Israel ponders a future without Sharon.jpg

Israel ponders a future without Sharon

By Gabriel Hershman

ISRAELI LEADER Ariel Sharon’s life-threatening illness has triggered some comparisons with the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 10 years ago. Some commentators even claim that the Middle East peace process has been dealt a mortal blow by Sharon’s indisposition. But that betrays a false reading of events. There never really was a “peace process” under Sharon’s leadership.

Such a description implies a collaborative series of negotiations with the opposing side, something that never happened under Sharon. The recent withdrawal from Gaza was a unilateral step, taken without the Palestinians’ consultation.

Sharon was, by instinct, a political bulldozer. He refused to even meet Yasser Arafat, preferring, as he described it, to isolate the late Palestinian leader in his Ramallah compound.  Rabin, by contrast, had negotiated the Oslo Accords with Arafat, an agreement that offered Palestinian autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. Of course, Rabin, like most Israelis, also loathed Arafat. The handshake he extended Arafat in 1993 was probably the most reluctant in history. But, unlike Sharon, Rabin had at least been willing to talk to the enemy.

Sharon’s decision to leave the Likud party and form the new Kadima (Forward) party, along with his former adversary Shimon Peres, was a canny political move. He knew that many inside Likud opposed the Gaza withdrawal and that rivals – notably Binyamin Netanyahu – would never cease jockeying for position. But there was little evidence that Sharon would have secured any substantive agreement with the Palestinians even if he had steered his new movement to election victory in March.

The Palestinians, notwithstanding the phoney crocodile tears from some senior sources, unequivocally hated Sharon. They remembered his heroic role in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. They also accused him of complicity in the massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Christian forces at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, following the Israeli invasion of 1982.

Sharon radicalised the conflict

Talk of Sharon’s possible withdrawal from the West Bank was more of a pipe dream than reality. Most Palestinians concluded that Sharon would never have surrendered enough of the West Bank to constitute a viable Palestinian state. In particular, he was determined to hold on to East Jerusalem.

In truth, nearly all of Sharon’s actions radicalised the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. As a consequence, Hamas is threatening to make a strong showing in the forthcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections. And, if Hamas should win, no Israeli leader – of the left or the right – would negotiate with it, given its aim of destroying Israel. It is also unlikely that any Palestinian leader could have “sold” a deal with Sharon to their people. Most Palestinians (and independent commentators) viewed Sharon as the architect of the escalation of tensions over the last few years, following his storming of the Temple Mount complex, the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in 2000.

Sharon was just about the last man on earth the Palestinians would have chosen as Israeli leader, just as Yasser Arafat was the least favoured Palestinian leader among Israelis.

Sharon was also unpopular abroad – his conduct in 2002, at the time of the invasion of the Jenin refugee camp, earned him universal opprobrium, including some ugly anti-Semitic caricatures in the European press. Even the leaders of more friendly Muslim countries in the region – notably Egypt, Jordan and Turkey – found that dealings with him fatally compromised their own popularity at home.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was on record as saying he preferred to deal with Netanyahu – seen as even more of a hawk – than Sharon. To most objective commentators, both Sharon and Arafat were seen as the problem, not the solution – old men clinging to the baggage of decades of undying enmity.

Even if Sharon survives his stroke, it is clear that he will never return to office. He has now been removed as a serious player on the Israeli stage. And, ungallant though it may be to say so, his departure probably enhances Israel’s chances of securing an agreement with the Palestinians.