Look on the Bright Side

I’ve never liked the gloom and doom and predictions of Armageddon with which the international press has traditionally welcomed the election of Likud governments in Israel. The American chattering classes in particular are given to seeing Israeli politics, as they see all foreign politics, through the distorting lens of their eternal search for heroes and villains. Way back in July 1999, Slate’s David Plotz observed this very phenomenon. Leaving an Israel where the newly elected Ehud Barak was being received with deep skepticism, he arrived in Washington, only to find the city being swept by a wholly unrealistic wave of Barak Euphoria. Annoyance with this sort of thing inspired me to argue a few weeks ago that whoever won the election, Barak or Netanyahu—who then looked set to be Likud’s candidate—it wouldn’t really matter to the peace process.

The case of Ariel Sharon, however, is different. Sharon isn’t Bibi. Nor is he just another Likud politician either. Among many other things, he is known as the man most responsible for Israel’s war in Lebanon, as the military commander who looked the other way during the Lebanese Christian attack on the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, as the architect of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, as the man whose very presence on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem last September was enough to spark four months of Palestinian rioting. He is known for his pragmatism, for his military genius—and for his brutality to Arabs. He has bulldozed Palestinian homes, authorized the murder of Palestinian and Jordanian civilians, shot suspected terrorists without due process of law, all in the name of Israeli security. It is perfectly possible that his election will so inflame the Arab world that all talk of peace in the Middle East will have to be abandoned. But even if the entire region doesn’t descend into conflict, as some are predicting, it isn’t so easy to argue that Sharon’s stunning victory tonight won’t matter to the peace process. One way or the other, it will.

But you can read all of that elsewhere: As might have been expected, the villainization of Sharon proceeds apace—click here for Slate’s review of international papers on his election—and needs no help from me. Instead, to complicate the gloomy outlook you will read just about everywhere else, I am here supplying, for the record, a list of reasons why Prime Minister Sharon might possibly not prove to be a disaster.

1. He uses the rhetoric of peace. Have a look at Sharon’s election Web site. It opens with a letter from Arik to his supporters, and the letter begins, “We all want peace, true peace. Peace with security. Peace that will protect us.” It isn’t, of course, at all clear what that means. Sharon has been noticeably tight-lipped throughout this campaign about what he thinks might count as “peace,” or how it might be brought about: In the past, he has spoken of a long-term truce rather than a land-for-peace deal along the lines of the Oslo agreement.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that he feels compelled, at least, to use the language of peace. If nothing else, that means that, since Oslo, the atmosphere in Israel has changed. Even if Sharon still believes, in his heart of hearts, that no deal can ever be done with the Arab world, he no longer feels comfortable saying it openly. In the unlikely event that he is at some point offered an olive branch by Yasser Arafat, he might well have to take it.

2. In any negotiations he is more likely to bring the Israeli public with him. Although the Nixon in China example is a bit shopworn, it is indeed sometimes the case that hawks find it easier to make peace. When they make concessions, they aren’t thought of as weak. When they shake hands with enemies, they aren’t perceived to be traitors. Israelis are now overwhelmingly skeptical about Palestinian goodwill in general, and Arafat’s in particular, and they are no longer likely to support any sort of deal made by anyone who isn’t perceived as tough. Sharon is as tough as you can get.

3. He’s not an ideologue. Unlike many Israeli politicians, Sharon appears to have no religious or ideological objections to cooperating with politicians who oppose him: His overriding goal is Israeli security, not a particular vision of Israeli society. Israeli newspapers today were full of rumors about which Labor leaders might be offered Cabinet positions in a Sharon government: Both Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres have been mentioned, not least because their presence would help Israel’s image abroad. Ha’aretz noted that Sharon had already appointed as coalition negotiator an attorney who is known for his close ties to senior Labor figures: It seems that he very much wants a broad-based government, not one limited to Likud and the small religious parties. Barak may well refuse, but the gesture will have been made.

4. Prime Minister Sharon will quash the Myth of Sharon. Just before Netanyahu’s election in 1996, I went to Israel and met a number of leading Likudniks. A surprising number of them, even then, hardly wanted to talk about Netanyahu: They were still dreaming of the return of Sharon, the only man who could be trusted with protecting Israeli security. (British readers will recognize this phenomenon: Think of the hard-core Tories who spent long years awaiting the return of Enoch Powell.) The Sharon Myth goes like this: Israel doesn’t need negotiations. Israel doesn’t need to make concessions. Israel needs to control the situation through a show of supreme force—the sort of supreme force that only Ariel Sharon is capable of orchestrating, the sort of supreme force that will make the Arab world recognize the permanence of the Israeli state. Perhaps this is true. If it isn’t, Israelis will very quickly find themselves back at the negotiating table, like it or not.

5. Arafat might be jolted back to his senses. Looking at the mess of the moment, it is getting harder and harder to understand why Arafat—to whom Barak offered 95 percent of the West Bank plus a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem—failed to agree to a deal while he still had the chance. Arafat has, over the course of a long lifetime, almost never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, but even for him this was a big mistake. As parts of that deal will now probably be withdrawn—the East Jerusalem part in particular—perhaps he’ll think it through and be a bit more amenable next time.

If there is a next time, of course.