Ariel Sharon: A Bad Candidate Whose Time Has Come?


National Journal, January 27, 2001

In 1980, confronted with a weak leader and a resurgent foe, the voters of America reluctantly turned to a candidate with a reputation for being something of an extremist, and a none-too-bright extremist at that. This was a man who for decades had made single-minded, and many thought simple-minded, anti-Communism the focus of his worldview. A man who, as President, would joke into an open broadcast microphone: "My fellow Americans…I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes." He promised to repudiate the U.S.-Soviet strategic-arms limitation talks and start over; only strength, his supporters insisted, could bring real peace.

In 2001, confronted with a weak leader and a resurgent foe, the voters of Israel may reluctantly turn to a candidate with a reputation for being something of an extremist, and a none-too-bright extremist at that. This is a man who has for decades made single-minded, and many think simple-minded, assertion of expansionist Israeli territorial claims the focus of his worldview. A man who told a Russian television interviewer in 1999: "I am an extremist. But only on issues that relate to the life and security of Israeli people." He promises to repudiate the so-called Oslo peace negotiations and start over with a less sweeping, harder-edged approach; only such toughness, his supporters insist, can bring real peace.

Many people fear that Ariel Sharon, should he become prime minister in the Israeli elections on Feb. 6, will set back Middle East peace prospects by a generation. Sharon, after all, masterminded Israel's invasion of Lebanon when he was Israel's defense minister in 1982. The following year, he resigned in disgrace after an Israeli investigative commission assigned him partial blame for failing to prevent Israel's Lebanese allies from massacring 800 Palestinian refugees in Beirut. He has been a leading force behind Israel's provocative and shortsighted drive to settle the occupied West Bank territory. He ostentatiously owns a home in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Last September, a year after gaining leadership of the conservative Likud Party, he paid a visit, in the company of dozens of armed bodyguards and masses of policemen, to Jerusalem's Temple Mount—an act that served as either provocation or pretext, depending on your point of view, for the Palestinian uprising that set the Middle East on fire and the world on edge. Not a reassuring résumé.

And yet.

The point of this column is not that Sharon will be Israel's next prime minister. The January polls showed him trouncing the incumbent Labor Party prime minister, Ehud Barak, but the race may tighten, or Barak may withdraw in favor of Shimon Peres or some other Labor Party candidate, or a last-minute peace deal may change the equation. Nor is the point that Sharon is like Reagan in any personal particular. I suspect that Reagan was both simpler and subtler than Sharon.

The point, rather, is that there are interesting parallels between the American situation of 1980 and the Israeli situation of 2001. And those parallels hint at a scenario in which a Sharon prime ministership, against all expectations, might turn out for the best.

Some of the similarities are political. In 1980, Reagan strived mightily to convince a wary public that he was no extremist or warmonger. In 2001, Sharon, with the help of American political consultants, has strived mightily to reposition himself as a gentle grandfather and a "leader for peace." Much as the Democrats did against Reagan, the Laborites are painting Sharon as "the one to fear," an extremist "behind the new face and the plastic surgery."

The political parallels hint at geopolitical ones. Candidate Reagan looked to be a destabilizer, but President Reagan turned out to be a re-balancer. Reagan saw, or intuited or hoped or guessed or did whatever it was that Reagan did, that the Soviets' recent tactical triumphs—intimidating the Europeans, drawing Third World support, building a bristling arsenal, invading Afghanistan—masked longer-term strategic weakness. He also saw that the Cold War would not end as long as the Soviets believed they could win it. Partly by pushing the Soviets militarily and fiscally and diplomatically, and partly by being lucky, Reagan helped convince Moscow that the Cold War was not a winning proposition. That brought the Soviets to the table seeking terms that in the 1970s would have looked like surrender.

The problem in the Middle East—and it is Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's problem no less than Israel's—is that a large number of Palestinians think they can get a better deal by fighting than by settling. They saw Israel retreat unilaterally and exhaustedly last year from Lebanon, and they think they can eventually get the deal Lebanon got. They see Israel's will fading, and they see that Israel is neither able nor willing to occupy the West Bank forever, and they understand that, in a pinch, Arab opinion will rally to their side. Given the facts, they read the situation quite reasonably—just as reasonably as the Soviets read the situation in 1979.

If Israel managed to strike a deal with Arafat right now, that deal might prove successful, but it might just as easily prove hollow or even pernicious. The deal would leave Israel deeply divided and dependent on the United Nations for enforcement, since Arafat and his none-too-efficient Palestinian Authority would be unable to control the many Palestinian factions that would have every incentive to fight on. Arafat might be assassinated. Israel might reoccupy territory. The result might be more chaos, not less.

No final justice is possible in a region so tangled in claims and blood and history; only compromise is possible. Israeli public opinion is ready to compromise, provided compromise brings real peace, but Palestinian public opinion is not quite ready. Many Palestinians still hope for a "right of return" for nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees (many of whom have never lived in Israel). Any such right would wreck Israel and destabilize the region.

Time has already moved the Arab states and the Palestinians a long way. Arab moderates increasingly understand that they need stability and peace if they are to modernize their economies and to fight the appeal of fundamentalism. The Palestinians now contemplate previously unthinkable concessions on refugee resettlement, Jerusalem, and the 1967 borders. But it may be that Palestinian minds need to change a little more before an agreement can be secure.

The Soviets, in the 1970s, thought they could fight forever and their adversaries could not. Many Palestinians now think the same thing. Sharon might do for the Palestinians what Reagan did for the Soviets: demonstrate the long-term untenability of a permanent war footing.

Already, thanks to border closings and mounting Israeli calls for "separation," many Palestinian radicals are seeing that their economy cannot survive without cooperation from Israel. A Sharon prime ministership could only underscore that point, while demonstrating—à la Reagan—that a confrontational strategy will be answered confrontationally, and that Palestinians will suffer from confrontation at least as much as Israelis.

Suppose that, under Sharon, the Palestinians came around to broad support for a compromise. Then a deal could stick. But it would require Israel to swallow bitter pills. None would be bitterer than the prospect of forcibly uprooting and then bulldozing Jewish settlements on land that the Israeli Right regards as God's divine grant. Who better to sell this concession than Sharon, godfather of the settlement policy? Who better to implement it than Sharon, who, as defense minister in 1982, sent the army to uproot Jewish settlers from the Sinai Peninsula, as required by Israel's peace deal with Egypt? A deal would also require the Israelis to give up much of Jerusalem, probably including the holy Temple Mount. Who better to spoon out that castor oil than Sharon, whose pigheaded visit to the Temple Mount caused such an affray?

I am not saying that Sharon would bring peace; he might bring disaster. But then, I didn't think that Reagan (even a lucky Reagan) would end the Cold War. The trouble with any high-risk approach is that it is risky. Under Reagan, U.S.-Soviet relations got worse before they got better, and it was not a certainty that they ever would get better. Mikhail Gorbachev might not have happened, and the Soviet Union might have gone down in a blaze of nuclear fire. Under Sharon, optimism would be a similarly dicey proposition, particularly since Sharon may be no Reagan.

Then again, optimism in the Middle East is already a dicey proposition. You never know. Sharon might set the stage for peace by making continued war too costly. He might be a sheep in wolf's clothing. Or, at least, a bad candidate whose time has come.