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Sharon Has Learned From His Mistakes

February 07, 2001|YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI | Yossi Klein Halevi is the Israel correspondent for the New Republic and a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report

JERUSALEM — In turning to Ariel Sharon, Israel isn't seeking conquest or conflict but a reflection, however dim, of its old self.

Though Sharon is among the founding generation's more problematic figures, he recalls the mythic years when we acted like a people who believed that history and the future were on our side. Sharon won because he promised to revive Israel's fighting spirit, which once united Israelis left and right. By offering escalating concessions to Yasser Arafat even as Palestinian attacks increased, Ehud Barak seemed to be surrendering not only territory but the nation's will.

For decades, Sharon has warned that empowering Arafat's PLO would result in a terrorist state minutes from Israel's cities. By electing the Likud leader long considered unelectable, Israelis have implicitly acknowledged that the old prophet of apocalypse was right after all.

Yet Sharon's landslide victory is hardly an endorsement of the annexationist right. Remarkably, Sharon's campaign almost entirely ignored the settlements and promised instead to achieve peace through strength. The fact that Sharon was forced to downplay his commitment to the very settlements he helped build 20 years ago reveals the lack of enthusiasm of mainstream Israel for the annexationist right.

Indeed, Sharon's election is, in part, a desperate attempt by voters to revive a pragmatic Israeli center, which is precisely what Sharon has promised to do. In this election, after all, the extremist candidate was Ehud Barak, whose policy of near-total withdrawal to the 1967 borders had always been associated with Israel's far left. By contrast, Sharon emphasized his support for a united Jerusalem and his opposition to the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, issues that have long defined the mainstream consensus. And by committing himself to forming a national unity government with the Labor Party, Sharon has acknowledged the limits of his mandate and the public's wariness of a narrow right-wing government.

Since the 1967 Six-Day War, the debate over the territories was dominated by two utopian fantasies. The right's vision of "greater Israel" insisted that the Jewish state could massively settle the territories and incorporate several million unwilling Palestinians while remaining both Jewish and democratic. The left's vision of "land for peace" countered that if only Israel were conciliatory enough, the Middle East would accept our legitimacy. Greater Israel was fatally discredited during the first intifada of the late 1980s; the new intifada has done the same for territorial compromise. A majority of Israelis now realize that we cannot occupy the Palestinians, nor can we make peace with them.

Sharon is hardly a natural candidate to embody this emerging national consensus. He has, after all, long been among Israel's most controversial military and political figures. Sharon's greatest failure was the 1982 Lebanon war, which transformed the security issue from Israel's most unifying factor into its most divisive. He learned a hard lesson: You don't go to war with only half the country behind you. That realization could act as a restraint on any of his lingering adventurist impulses.

His obsession with forming a national unity government--which he repeatedly tried to implement during Barak's 18 months in office--is a proof that he is trying to implement the lesson learned.

Sharon's efforts at creating a new Israeli center will be hampered by his settler allies. The West Bank settlers haven't quite forgiven him for his crucial role in uprooting Israeli settlements in Sinai as part of the peace agreement with Egypt in 1982, and they will no doubt be testing the limits of his promised moderation with provocative acts. Though Sharon has stated he'll oppose new settlements, significant expansion of existing ones could end hopes for a unity government.

Even as settlers and peace activists continue to promote their dreams, Israel's three-decades-long debate over the territories is over, and both the left and the right have lost. If Sharon succeeds in creating a government that reflects that truth, his election will help heal Israel from the divisions that he himself helped generate.

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