Small World

Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2001 / 16 Shevat, 5761

Sharon the peacemaker
can now show his face

By Richard Z. Chesnoff -- ONE of the first things Ariel Sharon should do is send a thank-you note to Yasser Arafat. After all, it was the Palestinian leader's camel-stubborn refusal to accept Ehud Barak's unprecedented peace offers that turned Israelis against the outgoing prime minister. And it was the Arafat-sanctioned war of terror that plunged the final nails into Barak's political coffin.

Not that I think Sharon's election is such a disaster. It isn't — not for Israelis and, in an odd way, not for Palestinians, either. After almost two years of watching Arafat spit in Barak's face every time he made a concession, Israelis want a less compromising leader.

As for the Palestinians, exit good cop, enter bad cop.

The 72-year-old Sharon is a symbol of toughness. The international press loves to talk of his "bloodstained career." What few commentators remember, though, is that Sharon can be a pragmatic peacemaker. He was among those who convinced the late Menachem Begin in 1978 that the only path to peace with Egypt was to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula — which Sharon himself had helped capture during 1967's Six-Day War.

And after Egypt and Israel signed their historic Camp David accord, it was Sharon who oversaw the forcible expulsion of right-wing Israeli settlers from Sinai settlements like Yamit.

So what will Sharon do this time around? For starters, he says, he won't be "eating Arabs for breakfast." But he will wipe the platter clean. All those far-reaching offers that Barak made — an Israeli withdrawal from 98% of the West Bank and Gaza, the dismantling of many of Israel's settlements there, the redivision of Jerusalem and the immediate recognition of a Palestinian state — are off the table for now.

Sharon's own menu for peace is to honor only agreements with the Arabs already ratified by the Knesset. He says he's open to compromise, and that includes an eventual Palestinian state. But his vision of compromise is one that will not endanger his strategic view of Israel's minimal security needs. That means no military withdrawal from critical border areas like the Jordan Valley; no substantial dismantling of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza; a sharing but not a division of Jerusalem — and absolutely no negotiations while violence is the Palestinian response.

Sharon will try forming a government that will encompass as many of Israel's parties and opinions as possible, above all Barak's Labor wing. The new prime minister faces a particularly fractious parliament. And unless he can form a workable coalition, he and Israel will be facing premature elections as well as Palestinian intransigence.

One of Sharon's fondest hopes, he says, is to have Barak, his defeated political opponent and former army colleague, join him as defense minister. Sharon thinks the two great military men could form a powerful partnership. Barak has indicated that he would not accept membership in a government of "extremists." But some say he can be persuaded to join Sharon.

Problem is that Barak's devastating defeat has pulled the carpet out from under his party. He has already formally resigned as Labor's leader; he may not be sanctioned to join Sharon's government.

Whatever happens, Sharon is determined to try to unite Israel and achieve real peace and personal security — for Palestinians, he claims, as well as Israelis.

If the fire-breathing Menachem Begin could make peace with Egypt, then why can't Sharon be the Israeli to make meaningful peace with the Palestinians? And maybe, just maybe, they, too, will someday go to free polls and elect their leader, as Israel did on Tuesday.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News. His latest book is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.


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