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Apocalypse Now Bracing For Sharon

By Gary Rosenblatt
The New York Jewish Week
February 7, 2001

NEW YORK-- Israelis are worried that Ariel Sharon's election as prime minister will be perceived as a vote against the peace process. That is not the case, but the concern is understandable. After all, Sharon has long been an outspoken hawk and opponent of Oslo while Ehud Barak, the man he soundly defeated, was a chief proponent of making peace with Syria and the Palestinians.

The truth is that this week's vote was not so much for Sharon as against Barak, who lost trust among the population for seeming too eager to make major concessions to the Palestinians with little if anything in return. Even more, though, the vote was against Yasir Arafat and his style of seeking peace by making war.

Israelis are eager, if not desperate, for peace, but not at any price. That's what they were asserting at the polls Tuesday. They do not want their government to abandon negotiations. Rather, they want those negotiations conducted from strength, not from fear or defensiveness. They are tired of having men, women and children murdered on a daily basis because they are Jews. They thought helplessness and lack of resolve to fight back against those who want them dead ended with the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel.

Israelis are well aware of Sharon's past, his mix of military bravery and excessive force, his courage and his cockiness. They are concerned about his penchant for reckless decisions and defying authority, knowing such traits are hardly what the country needs at this critical moment. Supporters of Sharon say he has learned from the past, that he knows how to deal with the Arabs, and understands that they respect strength. Moreover, friends say Sharon wants to ensure that his legacy is about solidifying Israel, not about the shame of his role in Sabra and Shatilla.

This was a strangely muted election campaign, particularly since it could determine if Israel is about to move closer to war or peace. The electorate never seemed fully engaged, but then neither did the candidates. Barak held out the hope that Israelis would trust him more than Sharon with their future, and he asserted that a vote for Sharon was a vote for war. But he seemed stoic about his fate, long before the final vote.

Sharon, with his improbably large lead from the outset, tried to say as little as possible. He avoided discussing his peace plan, which calls for minimal changes in the status quo, causing Shimon Peres to observe that it was not designed to make peace with the Arabs but without them.

Still, most Israelis felt that since the Palestinians went to war despite the promise of wholesale concessions from Barak, it was time for a different approach. The voters came to the conclusion, sadly, that the issue is not really borders or settlements but the very existence of a Jewish state, and the Palestinians proved they are not ready for a genuine, permanent peace now. Let Sharon put a halt to the soft Israeli negotiating position, the electorate is saying, and a halt to the violence that cheapens Jewish blood. If there is no hope of a full peace now, let us work toward an interim agreement and the cessation of the intifada.

Deep down, Israelis are hoping that Sharon has the sense-and the sense of the people-to govern reasonably and not provocatively, to move cautiously toward reconciliation and not swiftly toward war.

The reconciliation required is not just with the Arabs but with the Jews of Israel, who are increasingly divided not only on the peace front but on an array of social and domestic issues that have largely been ignored the last several years, from secular-religious conflicts to the Ashkenazi-Sephardic split to the growing economic gap between rich and poor.

The only approach that would allow Sharon to move ahead on both fronts with the Arabs and with the Jews-is to create a unity government. He has pledged to do so, saying he wants Barak to serve as defense minister and Shimon Peres as foreign minister.

Much depends on Sharon's persuasiveness and the willingness of Labor leaders to join a Sharon government, something they said they would not do. When the situation was reversed, a few months ago, Barak was unwilling or unable to bring Sharon into his government. But at least Sharon is saying the right things, and what he says-and how he is perceived by Washington, the American media and American Jewry-is of vital importance.

The organized Jewish community in this country is fearful of a Sharon government, not only because of his hawkish ideology and headstrong history, but because of his portrayal in the media, which is sure to be tough and unflattering. But the Bush administration may be a blessing for Sharon. The new president and Secretary of State Colin Powell would like to put the Arab-Israeli conflict on the back burner, and a little benign neglect might be helpful at this point. With the U.S. stepping back, leaving the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate directly, there is a chance that reality will replace unrealistic expectations on the Arab side and that talks can continue, focused on an interim agreement to stop the bloodshed.

But I'm not holding my breath. More likely, the Palestinians will seek to test Sharon by stepping up the violence, hoping for an immoderate Israeli response that Arafat can use to show the world the government in Jerusalem is out for blood. That must not happen. For now, the best we can hope for is an indication that Sharon is moving toward the political center, creating as wide a coalition as possible and taking steps to tamp down the violence without exacerbating the conflict. A tall order, yes, but Sharon has spent his life preparing for this situation, assuring us he knows how to deal with the Arabs.

Now is his moment.

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week. His e-mail address is

© JTA Inc., 2001. May not be reproduced without written permission.


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