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The New Middle East

The return of Ariel Sharon

Feb 19, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 22 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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Barak maneuvered. He resigned, calling a snap election. Netanyahu would be legally excluded from running on a technicality, because he was not a member of parliament. Even the jaded Israeli political system could not stomach so cynical a move. The Knesset quickly moved to change the law to allow Netanyahu to run, but Netanyahu wisely decided not to because the Knesset would not dissolve itself, and the current Knesset is so fractured as to be ungovernable. Netanyahu stepped aside. Sharon became the improbable challenger. He then won by the largest margin in Israeli history, an unheard of 25 points.

He won because of Barak's incompetence and cynicism. He won because of Netanyahu's caution. But most of all, he won because of Yasser Arafat.



Arafat made a fool of Barak. He proved, even to much of the Israeli left, that the entire theory of preemptive concessions, magnanimous gestures, rolling appeasement was an exercise in futility. Israelis were shocked by how far Barak had gone. Dividing Jerusalem was something that no Israeli government even considered for 35 years. Equally unthinkable was giving up the Jordan Valley, Israel's buffer against tank attack from the east. Barak's own Labor party for 35 years maintained that it should never be given up. Barak's own army chief of staff said giving it up threatened Israel's very existence.

It didn't stop there. By the end, just days before the election, Barak was offering 94 percent to 96 percent of the West Bank -- plus pieces of Israel proper to make up the full 100 percent. He was prepared to give the Palestinians not only their own state but control of the border crossings with Egypt and Jordan. Previous Israeli governments had refused to countenance that because there could then be no controlling the flow of weapons into Palestine and thus no possibility of a Palestinian state being demilitarized.

Working with an equally lame-duck Bill Clinton, Barak tried desperately in the final weeks of his administration to wrap up a deal and save himself politically. Arafat reacted with characteristic cunning (always misinterpreted in the West as indecision): He equivocated, pocketing concessions, offering nothing, letting Barak twist in the wind.

Arafat did all this knowing that it would bring on Sharon. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority broadcast instructions to Israeli Arabs to boycott the election, thus assuring Sharon's victory, even had the election been close. With Sharon, Arafat will meet resistance. And that resistance may spark international pressure on Israel and, perhaps better, a regional war.

As pointed out by Ehud Ya'ari, a leading Israeli journalist who has known and studied Arafat for over 30 years, a regional war has long been Arafat's fondest dream. He knows the Palestinians will always be too weak to fight the Israelis head on. And he knows that the best he can get from any peace agreement is a small Palestinian state, perhaps with part of Jerusalem. The only way to achieve the real dream of conquering all of Palestine, which would make him Saladin, would be to trigger a replay of 1948 with five Arab states invading Israel, but this time with modern armies, modern weapons, modern leadership, and massive oil wealth behind them.

That is his ultimate strategy. But he has more limited interim strategic objectives as well. These less cataclysmic calculations center on the new administration in Washington. The Arabs have a rather romantic view of George W. Bush, remembering that his father, and particularly his secretary of state James Baker, were quite tough on the Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir in the early 1990s. What they see now is the perfect alignment of the stars: a hard-line Bush administration clashing with a hard-line Likud administration. No Israeli government can long afford a breach with America. Tension between Israel and its one ally would undermine its international position and make it far more susceptible to Palestinian demands.

True. Nonetheless, Arafat is probably misreading the younger Bush. Baker is not back. The Bush team is hardly eager to get near the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, the chief objective of Bush's national security advisers is to extract themselves as much as they can from the negotiating morass into which Bill Clinton, with his frenetic legacy-hunting, inserted the United States. And ironically, the one Israeli George W. Bush probably knows best is the man who took him on a helicopter tour of the territories in 1998 and whom he subsequently lavishly praised: Ariel Sharon.