Sharon’ Limited Scope, Feb 2001

Ariel Sharon’s victory in the elections on 6 February is an absolute certainty, and speculations to the contrary are useless and reflect a combination of wishful thinking and childish refusal to accept harsh realities. The final public opinion polls are ominous, as far as the incumbent PM Ehud Barak is concerned.  The margin is clearly unbridgeable, and Barak’s contrived pronouncements of confidence are frankly ridiculous. Since Thursday, 1 February, Barak has been facing his rival Sharon on his own, without the long shadow of Shimon Peres. Since the Supreme Court ruled on 31 January, that the blank votes would not be counted, there is no question of a second round. Sharon’s share of the votes will be at least 55%, and perhaps closer to 58%.  The major Friday’s polls (2 February) are quite similar: 51% to 34% in Maariv, 56% to 35% in Yediot Aharonot, 50% to 30% in the Jerusalem Post. The polls do not reflect the fact, that in the actual elections there will be no abstentions to be counted and the picture in Yediot Aharonot (56% to 35%) is the most convincing. By the MEI presstime the results are not yet known, but it is more than reasonable to treat them as a foregone conclusion.

0n 4 February the Israeli state TV, pro Barak to the core, revealed Sharon’s plans for the four key ministers in his new government: the PM, Sharon, the Foreign minister, Peres, the defence minister, Barak, and the Finance minister, Silvan Shalom (Likud). The report, by the seasoned political correspondent Yaron Dekel, seems reasonable enough. Both Barak and Peres have half-heartedly denied their intentions to serve under Sharon, but revealed their conditions to such partnership. Barak said, on 1 February, that he would not serve in an “extreme” government influenced by the radical nationalist Avigdor Lieberman. Peres, on the otherhand, declared on the same day, that he would decline an invitation to serve “on his own” in the Sharon cabinet. Both declarations were made for the benefit of thousands of hesitant leftists and Israeli Arabs, and they require elaborate interpretations as they mean the exact opposite: Barak has never said that he would not serve under Sharon. On the contrary, his attack on Lieberman, who threatened military aggression against Iran and even Egypt, constitutes a broad hint, that his presence in the right wing government will cancel such dangerous tendencies.  Peres, the arch-angle of the Zionist doves, does not say that serving under Sharon is simply out of the question. He only reiterates his old position, that he would not join Sharon as an individual, but only on behalf of his Labour party. This is highly interesting. Even the doves in the party, Yossi Beilin excluded, advocate Labour participation in a government of national unity, headed by Sharon. Their excuse: their celebrated sanity will curb the lunatic right, led by Lieberman and the leader of the transfer party, Rehavam Zeevi.

Most international observers have said in recent weeks, that by electing Sharon the Israelis declare their resolve to reject the peace process altogether. This is a very simplistic approach, stemming from the superficial division of the political arena in accordance to supposed attitudes to the “peace process”. On 2 February, four days before the elections, some 75% of the Israelis expressed their desire to continue the peace talks. Like Binyamin Netanyahu in 1966, Sharon clings to the mantra that he will seek peace ardently, and form a government with labour to achieve this aim.

The overwhelming majority in Israel in favour of the peace process with the Palestinians has been stable and persistent since September 1993. It also has been widely misinterpreted by the international community. The Oslo accords have been consistently marketed here as a great victory not only for Zionism (securing the consent of the Arab world to Israel’s right to exist) but also as a proof, that the traditional policies of the Labour party, based on a territorial compromise in the occupied lands, are feasible and implementable.

Not only the Labour hawks, but also doves like Peres, Beilin and Haim Ramon, have stressed the great achievements from the  Israeli point of view. Jerusalem will remain “united” under Israeli rule, 80% of the settlers will stay put in the occupied territories with Palestinian consent, there will be no withdrawal to the pre 1967 boundaries, the Palestinians will not demand actual return of refugees to israel proper. Hence the great Israeli paradox: the claims by the extreme right, that the Palestinians would not accept peace under the above-mentioned conditions, was correct, much to the chargin and shock of the self-righteous left.

This is the main reason for the significant swing from Barak to Sharon. The crucial centre is now disappointed with Yaser Arafat. The bulk of the Israelis believe that Barak was over-generous in offering territorial concessions to the Palestinians and are bitter with the “ungratful” response. Sharon’s current softer image suits them perfectly. Ironically, they elect once again a politician who does not reject the idea of peace, but insists on conditions, which make peace unacceptable to the Palestinians. This is also the common denominator between Barak and Sharon. They differ in their tactics how to bring about a Palestinian refusal, but both view such refusal as an essential requirement for their domestic and foreign policies.

The regretable aspect of Sharon’s victory is the possible elimination of Meretz and some Labour doves from his coalition. This will project a dangerous bellicose profile to the outside world in general and the Middle East in particular, and add more tension to the already explosive region. The traditional caution espoused by the doves will be sadly absent, and the voice of the militarists will be more dominant.

On the positive side, Sharon’s image will repulse the international community, despite the probable deployment of  Peres and Barak as his allies. If Sharon continues Barak’s policies Vis a Vis the Palestinians in Israel proper and in the territories, the international outcry is bound to be shriller and more effective.

Barak will be taught a harsh lesson that no labour candidate in the future will be able to forget. The mass desertion by the Arab voters, and the sympolic blank vote movenemt of the Jewish left is a proof that an anti-likud candidate can not be elected without Left-Arab support.  This is an historical milestone for the left. It can utilise its potential strength to attain left-wing objectives, rather than support the Zionist left disregarding their behaviour and their policies. Enough is enough, and at least some members of the radical left understood the implications of their blank vote.

By 5 February the radical left was widely split, between hard-core activists who stuck to their guns and clang to the blank vote option, and others, who made a last moment decision to intrprpret their understandable anti-Sharon stance to a vote for Barak. Many of the last converts to the Barak camp were unfortunately affected by impudent last-moment pressure from the PA, Arafat himself included. The normally consistent Uri Avnery, for instance, published a convincing article in Maariv on 4 February, listing barak’s crimes against peace and humanity with impressive clarity. But the last sentence was somewhat less convincing. Avnery announced, that he would vote for Barak…

The last day before the elections was characretised by rather hectic gestures by the Labour leaders to the Arab voters. Barak “apologised” once again for the police brutality, which resulted in the murder of 13 Israelis, who happened to be Arabs; his minister of internal security, Shlomo Ben-Ami, leeked to the press that he intended to fire the Northern chief of police, Alik Ron, the officer directly responsible for the reckless killing. Some commentators mused, that Barak and Ben-Ami succeeded in luring ten Arab votes, but in the process had lost 1000 Jewish ones. This sums up, more or less, Labour’s pathetic and extremely insincere campaign.

So Barak goes, largely unlamented, only to be replaced by a worse Israeli ex-general. The new government, with or without Labour, will signify a shift to the right, when the region needs a peace-loving Israeli Government, beyond the Barak famous “concessions”. The most despicable politician in the Middle East, perhaps next only to Saddam, represents and rules the “only democracy in the region”. Only time will tell, whether the Israeli peace camp and the Arab citizens will be able to build a new reality after this disaster. Barak had to go, but the price we pay, witnessing the advent of Sharon, could be too dear.

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