As if things weren't bad enough already, Israelis have now elected Ariel Sharon, of all people, to become their new prime minister.
Sharon enters office promising to ignore the agreements he inherits, strengthen and solidify the occupation and crush all forms of Palestinian protest and resistance. Should Palestinians persist in their rock-throwing protests against the occupation, he warns, Israel will move quickly to impose "unilateral separation," annex large chunks of the occupied territories and place a permanent siege on Palestinian population centers.
Much of the world views his election with justified dread and revulsion. After all, Sharon's blood-spattered resume is so grim that, were he a Serb or a Rwandan, the world would surely be preparing to haul him in front of an international war crimes tribunal rather than recognizing him as the leader of a U.N. member state. The existence of Israeli military contingency plans, in case conditions deteriorate significantly--for everything from retaking Palestinian cities in the West Bank to large-scale ethnic cleansing throughout the occupied territories--only add to deep international unease.
It's not just Sharon's massacres--such as Sabra and Shatila in 1982, Gaza in the early 1970s and Qibya in the 1950s--that prompt deep anxiety. His whole career is marked by a willingness to use extreme brutality against unarmed people, not only without moral restraint but even without any sense of how counterproductive it can be for his country and career. His political style is marked by reckless individualism and an unwillingness to cooperate with or inform colleagues, so that the normal checks and restraints of government seldom have any effect on his actions.
Handing power to such a man at this moment, when Israel is already using excessive force to suppress the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, is exceptionally dangerous.
When challenged to "let the army win" in the West Bank, Prime Minister Ehud Barak explained that while Israel has the military power to kill 2,000 Palestinians in one day, it does not do so because this would only make matters worse. Sharon is the one Israeli political figure who might conclude that since Barak's tactics of shooting demonstrators, rocketing houses and murdering political leaders have not ended the uprising, another massacre ought to be given a chance.
Yet this darkest of clouds may well have a substantial silver lining. Israel under Sharon will almost certainly be held to a different and more acceptable standard of behavior than was applied to Barak's government. Barak was treated by the U.S. government and in the media as a dove of peace who could do no wrong. The shooting of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators--many of them children--the cold-blooded assassinations, the frantic settlement activity and the refusal to abide by agreements under his leadership did not produce any significant criticism of Israel. Sharon can expect to be subjected to a kind of American scrutiny from which Barak was immune.
More important from an Arab point of view, Sharon's election ought to be the catalyst, at long last, for a unified and coordinated Arab stance against Israel's brutal reaction to the Palestinian uprising. In particular, Egypt and Jordan should inform Israel that there is a very real diplomatic price to be paid for shooting down hundreds of unarmed Palestinians and refusing to end the occupation.
And, in the end, it is the occupation that this election is all about. Many feel that the election of a man most Israelis have long regarded as, at best, a loose cannon and embarrassment is a clear sign of panic. This is widely misinterpreted as fear of violent Palestinian demonstrations, but the fact is that these demonstrations have almost all taken place in the occupied territories, far from Israel's population centers. The panic results more from the shattering of an illusion held dear since 1993, that Israel can have peace without really ending the occupation. The violence in the streets has disabused them of this.
Barak's proposals, after all, offered the Palestinians not genuine statehood and liberation but a kind of super-autonomy, with Israel retaining permanent control of all the borders, most of the water and much of the land of the West Bank and abrogating the rights of the Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians are correct in rejecting such a future of subordination and dependency. They have confronted Israelis with the choice they are unable and unwilling to make--a choice between peace and occupation. The realization by Israelis that they simply cannot have both has come as a profound and existential shock and produced the panic that elected a war criminal.