Although long expected, Ariel Sharon’s landslide victory in Israel’s election this week has stunned much of the world. Because Sharon’s name is most associated internationally with war, invasion, and West Bank settlements, many will see his election as an Israeli vote against peace. This, however, would be a fundamental misreading of the election result and the Israeli mood today. Israel’s turn to Sharon was not a rejection of peace, but of Ehud Barak’s methods of trying to achieve it, and the Palestinians’ violent response. Only major changes in both can prevent the situation from deteriorating further.
It was not Barak’s commitment to peace, but his style of leadership that put off many Israelis. Barak’s supreme self-confidence and unwillingness to share authority served him well as a military leader, but they isolated him as a civilian one. Even his strongest supporters eventually lost patience with his zig-zags-whether in domestic politics, where he veered between courting religious parties and embracing a “secular revolution,” or in the peace process, where several times he insisted he would not negotiate while Palestinian violence continued, only to restart the talks anyway.
Israelis also turned against Barak because of some of the substantive concessions he appeared willing to make in the desperate search for a deal. Barak’s willingness to share sovereignty in Jerusalem and, reportedly, to withdraw troops from the Jordan Valley surprised many Israelis because he had given no hint of such concessions before Camp David. The concessions seemed to be in response only to Palestinian violence and Barak’s own desperation to shore up his faltering political prospects. Military leaders normally beat a tactical retreat if they get too far out in front of their troops; but Barak seemed determined to push forward regardless of the cost.
The issue that upset the widest spectrum of Israelis, however, was that of the Palestinian “right of return.” This issue featured prominently in President Clinton’s December peace proposals, which most Israelis believe would not have been floated without the approval of Barak. On a visit to Israel last week, we found most Israelis deeply distressed that Barak had allowed this issue to emerge as a serious matter of discussion and convinced its implementation would mean the effective end of their state-a belief only strengthened by the unprecedented outbreak of violence among Israel’s own Arab population last fall.
Barak is also blamed, perhaps unfairly, for Palestinian reaction to his peace-making efforts. Prior to Camp David, a growing number of Israelis believed real peace was possible if their government offered a reasonably generous peace deal-Gaza, most of the West Bank, recognition of Palestinian statehood, and compensation for refugees. Now these same Israelis believe Barak’s escalating concessions only encouraged violence and projected the impression of Israeli weakness. They voted for Sharon-reluctantly-simply because he is not Barak.
With Sharon in office, the United States and its allies should not give up on the search for Arab-Israeli peace. Instead they should stick to their conviction that the only solution is a negotiated peace and that the alternative is indefinite pain for both sides. They should:
- seek to restart peace negotiations, notwithstanding the Palestinians’ deep aversion to Sharon. Until recently, most Israelis were appalled by the notion of negotiating with Arafat, but they ultimately swallowed hard and agreed to do so. The Palestinians in fact have already dealt with Sharon, for example when he was Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign minister during the 1998 Wye Plantation negotiations. Europe should use its influence with the Palestinians to encourage them back to the negotiating table.
- warn Sharon against unreasonable demands. Sharon was long an ardent, “grab every hilltop” advocate of Israel’s settler movement. Pursuing this course now, however, would mean the end of peace-making possibilities, and would guarantee continuation of violence. Sharon needs to understand that new settlement activity or efforts to roll back previous agreements will inevitably lead to the international isolation that Israel has worked so hard over the past seven years to overcome.
- support Sharon’s reasonable security demands. Included in this category might be a demand that Palestinian violence cease-or at least that Arafat make serious efforts to stop it-before negotiations resume. It might also include Sharon’s rejection of a “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to pre-1967 Israel. Instead, the refugees should be compensated financially and encouraged to live in the newly created Palestinian state and in third countries.
- lower expectations. A comprehensive peace deal between Sharon and the Palestinians is unlikely, given the wide gap on so many issues, and Palestinian expectations that Sharon will not be in office for long. Thus, interim solutions involving limited Israeli withdrawals-designed to enhance Israeli security by reducing points of friction with the Palestinian population-might be the most that can be hoped for in the near term.
It would be too much to suggest a Sharon victory will bring peace. But it is also wrong to assume that it must mean the end of the peace process. At least with Sharon, Palestinians will know that more violence will not mean more concessions, but probably fewer. If Sharon, in turn, realizes that only a viable Palestinian state and measures to reduce Palestinian resentment can bring an ultimate end to this conflict, February 6 need not mark a turn for the worse.