January 13, 2006

January 13, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East

A sober pragmatist

It is not every day one is lectured on national security by a top Israeli general, and a lecture from Ariel Sharon is not something you soon forget. Personally, I have never forgotten the afternoon in the early 1990s, when Sharon came to tea (tea, of all things!) at The Washington Times, and taught me why military men almost always make more sense than politicians.

So, here's hoping that the Israeli prime minister will recover from his stroke of last week and be around to deliver many more lessons to ignorant scribes who need it, even if his days in politics now seem to have come to an end.

In my case, it was a naïve question about the West Bank settlements that set Mr. Sharon off. This observer, could not help wondering why the settlements were allowed to be such an obstacle not only to peace, but also to relations with Israel's most important international ally, the United States. It will be recalled that the first Bush administration under Secretary of State James Baker had deployed pretty heavy-handed tactics to make Israel stop building settlements

"You are looking at this the wrong way," Sharon said, drawing a map on his napkin. "The settlements are essential for Israel's security. If we are attacked from the East, we need the settlements for our field hospitals, and we need them to protect our supply lines. That's why I put them there." Coming, as this corrective did, from the former housing minister who planned Israel's settlement policy, in a stroke, it all made a lot more sense.

More than anything Mr. Sharon has been a pragmatic politician, who put Israel's security before the search for peace. He allowed the Israeli security fence to go up, as the enemy today is Palestinian suicide terrorist more so than the threat of military invasion from the east. He unilaterally ordered the withdrawal from Gaza, when it stopped seeming worth the cost of defending it, and he dismantled a number of settlements in the West Bank, though was clearly intent though on keeping others permanent. None of these moves were to be found in the "Road Map to Peace."

And most recently, he left the party he helped form, Likud, in order to form a new one, the Kadima (Forward") Party, which have drawn supporters from both the right and the left in Israel. Before Mr. Sharon's medical emergency, Kadima stood to win by a landslide in the parliamentary elections scheduled for March. If one were to sum up his approach, it would be peace through security, rather than security through peace.

As it happens, Palestinians -- many of whom were busy cheering when the news came of Mr. Sharon's stroke -- might find that they stand to lose more than Israelis if he is unable to return to politics, as seems highly unlikely. As a pragmatist, Mr. Sharon would have been better equipped to deal with the messy result that is likely to ensue will probably have the effect of boosting the Israeli right as things stand now.

Palestinian elections are coming up on January 25, strongly encouraged by the Bush administration, which pressured the Israeli government to permit voting to take place in East Jerusalem for the first time. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stated that nothing should be allowed to derail the Palestinian electoral process, which means placing a lot of faith in a process that is likely to throw up some not very appealing results.

The late Yasser Arafat's ruling Fatah Party is in a state of disarray. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has shown himself to be ineffectual and indecisive and is facing leadership challenges from a younger generation within Fatah. Meanwhile, Hamas, which is essentially a terrorist organization with a political wing, could well be the winner of the election.

Given that Hamas remains programmatically pledged to the destruction of Israel, the future of the peace process would look none too bright. Anyone who has doubts about the difficulty of bringing a terrorist movement into a political process may take Northern Ireland as an example, where the IRA's refusal to give up arms constantly calls into doubt the peaceful commitment of its political arm, the Sinn Fein.

In the absence of a leader with a pragmatic approach like Mr. Sharon, we could well be looking at an increasingly tense situation between Israelis and Palestinians. His vision and his guiding hand will be missed.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in the Washington Times