East: A Time for Reassessment
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
U.S. response has been reasonably deft so far, although Secretary
of State Colin Powellís 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. Thatís still a sound instinct, one that
should be encouraged.
in the Washington Post, staff
writer Alan Sipress said that the election of Ariel Sharon as
Israelís prime minister "may pose immediate challenges for
the Bush administration at a time when the White House had hoped
to step back and reassess Americaís 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.
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. Sharonís electoral victory. But
I still think it is unlikely given the underlying realities.
ANTI-BARAK THAN PRO-SHARON
anything, Mr. Sharonís 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 peoplesí 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 Sharonís 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.
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.
TO STEP BACK
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 wonít 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 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 Israelís 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon.
The post-election rhetoric on all sides has been fierce.
FIERCER THAN ACTION?
Barghouthi, the head of the West Bank branch of Palestinian leader
Yasser Arafatís 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
Sharonís election a "declaration
Sharon hardly defused tensions when he went to Jerusalemís 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.
large-scale violence inevitable, however? Maybe it is. But maybe
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
Palestinians have to know they canít 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. Thatís not exactly
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.
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 wonít 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 Ďunity" 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 doesnít 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.
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.
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.
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.
MODEST PEACE AGENDA
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 itís too early to predict whether any will
actually be taken.
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.
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.
doesnít 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
ECONOMY, DOWNPLAYING POLITICS
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."
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."
of these is a comprehensive solution, and they all share a characteristic
Arthur Hertzberg notes of his own proposals: they donít 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.
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