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
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
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
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