When historians write the final draft on the short and bloody tenure of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, they will undoubtedly point to June 18, 2001, as a watershed moment.
That was the day a group of Palestinians brought a lawsuit in a Belgian court against Sharon for war crimes and crimes against humanity for his involvement in the September 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres.
History will show that public opinion against Sharon began to build soon after that fateful day, with the first signs that he and his coalition were in deep trouble showing when he took his early July trip to Europe.
During that trip, he was greeted by throngs of demonstrators chanting "Sharon assassin" and "Sharon to The Hague," while behind closed doors, and later publicly, European leaders flatly rejected Israel's policies.
Historians also will note something even more important: that Israel's relationship with its long-time guardian and custodian, the U.S., began to show evidence of strain. Historians will retrace the early indications of the rift to Feb. 25, the day Colin Powell shocked the Sharon administration by using the word "siege" to describe the Israeli blockade of Palestinian cities and villages.
They will then point to March 19 as another crucial date, when Powell delivered a speech to the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC), where he uttered the following fateful words: "The U.S. continues to support a comprehensive peace to the Middle East, one based on U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the formula of land for peace." Mention of 242 and 338, historians will remind us, was hardly ever made during the eight years of the Clinton administration.
From then on, historians will explain, things began to unravel: In early May the Bush administration publicly condemned Israel for crossing into Palestinian territory; later, it strongly objected to the use of F16 fighter jets; later still, it supported an international commission's call for a total freeze on settlement building; then in June, the U.S. stated that it no longer opposed, in principle, Arafat's long-standing demand for international observers on the ground to monitor the situation; and in late July, as Israel heedlessly intensified its assassination policy, U.S. official displeasure mounted to such a crescendo that words such as "excessive," "highly provocative" and even "reprehensible" were being used by the State Department to denounce Israeli actions.
On the domestic front, historians will remind us that Sharon had been elected on the promise that he was going to bring security to Israel, but that in reality he accomplished the opposite: Israelis felt much less secure under him than they did under Ehud Barak or Benjamin Netanyahu. Even more important, the economic slide under Sharon continued unabated: Tourism in Israel fell and housing construction experienced a noticeable slump while investors, jittery about the potential of war with Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, held their financing away from a market badly in need of input.
Historians will point to the election of Ariel Sharon as the beginning of the end for the settlement movement and the creeping presence into the occupied territories. They will note that while Barak was able to underhandedly push the policy forward with great success (with no opposition from the U.S. administration), Sharon crudely blew the lid off the whole enterprise when he blockaded whole cities, shelled civilian buildings, rolled his tanks into Palestinian territory and deployed F16s against Palestinian targets.
What historians will no doubt relish most is the political resurrection of the historically unelectable Shimon Peres. They will note how the Machiavellian Peres inserted himself in Sharon's government, how he took over the foreign ministership and how he stood by his prime minister early on, but eventually began to publicly disagree with Sharon on key points: settlement freeze, the assassination policy and the effort to unseat Arafat.
What will follow is not difficult to predict: Historians will note that soon after the beginning of Sharon's rapid decline, Shimon Peres decided to bolt from the sinking ship, bringing with his exit the collapse of the rickety coalition and the unity government.
Once his alliance with Sharon is broken, Peres will stand as the only viable alternative in the eyes of Israelis--the only man capable of carrying the momentous historical mission of making the necessary compromise and closing a deal with the Palestinians. Disillusioned in Sharon's "security through strength" solution, Israelis will at long last take their first step away from forcing a military settlement on a political conflict.
As for the Sharon tenure, historians will tell us that without the bloody Sharon months that brought the whole region to the brink of disaster, Israel would never had dared to turn its back, once and for all, against its old, destructive habit of conquer and wait.
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