Ariel Sharon was in his element. Surrounded by generals, senior members of Israel’s intelligence community, strategic analysts and supporters of his Likud Party, Sharon arrived here last week to address a conference on Israel’s security agenda.
Just a few days before, Sharon had benefited from a stroke of fate. After a series of political twists and turns, Benjamin Netanyahu had dropped his drive to take over the Likud Party. That left Sharon, the 72-year-old former general, as default party leader and Likud candidate for the premiership against Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the Feb. 6 election.
Now, in Herzliya, the man known as “The Bulldozer” strolled calmly to the podium, an 18-point lead in opinion polls almost palpable in his confidence, to lay out his strategic vision for Israel and the region. After so many years as one of the most controversial figures in Israeli politics, he knew that the violent Palestinian uprising had created a golden opportunity to swing Israelis over to his side.
“It is impossible to reach a permanent peace, because Jerusalem cannot be divided,” Sharon told the conference as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators struggled to reach the basis for such an agreement in Washington.
The basis for any agreement, Sharon added, must be “a long-term interim accord without a timetable, because we have now seen what happens with a timetable.”
Step by step, over many years, Israel should continually monitor its relationship with the Palestinians before concessions are made, Sharon said. But he offered no populist, militant calls to hit the Palestinians harder, as many right-wing Israelis demand.
Sharon suggested that the Palestinians be given connected territory, while Israel maintains its grip on sizable strategic zones. He did not explain how this strategy, which falls well short of Palestinian demands, would quell the violence that has traumatized Israel since late September.
However, he did lay out a broader – and questionable – strategic prognosis for the region as the basis for his Palestinian plan.
“In contrast to conventional wisdom, in my opinion time is not working against us,” Sharon said. “It may very well be that the windows of opportunity in the future will be greater and more convenient.”
This, explained Sharon, was based on research indicating that Arab oil producing countries may face a severe economic crisis in 10 to 15 years as Western countries introduce electric cars and global demand for fuel declines. When Arab states are weakened economically, Sharon argued, the dangers to Israel will decline.
Strategists from Israel’s peace camp have argued that peace must be made as soon as possible because a window of opportunity that opened after the Gulf War and the fall of the Soviet Union could close when Iran achieves nuclear capability. But even analysts who do not subscribe to that vision questioned Sharon’s thinking.
“Oil pricing and production are notoriously variable, and you cannot pin a strategic position on such a thing,” said Professor Barry Rubin, a Middle East expert at Bar-Ilan University. “And the weakening of Arab states is by no means to Israel’s advantage, because that can lead to internal instability and radicalism.
“I’ve never been a believer in the ‘window of opportunity,’ and I do not think that if you do not get a deal in the next three weeks there will never be peace,” Rubin added. “The issue is the kind of deal you get and whether it will be a lasting arrangement.”
That is precisely the issue for many Israelis these days, and Sharon’s spin doctors will try to portray him as the only leader capable of delivering such a peace. Given his controversial background, it will require a tricky balancing act.
In the 1950s, Sharon founded an elite unit that launched bloody reprisal raids against Palestinians in Jordan, which then controlled the West Bank. In the early 1970s, Sharon crushed Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
He also distinguished himself as a brilliant strategist in the Sinai campaigns of the 1967 and 1973 wars, but his impetuousness and his unwillingness to follow orders is believed to have cost him a chance to be army chief of staff.
Overshadowing all else in Sharon’s resume is his role as the architect of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon as defense minister under Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Many Likud supporters still defend Sharon’s decisions in Israel’s most unpopular war, but the peace camp will likely use the war against him in the election campaign.
Sharon was forced to resign as defense minister after a commission found him indirectly responsible for the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps because he failed to anticipate the carnage Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies would wreak there.
“Ariel Sharon is a symbol of Israel’s rejectionist, warmongering minority,” said Didi Remez, spokesman for Peace Now. “He is personally responsible for the Lebanon war, which led to the deaths of over 1,000 Israelis and countless Lebanese and Palestinians.
“He is known as a sponsor of Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which are one of the main obstacles to achieving peace,” Remez added. “It is incredible that someone who was banned by a judicial commission of inquiry from holding the post of defense minister because of the Sabra and Shatila massacres is now a serious candidate for the post of prime minister.”
Sharon’s decision in late September to visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, flanked by hundreds of security men, will probably prove less controversial in the campaign. Though the Arab world – and much of the West – sees Sharon’s visit as the spark for the current unrest, most Israelis believe the Palestinians used it as a pretext for violence.
Still, it will not be easy to balance Sharon’s warrior image with the pragmatism and commitment to peace most Israelis demand.
“He has to keep the support of the right and make them happy, while making the center happier than it is,” explained Zalman Shoval, a senior Likud member and Israel’s former ambassador to the United States.
Many Likudniks scoff at the notion that Arab countries, which despise Sharon, will see his ascent to power as a sign of Israeli intransigence.
“I am not concerned at all about the Arab world,” Shoval said. “Experience has shown that the best progress towards real peace was made when there was a strong and hawkish leadership for Israel.”
Ironically, some Likud ideologues worry that Sharon is too pragmatic; after all, as Begin’s defense minister, he sanctioned the evacuation of Israeli settlements in Sinai for peace with Egypt. And though Sharon stands by his promise never to shake the hand of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, he negotiated the Wye accords as Netanyahu’s foreign minister in 1998.
Members of the Likud overwhelmingly preferred to make Netanyahu their candidate, but now the party is expected to rally behind Sharon.
“It has no choice right now,” said Meir Sheetrit, a senior Likud Knesset member. “Everybody wants victory over the left.”
And, Sheetrit added, Sharon’s “image in the left is incorrect.”
In any case, his current chances seem better than ever. A Gallup poll published in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv indicated that Sharon would trounce Barak if elections were held today, and not even a lightning peace deal would dramatically improve the incumbent’s chances.
According to the poll, voters would reject the peace deal if it were tied to a vote for Barak. If a separate referendum on a peace agreement took place alongside the vote for prime minister, Israelis likely would approve the deal – but choose Sharon to implement it.
Sharon has said he will not honor an agreement that Barak signs in the pre- election period.
According to Ma’ariv political commentator Chemi Shalev, however, the polls cannot accurately predict the emotional impact a historic deal might have on public opinion.