As Israeli minister of defence, Ariel Sharon masterminded the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The Kahan Commission subsequently found that he was indirectly responsible for the massacres perpetrated in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila in September of that year. Sharon resigned as minister of defence in 1983, but he remained a champion of the Israeli settler movement and a staunch opponent of the return of the occupied territories. How did such a notoriously belligerent man, with so much blood on his hands, rise to power again in Israel?
As the peace process that began in Madrid in 1991 gained momentum, Sharon and politicians of his ilk were for some time effectively sidelined. The ravings of the extremist religious fringe that he represented were naturally considered inimical to the spirit of peace and inconsistent with the requirements of a just and lasting settlement.
However, despite considerable progress made in overcoming many of the obstacles to a final settlement, peace efforts began to flounder. The turning point came with the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin at the hands of a Jewish extremist on 5 November 1995. From this point forward a stunned and already deeply divided Israeli society was left without a leadership strong and courageous enough to make the necessary adjustments for a viable peace. As an Israeli commentator observed in Ha’aretz of 15 January 2001, Rabin was Israel’s last true statesman. After him, Israeli prime ministers were elected not for their abilities or beliefs but simply to oust the current incumbent.
This negative criterion applied to Netanyahu, Barak and, most recently, to Sharon, who was able to defeat Barak last February because he was able to play on Israeli fears of spiraling violence in the wake of Barak’s inability to take the decisions necessary to effect a breakthrough in the peace process.
Sharon came to power as the head of an ultra conservative coalition that threatens dire consequences for regional stability. If Labour leader Shimon Peres was brought on board to lend this coalition a facade of international respectability, the Peres of today is vastly different from the man who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Arafat. It is Peres who ordered the military strikes against Lebanon that ended in the massacre at Qana and who, as foreign minister under Sharon, condones the brutality unleashed against the Palestinians. And the current government includes parties whose leaders have advocated actions ranging from expelling all Arabs from Israel to bombing the High Dam.
This government is headed by a Likud leader labouring under a number of illusions. Above all, Sharon believes that he can suppress the Intifada by force. Air and naval missile bombardments, security blockades and economic depravation, he thinks, will force the Palestinians into negotiations on his terms. He is also under the impression that neighbouring Arab countries will stand by as Israel bombs the Palestinians into submission, that they will be cowed by his ever ready arsenal of lies and threats of military action.
However, if Sharon believes that he can dictate his will to the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries by force of arms he is mistaken. The Palestinian people are fighting for their right to an independent state with its capital in Jerusalem, and if they have opted for peaceful negotiations to bring this about, this does not mean they have relinquished their internationally sanctioned right to resist occupation. As the events of the past few weeks have demonstrated, however massive the military barrage the Israelis unleash against the Palestinians it will not sway them from their struggle to reclaim their legitimate rights; indeed, it will only strengthen their resolve. Nor will Sharon be able to intimidate the Arabs from lending the Palestinians moral and material assistance. Arab governments and peoples remain committed to the Palestinian cause. And it is their firm conviction that there can be no military solution to the conflict, that force of arms will lead to disaster for all. This does not mean, however, that the Arabs do not have other alternatives should Israel fail to understand this logic. President Hosni Mubarak has stressed this point on numerous occasions recently. “Violence has never and will never bring security,” he said, adding “we will not allow a repeat of 1967.”
The Arabs are not alone in their belief that Sharon is labouring under dangerous illusions. Indeed, from inside Israel itself Yossi Beilin, former minister of justice under Barak, wrote in the Herald Tribune of 20 April: “Prime Minister Sharon’s determination that no negotiations will be conducted as long as violence continues sounds justified, but it is erroneous.” He continues: “It is necessary to distinguish between violence that stems from the Palestinian Authority… and violence and terror that are not connected to it and that can be stopped only as a result of security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Bearing in mind this distinction, we must find a path to negotiations now. There is no substitute.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Thomas Friedman, known for his strong pro-Israeli bias. In the Herald Tribune of 23 April he wrote: “The most important thing the US can do now in the Middle East is tell the truth.” This involved “telling Israel that if the issue is defending a Jewish state within secure boundaries, the US will be at Israel’s side. But the US will not defend Israel’s eternal occupation of the West Bank, it will not defend settlements recklessly built in the heart of large Palestinian populations, and it will condemn the continued seizure by Israel of more Palestinian lands to expand settlements — which is shameful, and only makes any peace arrangement more difficult to ever achieve.”
In the same newspaper we read Sharon’s recent declarations that he will not dismantle the settlements in the occupied territories and that he considers the war of 1948 to be still in progress. This undoubtedly explains why Sharon rejected the recent Egyptian-Jordanian proposal intended to defuse the violence in Palestine. As Friedman suggests, clearly a more active and realistic US role is called for before Sharon’s lunacy causes tensions to spin out of control.