Sharon victory: what next?

IssueMarch - May 2001
Comment by Adam Keller, Beate Zilversmidt

So, these most miserable elections ended as expected. What would have seemed an implausible nightmare but a few months ago is now a sober reality: Ariel Sharon has been elected Prime Minister of Israel.

Still, this result is not so much the victory of a notorious hard-liner as it is the defeat of the failing incumbent. Barak, the man who spoke peace but went to war, was not so much defeated by the opposition as by himself. As no leader of the right could possibly have done, it was Barak who fatally broke up and demoralised the peace constituency, driving a large part of his former voters into boycotting the elections or casting blank ballots.

For Sharon to have such a smashing victory over Barak it was enough just to have his own constituency turn up. He could count on his own party as well as on the ultra- right and the religious. Where most election campaigns are directed towards the middle of the road Ariel Sharon didn't have to make much of an effort to convince this sector of the electorate.

Failing to build trust

In the one and a half year of his term, Barak did raise some positive ideas, some of them actually taboo-breaking. But until his last day in office his seriousness about actually carrying them out remained uncertain. He failed to build trust with the Palestinians (or for that matter, with many sections of Israeli society), nor did he implement a single one of the many far-reaching concessions which he espoused. Meanwhile, he continued with the policy of settlement extension and confiscation of Palestinian lands, with the resulting destruction of Palestinian houses. And when, after the September provocation, Palestinians on Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif burst out in anger, Barak reacted with what the UN Security Council rightfully condemned as an excessive use of force, though Barak himself termed it a policy of restraint. A restraint which led to a total of nearly 400 deaths in the following months, many of them of children. Not to mention thousands of wounded; hundreds of destroyed houses; tens of thousands of felled trees; closure, siege and curfew, reducing millions to poverty and hardship.

Baraks conduct making concessions, but just too little to get an agreement, and then accusing his Arab interlocutors of intransigence has discredited peace among the Israeli population, thereby paving the way for Sharon. The peace movement was simply too divided. Many of Baraks most enthusiastic supporters in 1999 felt unable to vote back into office a prime minister who launched the worst wave of repression since Israel occupied these territories in 1967.

The Bulldozer

Ariel Sharons CV stretches from the massacre of Palestinian civilians at Quibya in 1953 to the massacre of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatila in 1982; and once the Kahan Commission of Inquiry excluded him from involvement in military matters, he found other ways to deserve the nickname the bulldozer. It should have been easy enough to frighten the Israeli electorate by no more than factually recounting Sharon's career. In fact, the considerable efforts made in this direction by Baraks best propagandists failed because of one simple factor: Sharon's war had taken place nearly twenty years ago, and much of the electorate are too young to remember, or had lived in Russia at the time. The war with the Palestinians, a war of Baraks own making, is taking place here and now.

Rebuilding the peace movement

The debate over these elections, which absorbed peace activists in an often acrimonious debate, has become moot. After these results, the Israeli peace movement has immediately to rebuild its inner coherence to be able to confront the bleak new reality. In fact, opposition to the new regime began a few days before the elections, when the polls left little doubt about the results. In February thousands marched across Jerusalem, under driving rain, to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the murder of Emil Grunszweig the peace activist killed by a Sharon follower during a 1983 demonstration demanding Sharon's resignation from the Defence Ministry. A day later 17 activists were arrested when hundreds blocked the road in front of the Defence Ministry to protest at the cruel siege of the Palestinian population. And the Yesh Gvul movement reports a great increase in the number of soldiers refusing service in the occupied territories ever since Sharon started to show a lead in the polls.

The road to war?

The new Prime Minister will also soon begin to struggle with the impossibility of creating a stable government in this polarised country. More importantly, Sharon will need to face the insurgent Palestinians and unveil what practical solutions he has to offer.

Sharon's career over the past four decades leaves little doubt about what his natural tendency would lead him to do: to increase the brutal oppression of the Palestinians. That is certainly what the settlers and other Sharon allies on the extreme right expect of him but that road could lead to an all-out regional war, to Israel's international isolation and a deep rift in Israeli society. Avigdor Liebermann of the quasi-Fascist National Unity Party, who may get a senior portfolio in the Sharon cabinet, has already set it out in vivid terms. In a newspaper interview, which was highly embarrassing to the Sharon campaign, Lieberman talks of the re-conquest of the Palestinian enclaves, all-out regional war, and Israeli planes bombing from Cairo to Teheran.

Alternately, Sharon may strive to create a moderate image, and make some superficial conciliatory gestures at the outset of his term. But he cannot reopen serious negotiations with the Palestinians even were he so inclined without unravelling his own constituency. A Sharon cabinet would be weak and unsteady, torn by internal contradictions and commanding only a slender parliamentary majority.

People want peace

Should the Labour Party resist the temptation of joining Sharon in a National Unity cabinet, (so as to change it from within an option which was almost openly discussed even during the elections campaign itself) and should it succeed in replacing Barak by a leader not tainted with colossal failure, it stands a good chance of recovering from the fiasco and contesting a new set of elections in the not-too- distant future.

After all, the same opinion polls which predicted this election result have also clearly indicated that repudiation of Barak does not necessarily imply a rejection of the peace process. On the contrary: even while Sharon was climbing higher and higher in the polls, a steady 65% to 70% majority in the same polls expressed themselves in favour of continuing the peace process.

The election results while a grave set-back which could cost the lives of many did not alter the basic ingredients of the situation. Neither the Palestinians determination to obtain sovereign statehood on their own soil, nor the disinclination of most Israelis to sacrifice their soldier sons in the cause of denying the Palestinians that statehood has changed. And that disinclination certainly includes also many of those who voted for Sharon.