Ariel Sharon Makes It Clear: Peace Can Wait

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It's easy to be confused in recent times by the public image and careening career of Ariel Sharon. From despised hawk to cuddly election-time conservative, the Israeli prime minister has been difficult to pin down.

No longer. Rather than succumbing to the "kinder, gentler" image painted by his admen — or, for that matter, to the Bush administration's entreaties to the Arab world to "judge him by his actions rather than by his record" — the Israeli newspaper Haaretz simply went and asked the Israeli prime minister where he wants to take the country. And in a wide-ranging interview published over the weekend, Sharon set out a rather grim vision of an embattled Israel surviving in a state of cold war with its Arab neighbors for the next decade and beyond.

Sharon's objective clearly isn't to get hundreds of thousands of Israelis filling the streets of Tel Aviv singing songs of peace and hope. Indeed, he makes clear in the interview that he sees the Oslo peace process started by Yitzhak Rabin as dangerously deluded — and that he, Sharon, has no intention whatsoever of pursuing it. Withdrawing from the Golan Heights or the Jordan Valley or removing the Israeli settlements dotted throughout the West Bank and Gaza deprives Israel of the "strategic depth" to defend herself, Sharon insists. Returning those lands to Arab control — as his predecessors had considered — is not an option for Sharon, and Ehud Barak, he says, had no right to even discuss sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

Rising Israelis, declining Arabs?

Sharon's message to the Palestinians is blunt: They shouldn't expect any more land than the less than half of the West Bank and Gaza they currently control, and there's no question of removing settlements dotted throughout those territories. And if they want to fight on against the Israeli occupation of the remainder of the West Bank and Gaza, he's happy to raise the stakes.

His Haaretz interviewer, Ari Shavit, plainly apprised of the fact that no Palestinian leader could accept those limitations — nor any Syrian leader sign a peace deal while Israel occupies the Golan Heights — asks the Israeli leader what hope he offers his people of ever being able to live in peace.

"From the strategic point of view, I think that it's possible that in another 10 or 15 years the Arab world will have less ability to strike against Israel than it has today," Sharon answers. "This is because Israel will be a country with a flourishing economy, whereas the Arab world may be on the decline. True, there is no guarantee of this, but is definitely possible that because of technological and environmental developments, the price of oil will fall and the Arab states will find themselves in a crisis situation, while Israel will be strengthened. The conclusion is that time is not working against us and therefore it is important to achieve solutions that will take place over a lengthy period."

In other words, the kind of comprehensive peace Rabin and Barak had sought is off the agenda, for at least another generation. In the meantime, Sharon says, Israel will continue to live, as it always has, with a sword in one hand, hammering out clear-eyed interim agreements where possible along the way, while rekindling Zionist education of Israel's youth and attracting another 1 million Jewish immigrants to bolster its defenses.

The specter of fundamentalism

The prime minister's outlook may be relentlessly depressing for anyone inspired by Rabin's vision, but Sharon supporters would see it as simply pouring cold water on the naïve dreams of the peaceniks. And they'll claim the events of the past six months as irrefutable evidence that Oslo could never deliver on its promise to Israelis.

But while there's no question that the historic window of opportunity through which Rabin had moved in a bid to transform Israel's long-term relationship with its neighbors is closing fast, Sharon's reading of the long-term regional dynamic may be dangerously flawed, too. There's no question that economic and demographic factors look set to dramatically weaken the Arab regimes around Israel, but where Sharon sees this as improving the prospects for peace, others are more inclined to see it as raising the danger of war as the pressure of domestic social collapse prompts Arab regimes to deflect popular anger toward the old enemy next door. And in all of the Arab states around Israel, the only plausible alternative to the current authoritarian regimes is not liberal democracy, but fundamentalist Islam.

Whether or not it's sustainable or prudent, Sharon's vision of a violent equilibrium certainly makes sense of Israel's military strategy of escalating attacks on the Palestinians and the Syrians in order to force them to rein in militants operating from areas under their control. After all, unlike Barak, he's not looking at the Syrians or the Palestinians first and foremost as negotiating partners right now.

Taken at his own word, the Israeli leader appears set on disabusing his own people of the (in his view naïve) hope fostered by Rabin and Barak that peace is possible in the short term, instead bolstering their readiness and their will to fight wars cold or hot for the foreseeable future. And whether or not his analysis is sound, it may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy.