Thursday, January 05, 2006
A Cruel Twist of Fate
As a secular and politically liberal Jewish American, I am in turmoil right now. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a major stroke tonight and underwent brain surgery to save his life. At the age of 77, it his unlikely he will be able to continue in his post and campaign for re-election.
Over the years my attitude toward Sharon combined grudging admiration with disgust. His military leadership in Beirut in 1982 was a black mark for Sharon personally and the State of Israel. Sharon’s defenders will naturally point out that Arafat’s PLO was driven out of Lebanon where they were shelling Israel from the North. That is certainly true. It is also true that Lebanon became a strategic albatross for Israel and eroded their moral authority. Sharon was the father of the settlement movement in the West Bank and Gaza. His ruthless pursuit of a “greater Israel” hampered the ability of successive Israeli governments, including his own, to agree on final borders with the Palestinians. His visit to the Temple Mount in 2000 was needlessly provocative and I thought calculated to undermine Prime Minister Ehud Barak. For most of the past five years Sharon's leadership was about deploying tactical force without presenting a positive alternative for the Palestinians.
And yet, hypocritically perhaps I also appreciated his toughness. Sharon like many European Jews was shaped by the Holocaust and wasn’t going to let anyone trod upon the Jewish state. That singular toughness provided Sharon with a special credibility to the Israel public. He used that political capital to pull settlers out of Gaza and four West Bank settlements last summer. No other figure in Israeli politics could have pulled that off. There was also wide expectation that another withdrawal in the West Bank would take place if he won re-election in March. In recent weeks he left Likud to form a new centrist party called Kadima. Under his leadership Kadima appeared poised to win a mandate allowing Sharon to negotiate final borders with the Palestinians. Since 2001 Sharon managed to become the one figure Israelis trusted to make peace. A warrior arguably guilty of war crimes in 1982 wanted to become a statesman and peacemaker. His new Kadima party boasted former Likudniks as well as former Nobel Peace Laureate Shimon Peres. Israeli polls indicated the new centrist party might have won 40 seats and combined with Labor to move Israeli politics away from the right wing fanatics.
Sadly, this sudden turn of events will likely result in the election of Benjamin Netanyahu on March 28th. Netanyahu does not possess Sharon’s pragmatism or depth. Whereas both are hardliners, Sharon at least desires peace and understands that Israel cannot sustain an occupation and retain their identity as a Jewish democracy. He also accepts the inevitability of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu is simply interested in power and appeals to a constituency not interested in pragmatism or compromises. Since nobody in Israel possesses the stature and credibility to challenge Netanyahu, his ascension to power guarantees more bloodshed and death on both sides. Sharon’s stroke is a cruel twist of fate because Israeli politics was poised for a transformation that gave reason for hope. Instead we will have Netanyahu and that is a victory for lingering despair.