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On Point

Sharon's Historic Gamble


by Austin Bay
November 23, 2005

By reputation, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is the blunt, armored instrument of Israeli politics.

On the battlefield, Sharon was something like the tanks he led, a visceral juggernaut of a commander dedicated to offensive action. His courage, audacity and intuition inspired personal confidence.

Following Operation Peace in Galilee, the 1982 Israeli attack into Lebanon, one of Sharon's crack troops told me with pride: "Arik is the closest thing in the world to (George) Patton. Serve with him, and you feel it. You'll follow him anywhere."

"Following anywhere" can lead to ambush. During the 1973 October War, Sharon's tanks barreled into Egyptian infantry positioned along the east bank of the Suez Canal. Sharon's attack was an audacious attempt to push Israeli forces into Egypt. The Egyptians, however, triggered a clever ambush. The Battle of Chinese Farm ended with abandoned and burning Israeli tanks littering the desert. Yet Israeli forces ultimately breached the canal, entered Africa and surrounded an entire Egyptian army.

In peace -- or what passes for peace in a nation perpetually vexed by terror and hostile neighbors -- Sharon traded tank for bulldozer. Sharon in bulldozer mode was a political leader committed to building Israeli settlements, while the other edge of his dozer blade leveled Palestinian homes.

To the Israeli left, European leftist "internationalistas" and his Arab enemies, Sharon is the devil personified, a war criminal, a mass murderer, a McHitler, et cetera. To his most ardent supporters, Sharon is the final bulwark, the certain, dedicated defender of Israel who would ensure secure borders and the defeat of all enemies foreign and domestic.

Or at least, he was.

This week, Sharon quit his own conservative Likud Party to form a new centrist coalition. Once again, the prime minister is gambling, this time on the political field. The historical stakes are huge. Sharon's ultimate goal is a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace, with the ancillary benefit of reshaping an Israeli domestic political system that all too often gives political extremes on the left and right decisive power to reject sensible compromise.

Audacious? Of course. Arrogant? Perhaps, but so what? A rash charge into political debacle?

Not likely. The old warrior has always been a deft calculator. The risk-laden charge at Chinese Farm excepted, Sharon's military operations stressed effective reconnaissance and maneuver. Find the weak point, strike, break through, flank and surround.

Here's Sharon's strategic recon: The opportunity for fundamental, positive political change in the Middle East is without precedent. Yasser Arafat is dead. Toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq also undermined the myth of the "Arab strongman" -- a point unfortunately missed by critics of the Iraq war.

With Arafat and Saddam gone, Iraq and Palestine have both held democratic elections. In January 2005, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas ran on a peace platform. Abbas is now fighting a low-level civil war with his own rejectionist hardliners in Hamas and Fatah, with Israel as his ally. The blowback from Syria's assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the democratic revival in Lebanon have weakened Damascus' Assad regime.

But Israel's domestic politics are frozen -- a weak point. To paraphrase The Jerusalem Post, Sharon knows there must be a political alternative to "the unconditional negotiations approach of the (Israeli) left and the not-one-inch approach of the right. "

Israel's left Labor Party and right Likud are both coalitions. Though radical splinter parties may attract a handful of voters, "proportional voting" (with a 1.5 percent of the vote qualifying threshold) means the one or two representatives the radical parties place in the Knesset often determine if legislation is passed or defeated. The radicals can thus exert control over agendas.

Sharon's response is to create a "pragmatic center party" where warriors can make peace. One Internet commentator quickly dubbed it "The Arik Party."

Will Sharon's stratagem work? It appears Sharon has been maneuvering for months, planning for new elections in spring 2006. The BBC reported initial polls have Sharon beating Likud frontrunner Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor's new populist leader, Amir Peretz.

Past attempts to establish an Israeli "center" have fared poorly, but they weren't led by a man with Sharon's charisma, stamina and defense credentials.

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