Ariel Sharon: Man of Mystery

By Leonard Fein

Published January 14, 2005, issue of January 14, 2005.
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Prime Minister Sharon and his colleagues in Israel’s newly patched-together government now repeat, mantra-like, that the road map must be followed to its letter. Let us not look this gift horse too closely in the mouth; let us not dwell on that fact that when the road map was first put forward, in April of 2003, Sharon’s response to it — how shall we say this delicately? — lacked a certain enthusiasm.

Who knows? Perhaps, as some are inclined to claim, Sharon has had a conversionary experience. Or perhaps he has been heartened in the interim by President Bush’s remarkably sympathetic interpretation of Israel’s specific objections to the road map. Or perhaps Sharon himself does not yet know, or is playing for time. When I am asked, as happens too often, how I think the current situation will unfold, I answer honestly: I do not know, its unfolding is unknowable for the time being, there are too many unpredictable variables. In my view, even Sharon does not know. It is still weeks, perhaps months, too early to know the consequences of the Palestinian election. The Palestinians may try to control, even stamp out violence, or they may not, If they do, they may succeed, they may fail. If they fail, they may fail at the margins or at the center. The only thing we can surmise with any confidence at this passing point is that Sharon is no longer wedded to the status quo. Whether on account of the increasingly popular demographic wisdom, which holds that were Israel to retain control of the West Bank and Gaza, the land mass between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea would soon be host to a Palestinian majority, or on account of a (finally) sober calculation of the continuing costs of the occupation — financial costs, reputational costs, costs in civic morale and in civic cohesion — Prime Minister Sharon evidently has soured on “more of the same” as government doctrine.

Nor ought we neglect the possibility that there’s vainglory involved, that Sharon, as he grows older, grows more concerned — it is a perfectly natural tendency — with his legacy. Circumstances have plainly changed (Arafat is dead), and instead of marking time and eventually exiting office as one who held things on a relatively even keel, he now sees room for ambition to have its day, he now (perhaps) speculates about his prospects for the Nobel Peace Prize or, far more important, his inclusion in the pantheon of the handful of Israel’s great statesmen during the still-founding years of the state.

And he may, finally, be affected by his lack of confidence that Israel knows how to defeat the terrorists bent on wounding it, if not destroying it. It’s easy to neglect this one, since the fact is that Israel does so much better in controlling militant Palestinians than the United States does in handling the militants it faces in Iraq. But better is a long way from good. Neither bulldozers nor helicopter gunships seem adequate to Israel’s task. Sooner rather than later, Israel will have to pay attention not only to preventing terrorist attacks but also to preventing terrorists — that is, to helping, as best it can, enable a viable Palestinian state in which young people have prospects more attractive than self-immolation. And it is possible that Sharon understands this, too.

There is, of course, yet one more possibility, and that is that it is all a ruse, that Sharon is saying the right words in order not to embarrass President Bush but that he knows that in the end he will be able to continue as before, saying one thing and doing another. After all, in just the last year, 14,000 new settlers took up homes in Gaza and the West Bank, a population increase of 6% over the year before. The Palestinian state that Prime Minister Sharon has explicitly endorsed may be no more than the truncated and noncontiguous bantustans that were for many years his preferred “solution.”

But even Sharon must know by now that such a policy would beget still more anti-Israel violence, would be seen by the Palestinians not as a compromise but as a calamity. By the Palestinians and by much of the rest of the world — including, in particular, the European Union (an increasingly important player), the United Nations and Russia, America’s three partners in sponsorship of the road map. One imagines, as well, that Sharon’s new Labor partners in government would have none of so deeply flawed a proposal.

Accordingly, we are entitled to a dollop of optimism.

But, this being the Middle East, no more than a dollop, not yet. The still-stuttering emergence of moderate voices in the Arab states, the evident yearning of Palestinians and Israelis alike for surcease and for a national life of dignity — these are the grounds for the optimism we may allow ourselves. But if recent history teaches anything, it teaches that the stars of peace in the Middle East remain in alignment ever so briefly.

Rocking (if not careening) through the ups and downs of the coming months, Israel’s defenders in this country — and especially its defenders on the right, who oppose any Israeli concessions, who think the proposed withdrawal from Gaza a betrayal — would do well to understand that Israel’s pursuit of genuine peace is not a gratuitous gesture of good will toward a mean-spirited and unreformed enemy. They need to know that Israelis who pursue peace, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon among them, if that is the route he actually takes, do so not for the sake of the Palestinians nor for the sake of George W. Bush nor for any abstract idea; they do so for Zion’s sake.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

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