February 26, 2001

February 26, 2001 | Commentary on Middle East

Middle East: Give Sharon a Chance

Although few know how to stop the escalating violence in the Middle East, many think they know who to blame: Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon. Surely, they say, the landslide election of such a hard-liner means the end of the peace process-and serves as a harbinger of all-out war.

But the truth is that the Middle East has been sliding toward war since last fall, when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat opted for low-intensity warfare despite far-reaching concessions from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

In fact, war would have been more likely had Barak been re-elected, because his failed appeasement policy only whetted the appetite of Palestinians and other Arabs for further Israeli concessions. Barak's May 2000 unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon was perceived as a victory for the strategy of violence employed by the radical Lebanese Hezbollah (Party of God). Israeli restraint was interpreted as weakness.

Barak had offered the Palestinians a state built on roughly 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza and portions of Jerusalem, including part of the Temple Mount, Judaism's most sacred site. But Arafat rejected this, even declining to make a counter-offer. He then orchestrated the current spasm of violence to pressure Israel into more concessions.

Not surprisingly, the disillusioned Israelis have hardened their views on peace negotiations. By voting for Sharon over Barak (62 percent to 37 percent), they decisively rejected the peace-at-almost-any-price approach.

Sharon's stunning victory was remarkable, given the fact that not long ago he was regarded by many Israelis as a political dinosaur, unable to adapt to Israel's changing international situation. The burly ex-general, who fought in all of Israel's wars, appeared out of place in the "New Middle East" proclaimed by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres after the 1993 signing of the Oslo peace accord with the Palestinians. Sharon (nickname: "the bulldozer") was perceived to be a bull in a china shop.

But the "New Middle East" closely resembles the "Old Middle East," full of bitter ideological hostility and inflamed national passions. Arafat failed to transform himself from the leader of a revolutionary terrorist movement to the leader of a nation trying to reconcile with its longtime adversary. And he failed to fulfill his Oslo obligations to halt Palestinian terrorism, to refrain from inciting violence, and to crack down on radical Islamic groups.

Israelis have decided that enough is enough. They chose Sharon for prime minister because he is someone they can trust to abandon Barak's appeasement policy and strengthen Israeli security.

Which bring us to why Sharon's election can help bring peace. Palestinians will no longer be so quick to assume that continued violence will win them Israeli concessions. Sharon's reputation will bolster Israel's deterrent strength, which eroded considerably as Israel bent over backwards to keep the Oslo negotiations alive. Radical Arab states, such as Iraq and Syria, are likely to be a little more careful about provoking Israel.

Sharon's pragmatism may lead to surprises on the negotiating front. He already has dispatched his son to meet with a Palestinian delegation, an act that has political resonance in Arab political culture. In the Middle East, where family ties are often the strongest political bonds, sending a son to a meeting signals a seriousness of purpose. Sharon also has invited Barak's Labor party to join a government of national unity, a sign that he has not ruled out future negotiations with the Palestinians.

In addition, Sharon is well-positioned to deliver on any agreement he should make with the Palestinians. According to public opinion polls, Israeli voters would have rejected Barak's concessions. But Sharon's reputation as a hawk on Israeli security issues will make it easier for him to sell any future deal with the Palestinians to Israel's politicians and public.

Remember: It took hard-line anti-communist Richard Nixon to strike a deal with Communist China, and hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to sign a peace treaty with Egypt. Today, Sharon is one of the few Israeli leaders who can negotiate an acceptable final settlement with the Palestinians. The real question is whether the Palestinians want a genuine peace with Israel.

James Phillipsis a research fellow specializing in Middle Eastern affairs in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East

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