Monday, April 19, 2004

Ariel Sharon’s Finest Hour

No Israeli Prime Minister has been reviled as much as Ariel Sharon and none has shown a comparable talent for strategic planning. Although what lies ahead is risky and uncertain, what is certain is that he has scored a remarkable diplomatic triumph. While we need to be grateful to President Bush for the backing that he has provided, even more we must appreciate the resourceful Israeli leader for thinking out of the box, for departing from conventional wisdom about Palestinian-Israeli relations. Mr. Sharon has survived military, legal and political battles – although not unscathed – but what we are witness to is his finest hour.

It now remains for him to go forward, hopefully with the begrudging support of fellow Likudniks. He already enjoys widespread support among Israelis.

The core of Mr. Sharon’s vision is the realization that neither Israeli security nor its relations with Palestinians can be determined via negotiations, whether they be bilateral or multi-lateral. This isn’t because he has no faith in diplomacy. Rather, he knows that there is no one on the other side of the table to negotiate with, that after Oslo and Camp David and all the rest there has been little progress and continued terrorism. Yet, he isn’t willing to accept the status quo and allow the unfolding of events to determine what Israel should maintain and what it should yield. He understands that demographic trends and developments in the Islamic world may ultimately pose greater threats to Israel than all of the suicide bombers and Hamas and other terror groups. Israel must therefore act unilaterally, but hopefully with American support, to alter the status quo.

What Sharon is proposing may not succeed because while Israel may be able to create certain facts on the ground, there obviously are other participants and factors that will shape the Middle East. Still, he is willing to act now while Israel has the leverage to take unilateral steps. His multi-faceted strategy includes these elements:
• The marginalization and irrelevance of Yassir Arafat and the futility of negotiations with the Palestinians.
• Establishment of a security wall or fence to shield Israel against most terrorist attacks.
• Swift and harsh retaliation when Israelis are attacked.
• Withdrawal from Gaza and much of the West Bank.
• Retention of major West Bank and Green Line population centers.
• Establishment of a Palestinian state.

This is an ambitious plan and it might be too much to expect its full implementation. A Palestinian state cannot be brought into being by Israel. If history is a guide, Hamas will opt for suicide bombers and Arafat will prefer to remain in Ramallah and continue to steal. At the least, the Prime Minister already has made remarkable progress, most spectacularly on the so-called refugee issue.

There is much more on Mr. Sharon’s mind these days. There is the mini- or perhaps major-revolt within Likud and within his coalition as opponents of withdrawal accuse him of endangering Israel. Such accusations are the inevitable fate of any Israeli leader who dares to advocate the yielding of territory. It matters not that prior doomsday accusations arising from the Sinai and South Lebanon withdrawals turned out to be quite overwrought. The notion that Mr. Sharon would sell out Israel is at once absurd and obscene, but as is often the case, ideology – and especially in the form of nationalism – trumps both civility and common sense.

As in the past, Jewish hardliners in the U.S. are even more vociferous and outrageous in their vilification of Sharon than their counterparts in Israel. I guess that it takes courage to insist from the war zone of New York that Israeli soldiers risk their lives to protect those who insist that not an inch of Gaza be yielded.

Mr. Sharon’s plans may be derailed by the decision of Israel’s Attorney General whether to charge him with corruption. The country’s Chief Prosecutor who has been trigger happy in other situations has recommended an indictment. While news leaks suggest that the evidence against one or both of Sharon’s sons may warrant prosecution, there is little to connect him to wrongdoing. If an indictment is issued, the consequence will be political turmoil and the torpedoing of Mr. Sharon’s plans. Of course, if the Attorney General decides not to bring charges, he will be open to accusations of a cover-up.

This is therefore a no-win situation and another area where the wisdom of those who devised our constitutional system serves the important goal of governmental stability and is consistent with the ideal of democracy. As we know from the recent Clinton experience, a sitting president cannot be indicted. In Israel, by contrast, the criminal investigation of prime ministers appears to be an ongoing sport. When a ruler is democratically chosen, as Mr. Sharon was, there are good reasons why he should be exempted from criminal charges while he remains in office.
More generally, Israel’s juridical and legal arrangements are a mess and the situation is worsening. There is a great need for legal reform, but few seem interested in pursuing this goal. There are grants and projects for nearly every other activity in Israel and I cannot figure out why judicial and law reform are on the back burner.

What is at stake in the decision whether to charge Sharon is not merely his honor and political fate. What also is at risk is the opportunity to go forward with a creative and courageous plan that seizes the imagination, a plan that has the potential of strengthening Israel. Ariel Sharon’s finest hour can become one of Israel’s finest hours.