The Magazine

The New Middle East

The return of Ariel Sharon

Feb 19, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 22 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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Imagine General Douglas MacArthur, come back to life in, say, 1980, defeating Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination and going on to become president, crushing President Jimmy Carter more resoundingly than either George McGovern or Barry Goldwater had been beaten. Well, the equally improbable has just happened in Israel, minus the resurrection.

To be sure, Ariel Sharon, who won the prime ministership in a landslide, did not quite rise from the dead. After his disgrace in the Lebanon war in the early 1980s, he slowly worked his way back to political viability. Within a few years, he had been appointed to minor ministerial posts in various Israeli administrations. His final rehabilitation came when he was appointed foreign minister by Benjamin Netanyahu in 1998 and participated in the Wye River negotiations with King Hussein, Yasser Arafat, and President Clinton.

But he was still considered unelectable. Not only because of his age (72) but because of his history. As a young commander in the Suez campaign of 1956, he sent his paratroopers into the Mitla Pass against orders; 38 of his men were killed, a terrible toll in a war in which total Israeli casualties were only 231. Sharon's military career was seriously damaged.

In 1973, he redeemed himself on that same peninsula. With Israel reeling from the surprise Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal, he led a courageous and risky reverse-crossing of the canal that encircled the Egyptians and led to their surrender. True to his bold and erratic form, however, just a decade later he was disgraced again, leading Israel on its ill-fated Lebanon invasion and found indirectly responsible for a massacre carried out by Lebanese Christians.

In fact, one of Barak's campaign slogans stressed that he was the man who had gotten Israel out of Lebanon, while Sharon was the man who had gotten Israel in. The problem for Barak, however, is that while he got Israel out of Lebanon, he also imported Lebanon into the heart of Israel: The endless guerrilla warfare, the daily killings, the roadside bombings, the drive-by shootings, the constant fear that had been the life of the soldiers rotating through Lebanon is now the life of all Israelis who live anywhere near their Palestinian neighbors.

Sharon's accession to power was the direct result of this catastrophic political failure by Barak. It began last July with the diplomatic debacle at Camp David. Barak surprised not only the Palestinians but the American mediators, and indeed his own close associates, with his astonishing concessions: offering to divide Jerusalem; to give up Israel's sovereignty over its holiest site, the Temple Mount; to yield more than 90 percent of the West Bank, including the strategically crucial Jordan Valley. Not only were these concessions unprecedented, they were in direct contradiction to the campaign promises he had made just a year earlier. Why, even Leah Rabin, widow of Barak's mentor, said that Yitzhak would be "turning in his grave" upon hearing what Barak had offered on Jerusalem.

But unlike his mentor Rabin, who also betrayed his campaign promises but at least brought home a piece of parchment signed on the White House lawn, Barak brought home nothing. Worse than nothing. Sensing Barak's weakness and desperation and pressing for even better terms, Arafat soon launched the low-level guerrilla war now plaguing Israel.

The betrayal of his allies, the humiliation at Camp David, and finally the ongoing war -- which led a wobbly Barak to offer even greater concessions -- totally undercut whatever support he had in the public and in parliament. By late 2000, his government had collapsed. Going into this election, he had the support of a mere one-quarter of the Knesset.

Here is where Sharon got lucky. Polls showed Barak trailing very badly against Benjamin Netanyahu, who had come back from a self-imposed political exile and was preparing to run for prime minister. Barak was 30 points behind. Barak knew he didn't have a chance. But he thought he might have a chance against caretaker Likud leader Ariel Sharon (who took over the party when Netanyahu resigned after his 1999 defeat), since Sharon's checkered past had for decades made him politically unacceptable to a large number of Israelis.