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Israel chooses Ariel Sharon's hard-line policy

Author: Scott B. Lasenksy
February 11, 2001
The San Diego Union-Tribune

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Tuesday's election of ultra-hawk Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel revealed the confused state of Israeli politics, the embedded dysfunctions plaguing Israel's political system and the sobering possibility that violence and instability may intensify.

Sharon's ascendancy also creates new headaches for a still fresh Bush administration just as it seeks to better manage America's diverse interests around the Middle East, a task that vexed and frustrated the Clinton team well into its twilight.

Lessons from within

First, there should be no doubt that Sharon's victory was less a triumph than a vote against Ehud Barak and a loss of faith in Yasser Arafat as a partner for peace. Simply put, Israelis feel duped. Hundreds of thousands registered their aversion for Barak and incredulity toward Arafat's rejection of Camp David and embrace of violence simply by not showing up at the polls.

Not only are Israelis dejected and disillusioned, but also they seem confused. Even after the outbreak of the al-Aksa Intifada in September, public opinion data showed a healthy majority in favor of continued negotiations with the Palestinians, including a general endorsement of some of Barak's most far-reaching concessions. That said, Israelis proceeded to choose a leader who has failed to support every peace agreement Israel has signed.

To make matters worse, a disturbing amnesia has taken root in a society already struggling with a lost sense of public accountability. Where are the memories of Sharon's 1982 invasion of Lebanon? Or of the subsequent state inquiry that found him indirectly responsible for a massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Chatilla? Political misfortune strikes leaders in all democracies, but imagine Richard Nixon winning the presidency AFTER the Watergate scandal.

This election also highlighted how Israel's political system is badly broken. Sharon was elected by a whopping 62 percent, yet his party (Likud) holds less than one-sixth of the seats in parliament (19 out of 120). Sharon's massive mandate is mismatched by the reality of a deeply divided and fractured Israeli parliament. But Barak faced a similar problem, as will all future Israeli leaders until the country sobers up to the need for meaningful and effective electoral reform.

To be sure, deep divisions within Israeli society were not created by political institutions. However, Israel's ill-fated electoral reform in the 1990s is universally seen as having exacerbated social and political cleavages. Separating parliamentary from prime ministerial balloting has been a disaster. Twenty years ago, Labor and Likud, the two largest parties, held three-fourths of the parliament. Today, their share has plummeted to barely one-third. In Israel's hyper-democracy, how can a parliament bloated with almost twenty parties serve any common good?

Lessons from without

When it comes to Israel, domestic politics is inseparable from foreign policy. Internal political events invariably have external consequences. While the prospects of a further deterioration in Arab-Israeli relations and a regional intensification of violence remain a clear and present concern, Sharon's election by itself does not spell impending doom for Israel, the Middle East or American interests. Although Sharon campaigned vigorously against the Oslo process and Barak's breathtaking concessions, his election demonstrates that some aspects of the post-Gulf War Arab-Israeli peace process remain durable.

Although Sharon brags about his refusal to even shake hands with Yasser Arafat, he sat down with his Palestinian counterpart during the Wye talks and may soon end up dealing with him more openly than is conventionally believed. Mutual recognition, as well as the Palestinians' right to a state in the West Bank and Gaza, remains embedded in Israeli-Palestinian relations, implicitly and explicitly. As Netanyahu did before him, Sharon will respect signed agreements even if he lambasted them on the campaign trail. Past negotiating positions are a different matter, and Sharon will continue to distance himself from Barak's positions.

Reactions from Arab capitals have been surprisingly composed. The Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian leaders swallowed Sharon's victory, resisted those around them urging strident rejoinders, and took a wait-and-see approach. Sharon's past remains problematic for any Arab leader who deals with him, but what matters most is the present tense. His statements and actions in the weeks and months ahead, and the composition and behavior of the government he forms, will be the critical factors that determine whether an already bad situation gets even worse.

Still, Sharon's provocative and belligerent past will have some cooling effect on Israel's relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. But at least for the time being, this should remain largely symbolic, like the continued absence of Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors from Tel Aviv.

That said, Sharon's election does not relieve Arab leaders of their responsibility to prevent a further deterioration of the current crisis -- a crisis inflamed by Sharon's September visit to the Temple Mount, but caused by factors of other origin.

First and foremost, Yasser Arafat can and should do more to reduce the level of Palestinian violence. Not only has Sharon laid this down as a precondition for negotiations, but also the White House expects Arafat to counsel and pursue greater restraint. With Lebanon and Syria, Sharon's election is no excuse for Bashar Asad to continue (or escalate) his dangerous game of brinkmanship on Israel's northern border -- a message the United States should reiterate.

Lessons for Bush

Clinton's failed 11th hour diplomatic effort, combined with Sharon's victory, actually gives the new administration some temporary breathing room. The Bush team quickly distanced themselves from Clinton's tendency toward intensive presidential involvement. The administration also has disavowed itself from Clinton's Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, saying the parameters the former president put forward are no longer U.S. policy.

The break with Clinton and the time it takes to put together an Israeli government afford the Bush team a chance to formulate a strategy -- though with Secretary of State Colin Powell traveling to the region at the end of the month, time is running short. Rather than talk about stepping back, the administration should emphasize it is taking a different approach but will remain fully engaged.

James Baker and Madeleine Albright also began their tenures by trying to keep some distance (Albright cautioned that she wouldn't tread water), but ultimately both were dragged into Herculean efforts to jump-start, shepherd and sometimes salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. What the Bush team has done is to express its intention to view the peace negotiations through a wider regional lens (i.e. the Persian Gulf), though it has yet to articulate what this means in practice.

The Bush administration needs to consider, given all the difficulties we now face in the region, what can be done proactively to serve American interests. The White House needs to think about the kinds of expectations it could place before the parties, and consider what diplomatic leverage we have to ensure that such expectations are realized.

Washington cannot single-handedly impose its will on the region, but the United States still has the political, security and financial clout to influence events. A preventive diplomatic posture requires the administration to lay out a series of expectations (either publicly or privately) on a range of issues, including settlements, security cooperation, the use of force, incitement, Lebanon, and Palestinian statehood. Such a strategy could avoid falling prey to the reactive mode that quickly overwhelms policy makers.

Our leverage in pursuing such a course comes from tangible assets and capabilities, but also from our expressive power. Particularly with Israel, the tone and tempo of its relations with Washington have major political consequences. The Bush team may look toward international organizations or our allies in Europe to help pursue such a strategy.

The Bush team is correct to argue that the United States cannot want peace more than the parties do, but it seems the White House is learning quickly that this is not an excuse for benign neglect. As the dust settles in the weeks ahead, it will be plain to see how Bush, Powell and company measure up to this early diplomatic test.

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