The outcome of Israel’s election Tuesday only confirmed what opinion polls had predicted for weeks, but it was nonetheless stunning. Regarded by much of the Arab world as a war criminal and disgraced for his indirect role in the massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon by Lebanese militants while he served as Israel’s defense minister, Ariel Sharon became Israel’s prime minister last week in the most lopsided political victory in Israel’s history. The man he defeated, Ehud Barak, had himself won a landslide victory less than two years ago and seemed on the verge of historic greatness when the world hoped the Camp David summit in July would end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict once and
The contradictions were evident throughout the campaign: As Sharon continued to advocate tough positions that cannot possibly lead to peace with the Palestinians, especially on Jerusalem, large majorities of the Israeli public continued to say that they supported the peace process. But they elected him anyway. What then is Sharon’s mandate and how will it affect the prospects of peace with the Palestinians?
The reasons for Sharon’s dramatic rise to power include the Israeli identity crisis surrounding the issues of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to territory that is now Israel. But the dominant factor was the overwhelming rejection of Barak, not the concessions he proposed. First, he failed in his bid to reach a peace agreement. Had his moves led to a final agreement with the Palestinians, he would have had a serious chance.
This is not mere speculation. Opinion polls in Israel continued to show that, had Shimon Peres replaced Barak as the Labor candidate, he would have had an even shot at defeating Sharon. Peres is widely seen as more conciliatory toward the Palestinians than Barak and with fewer security credentials in the minds of many Israelis. Moreover, Arab citizens of Israel who constitute more than 12 percent of the electorate, and 95 percent of whom voted for Barak in the previous election, dramatically abandoned the man this time around. They wanted Barak to give more, not less, to the Palestinians. Like many of Barak’s allies in the Israeli political process, however, they felt ignored by the man they helped elect, as their grievances about social, economic and political inequality remained unaddressed. Also, as they demonstrated to protest Israeli measures in the West Bank and Gaza in October, Israeli police acted with an iron fist leading to the death of 13 people and the wounding of dozens, thus reinforcing the prevalent feeling the state had not accepted them as full citizens.
Still, given the wide margin of Sharon’s victory—more than 25 percentage points—he would have defeated Barak anyway even if all the Arab voters had turned out for the Labor candidate. Many of Barak’s Jewish voters also abandoned him. It was not merely his political style, reflective of the army general that he was, making all decisions himself, keeping things to himself, giving the impression that he knows all and needs no one’s guidance, or even his zigzagging style of saying one thing and doing another. Ultimately, it was mostly about the psychology of insecurity, the loss of national self-confidence, fear of an uncertain future, and a sense of losing control—even though Israel today is more powerful militarily and economically than ever, both in absolute terms and in relation to its Arab neighbors. And despite the fact that Arab governments remain fully aware of this Israeli dominance, Israelis feared that the public in the Arab world increasingly saw Israel as being weak and vulnerable, a perception that concerned most Israelis.
This psychology began when Barak suddenly ordered the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon after 18 years of presence in that country, without securing a political accord. The message that some Arabs received and some Israelis feared was that acts of violence even by the few hundred fighters in Lebanon were enough to get Israeli forces to withdraw. The “message” acquired more meaning once the Al-Aqsa intifada, the recent Palestinian uprising, started in September following Sharon’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, in Jerusalem. Although the overwhelming majority of the victims have been Palestinian in the ensuing confrontations between the Israeli army and the Palestinians, the intifada has resulted in a sense of loss of control and raised the prospect of a war of attrition.
It is this psychology—with no peace on the horizon—that was ultimately Barak’s undoing, not the fear of concessions that could lead to lasting peace. But no matter what the reasons are for his election, Sharon is now the prime minister of Israel and free to pursue his own agenda. Although he has been advocating “peace with security,” his positions on territorial concessions leave little room for a quick renewal of serious negotiations. But his course will be in part a function of the type of government he puts together.
In the short term, he will continue to prefer a national unity government that includes some members of the Labor Party that could enable him to project a greater mandate in the Knesset and to the world community, and may be able to allow him room for restarting negotiations with the Palestinians. But he may also find himself forming a narrower coalition with mostly right-wing partners, which will limit his room to maneuver.
Either way, the obstacles to an agreement, especially a comprehensive agreement, are many. Even if Sharon deviates from his stated positions and finds a common basis to negotiate with the Palestinians, he will quickly be tested by his own allies among the settlers, and by Palestinian militants. It is doubtful that he will have the will, or the ability, to restrain settlers who want to build new settlements in East Jerusalem. And if he doesn’t, Palestinian reaction and Sharon’s subsequent retaliation are likely to be bloody. It is hard to start a bilateral negotiation in this environment.
That’s why the Bush administration’s reluctance to enter into an active mediation in the conflict is likely to change quickly. Events of the past several months have shown that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is once again a broader Arab-Israeli conflict, especially when Jerusalem is involved. U.S. relations with Arab states are likely to be strained if violence escalates at a time when the Bush administration is trying to improve these relations in order to increase pressure on Iraq. The style of U.S. diplomacy may change, but it’s only a matter of time before the United States is drawn into active mediation, not for the good of Arabs and Israelis, but for Washington’s own interests. Recent history of the Middle East shows that miracles do happen: Egypt’s Anwar Sadat surprised the world by making peace with Israel when many expected war, and Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin secretly negotiated mutual acceptance when hope for a deal seemed slim. The common reality, however, has been that leaders have turned out to be exactly what they had always been. In Sharon’s case, that’s precisely why many in Israel and elsewhere are praying for a miracle.
Shibley Telhami is a Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland.