The overwhelming victory in the Israeli prime ministerial election by former defense ministers and noted hawk Ariel Sharon could be viewed as a harbinger of wider conflict and violence in the region. Despite his margin over Ehud Barak, however, Sharon may not have nearly as much latitude to do what he wants as some observers may believe. And while it still seems unlikely that Sharon will pull a Nixon-goes-to-China or even a Menachem Begin-makes-peace-with Egypt maneuver to get something resembling real peace started, he may not have ambitions beyond tightening up security so that Israeli citizens live in less fear.
The U.S. response has been reasonably deft so far, although Secretary of State Colin Powells declaration that Israeli-Palestinian peace is a top priority for the United States, if it is more than make-nice boilerplate, could be troubling. The apparent instinct among most Bushies has been to pull back a bit from the kind of hands-on micromanagement of the peace "process" that characterized the final year of the Clinton presidency. Thats still a sound instinct, one that should be encouraged.
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM WRONG
Writing in the Washington Post, staff writer Alan Sipress said that the election of Ariel Sharon as Israels prime minister "may pose immediate challenges for the Bush administration at a time when the White House had hoped to step back and reassess Americas involvement in Arab-Israeli negotiations." A statement Tuesday from State Department spokesman Richard Boucher to the effect that the security situation between Israel and Palestine has "seriously deteriorated" in the last 48 hours verged on the kind of almost panicked response that could lead to more intensive and even direct US involvement.
On the other hand, it is difficult to see why heightened US involvement would be desirable or constructive short of all-out war engulfing the entire region. That kind of wider conflict may seem given the heightened rhetoric following Mr. Sharons electoral victory. But I still think it is unlikely given the underlying realities.
MORE ANTI-BARAK THAN PRO-SHARON
If anything, Mr. Sharons election looks more like a firm repudiation of the almost manic last-minute efforts by former (well, still in office, and maybe for a while as we shall see) prime minister Ehud Barak, urged on by a President Clinton seeking a legacy whatever the cost in other peoples blood, to seek almost any kind of agreement with the Palestinians that could be spun as advancing the "peace process" than an endorsement of Ariel Sharons hard-line record. The outcome suggests that most Israeli voters want surcease from hyperactive negotiations while they sort out the deep divisions in their own country.
The United States should acknowledge and encourage that sentiment by announcing that it has learned from events of the last year that there are times to step back from active involvement in Israeli-Palestinian issues, to acknowledge that for all its power and influence the United States does not have a silver bullet available to resolve all the issues, that it is willing and even eager for the disputing parties and other countries in the region to assume more leadership. The search for peace is a process whose end cannot be forced by outside powers, Colin Powell or George W. Bush might say, and while the United States stands ready to facilitate an agreement once the parties are close and can use a third party to tie up the details, it understands the futility of trying to impose a made-in-America agreement before the time is ripe.
TIME TO STEP BACK
If the Middle East experts I talked to are right, this tack, taken quickly and decisively, might even be the best bet for averting or deterring the escalation of violence in the region. The reason, as Leon Hadar, former United Nations correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, put it in a nutshell, is that for some time "each side has figured that Washington would be able to deliver the other side and have enough muscle and money to make it stick." Disabusing the parties of this notion wont bring peace immediately or maybe ever. But it just might be the best hope for small, realistic steps toward workable accommodations, which might be the best that can be done.
To be sure, the potential for a wider conflict is very real, and it could happen without any of the parties really wanting it. It is possible that no Israeli leader is more hated or despised in the Arab world than Ariel Sharon, whom many consider an outright war criminal because of his role in the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during Israels 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon. The post-election rhetoric on all sides has been fierce.
RHET0RIC FIERCER THAN ACTION?
Marwan Barghouthi, the head of the West Bank branch of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafats Fatah faction and a key organizer of the four-month uprising or "intifada" that has lead to almost 400 deaths, told Agence France Presse, "Sharon is the last bullet the Israelis have; let them fire it," suggesting he is ready for a wider conflict. Saddam Hussein announced that he was taking Iraqi volunteers for an army to liberate Jerusalem. Official Syrian newspapers called Sharons election a "declaration of war."
Ariel Sharon hardly defused tensions when he went to Jerusalems Western Wall and declared Jerusalem "the united and indivisible capital of Israel with the Temple Mount at its center for all eternity." The realization that there is no position on the final status of Jerusalem to which both Israelis and Palestinians can agree was one of the main reasons for the breakdown of the peace process and the beginning of the current wave of violence.
Is large-scale violence inevitable, however? Maybe it is. But maybe not.
Palestinian militants declared Tuesday, Israeli election day, was elected, a "day of rage" and promised large-scale protests. There were protests, clashes, and people hurt, but their scale was less than predicted.
"The Palestinians have to know they cant accomplish much through a real armed struggle," Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Intitute told me Wednesday. "There may be more demonstrations and more violence. But the uprising to date has brought them the hardest of Israeli hardliners as prime minister. Thats not exactly a victory."
Leon Hadar believes that Syria and Iraq are posturing at this time, though he notes that posturing can get out of hand, leading people to take actions they might not otherwise have taken.
On the Israeli side, despite his 62.8 percent victory, Ariel Sharon will not have a free hand and he might not even assume office. He has 45 days to form a government that wont be dissolved by the existing Knesset. His Likud Party has only 19 of 120 seats and Labor leaders are divided about the idea of joining a unity" government. Fifteen different parties more if you count the three that have split since the last election have seats in the Knesset. And if Sharon doesnt assemble a government and pass a budget by the end of March, the Knesset will be dissolved with new elections for both the Knesset and prime minister to follow.
DEEP ISRAELI DIVISIONS
That division reflects deep divisions within Israeli society and a brittle political system. There have been five prime ministers in the past five years, reflecting a period of intense discussion about the core interests and even the nature of the country. The Sephardim-Askenazy split that has been present from the beginning is still a factor. It is complicated by the fact that 20 percent of Israelis are now of Russian origin, having migrated fairly recently, and about 20 percent of Israelis are Arabs, so alienated from the system they declined to vote this week. There are deep divisions between religious and secular Jews.
"Until these deep political, cultural and religious divisions are resolved, hopefully through a political process," Leon Hadar told me, "Israel is in no position to make the kind of life-and-death decisions involved in coming to an accommodation with the Palestinians.
Theres a possibility Sharon will turn out to be an effective peace maker, and there are precedents in recent Israeli history of Likud prime ministers taking important steps toward peace. But none of the people I talked to expected this to happen. Instead, it is more likely that there will be continued relatively low-level clashes and counterclashes, including possibly harsh reprisals by the Israelis in Palestinian territory, and no serious move toward negotiations for a while.
A MODEST PEACE AGENDA
Are there any steps that might lead to accommodations in the process of muddling through, without the necessity of formal talks or agreements signed? Yes, although its too early to predict whether any will actually be taken.
In the January-February issue of Foreign Affairs, Arthur Hertzberg, visiting Humanities professor at New York university and author of books on Zionism, argues that a comprehensive deal is not likely in the near future, so he offers a couple of modest steps that might make a difference over the long run. A serious effort should be made to offer education, especially in subjects useful to high-tech careers, to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. As the other Mideast article in the issue, by New York Times reporter Chris Hedges, reports, young Palestinians form rock-throwing gangs for a number of reasons, but one of the most important is that they see little hope for a better future.
Hertzberg suggests that for its part Israel would do well to stop building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and even to eliminate some that are provocative or difficult to defend.
That doesnt seem to be what is happening, of course. But as noted, Sharon has yet to assume office. It is difficult to tell from a distance what kind of compromises and commitments he will have to make many of them no doubt having little or nothing to do with security matters to assemble a government that would not be too vulnerable to a no-confidence vote.
STRESSING ECONOMY, DOWNPLAYING POLITICS
Ted Carpenter would endorse both those steps and adds that Israelis and Palestinians might take it a step further and start talking quietly about economic cooperation while downplaying the importance of political negotiations and formal agreements. "The Israeli propensity to close the border, cutting off Palestinians from jobs and prospects, whenever trouble starts might be understandable, but it serves mainly to radicalize the Palestinians," he told me. "In general the Israeli fondness for economically punitive measures is almost always counterproductive."
Leon Hadar suggests that any US reassessment of its true interests in the region should include what he calls a regionalization of the conflict. "It was amazing to me that Egypt, Jordan (which get US aid) and the Saudis were so aggressive in urging Arafat not to accept the deal Barak offered on Jerusalem," he said. The United States might suggest that they come up with a solution rather than sitting on the sidelines ready to reject US and Israeli proposals. Any agreement will have region-wide implications, so it is a good idea to involve other countries and share accountability."
None of these is a comprehensive solution, and they all share a characteristic Arthur Hertzberg notes of his own proposals: they dont require heavy US government involvement. The sooner we disabuse ourselves of the notion that the United States is the indispensable key to a comprehensive settlement and in so doing disabuse the countries in the region of the notion that Uncle Sam will come riding to the rescue with bags of money and peacekeeping or occupation services the better the chance of small steps toward peace will become.