The New Ariel Sharon?

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon stunned Israel and the world this past week by repudiating the philosophic and political assumptions of his own ruling Likud political party. By acknowledging that the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza were in "occupied" territories that should be part of an independent Palestinian state, Sharon was embracing the position of his political rivals, the Israeli doves, and abandoning the Likud's historic goal of a Greater Israel in the biblical "holy land" from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Is this new position an authentic conversion or a tactical ploy? Is Sharon casting himself in the role of F.W. de Klerk of South Africa -- a political leader who, seeing reality, abandoned his misguided political assumptions to create a new paradigm, hopeful and humane?

De Klerk is a relevant model. He, like Sharon, rejected the aspirations of an entire people and, in so doing, supported the disenfranchisement of the political majority. A peaceful solution in South Africa always seemed unimaginable. But, seeing reality, de Klerk helped end apartheid and transform South Africa into a multiracial democracy.

As can be asked about de Klerk's, does Sharon's transformation represent a spiritual epiphany, a Zen moment, or a divinely delivered whack on the head that has jarred him into seeing past the dated assumptions, ideological blinders, conventional prejudices, and fossilized beliefs that have long passed for wisdom in the minds of dull and unimaginative political leaders? Or does it reflect a pragmatic coming-to-terms with a changing strategic landscape; an understanding that the old politics are now outdated and the time is ripe for new directions.

Or maybe a third possibility, as cynics insist: Sharon's change is merely a façade. The old warrior -- champion of the settler movement and enemy of a Palestinian state -- is simply finessing American pressure. Sharon loves the peace process so much, Israeli comics say, that he wants to keep it going for another hundred years. Only the future will show if Sharon's transformation is deceitful or real.

An important factor to note: Ariel Sharon is a secular, not a fundamentalist, Jew. His support for Greater Israel was never biblically inspired. His main motive has always been Israeli security, which meant, in his view, keeping Palestinians weak and stateless. But like Nixon's Chinese and de Klerk's black South Africans, the Palestinians are not going to give up their national aspirations.

Whatever his reason, Sharon decided to put aside illusion and accept reality. As he explained to angry Likud legislators, "You may not like the word but what's happening is occupation. Holding 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is a bad thing for Israel, for the Palestinians and for the Israeli economy."

What's changed in the Middle East puzzle? For one, the U.S. needs to do something for the Arab world to quiet opposition to its Iraqi occupation and imperial bluster. On this, Bush faces opposition within his administration. The neoconservatives who promoted the invasion of Iraq and threaten war against Syria and Iran are notorious in their support of the Likud's Greater Israel position. How that conflict plays out will affect the pressure Bush brings to bear on Sharon, the Likud, and the Israeli settler movement.

Undermining Yassir Arafat (even though he is the elected Palestinian President) has had its intended effect. Arafat, the great prevaricator, must have driven the Israelis crazy. Whether right or wrong, Israel is nothing if not decisive. This is probably a result of the holocaust experience. European Jews who could not decide whether the Nazis represented a real danger ended up perishing in the camps. Those who acted decisively fled, many to Israel.

Arafat, as ruler, would not make a decisive decision. Nor could he formulate a positive and unifying democratic vision. The new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), is respected, even by Israelis, as a man of his word. His promise to crack down on terrorism and exercise control of the Palestinian government no doubt gives the security-conscious Sharon a measure of confidence. Israel long accused Arafat of promoting peace when speaking in English and creating obstacles to peace when speaking in Arabic. It's significant, then, that when Abbas spoke about ending Palestinian violence, he did so in Arabic.

In attempting to stop Palestinian terrorism, Abbas faces the possibility of a Palestinian civil war and the threat of assassination. Sharon, if he is sincere, faces a similar challenge. Proponents of Greater Israel are in the streets protesting the peace process. The Israeli paper Haaretz has warned that the anger of right-wing settlers towards Sharon, a man they believed to be their defender, is similar to the anger that led to the assassination of Yitzak Rabin, another Israeli peacemaker.

The history of Middle East peace efforts should give pause even to the most intrepid optimists. Can Abbas take control of his government? Is Sharon ready to abandon the settlements, not just the supposed "illegal" ones (built, though, with the tacit approval of his government) but also the developed ones, inhabited by over 200,000 Israelis, and built in strategic areas in what Sharon now acknowledges to be Palestinian territory?

Beyond the question of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli settlements are the questions of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinians. John Podhoretz, whose parents Norman Podhoretz and Midge Dector are founders of the neo-conservative movement, insists in the New York Post that Israel will never give up Jerusalem.

Whatever the difficulties, a barrier has been broken. Ariel Sharon, the leader of the most hawkish and right-wing government in Israeli history, a sworn enemy of Palestinian statehood, has seen reality and acknowledged what is inevitable and just.

Marty Jezer writes in Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at mjez@sover.net.

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