war due to its military weakness. Its conventional forces are capable of only limited action against Israel, although it possesses hundreds of long-range missiles, some armed with chemical warheads, that put all of Israel's population centers in range. The calculus of the use of force in Damascus is influenced also by the likely American displeasure at a clear sign of aggression against Israel. In addition, the Israeli-Turkish entente has a moderating influence over the behavior of Syria, which fears a two-front confrontation.
Finally, Bashar Assad and his cautious mentors from the old guard seem to prefer dealing with domestic issues designed to prop up their rule, rather than engaging in any brinkmanship with Sharon. This caution does not preclude, however, activating proxies in Lebanon - Shi'ites or Palestinians - into conducting a low-intensity campaign against Israeli targets, military or civilian, along its northern border. Taking into consideration an Israeli military reaction, such activity could indeed lead to an escalation. Yet, it is not an automatic process, as it requires an escalatory step by Damascus, which is not self-evident in the current circumstances.
This tour of the horizon leaves Iraq as the only source of serious mischief. Saddam Hussein has restored much of Iraq's capability to launch long-range missiles against Israel. His motivation to do so is very strong, particularly since championing the Palestinian cause serves his quest for a leadership role in the Arab world. Such a course of action is quite problematic, however, because it might provide the new Bush administration in Washington with a good pretext to settle an outstanding account with Baghdad.
The Palestinians would like to see themselves at the center of regional attention, but the past has shown that the Arab countries have never united in action, in contrast to rhetoric, to further Palestinian causes. They have always taken care of their own interests. Though the Palestinians are likely to continue with the current violence to test and/or provoke the new Sharon government, they are unable to trigger a regional escalation.
Actually, Sharon's tough image is a contributing factor to regional stability. Stability and peace are also predicated upon deterrence. Sharon is definitely more of a deterrent figure than any other Israeli leader. Only an Israel that is perceived as strong and determined can forestall challenges to regional stability and negotiate a deal that is conducive to peace in the region.
What lies ahead of us are Palestinian and Syrian attempts to test Sharon in the hope of Israeli timidity or overreaction. To a great extent, the first Israeli responses would determine the type of relations in the future. Eventually, the Syrians and the Palestinians will adjust to the new realities. Most likely, the Middle East leaders will heed the advice coming from Washington about retaining calm.
Negotiations over a grand package to solve all issues are unlikely and the world - particularly the Americans - is aware that Arafat is to be blamed for the political impasse, which consequently led to Sharon's ascendance to power in Jerusalem. The new approach to negotiations with the Palestinians, suggested already by Sharon, will be an incremental one. The target is a new interim agreement to supplant the Oslo framework. This seems also to be the preference of the Israeli electorate.
(The writer is director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.)©2001 Jerusalem Post