Sharon's Rise Signifies an End to Peace Illusions

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Ariel Sharon's election is a symptom of the deep moral and political crisis confronting his country. The fact that Israel's voters have pinned their hopes for peace on the most feared hawk in Israeli politics can only be read as a sign that the Jewish State is confronting an historic cul-de-sac — Israelis want to live in peace with their neighbors, but they find themselves unable to pay the price demanded by those neighbors for such an outcome.

Sharon's victory is hardly surprising amid the panic that set in after the Oslo peace process crashed and burned late last year. Over the past five years, mounting anxiety over the peace process has spurred a frenzied recycling of failed politicians: For example, Sharon beat Ehud Barak by a 19 percent margin, but the polls indicate that Benjamin Netanyahu would have won by an even higher margin had he made himself available. Israel's voters were willing to vote in droves for Netanyahu against Barak less than two years after doing exactly the opposite. Moreover, the polls also show that four-time election loser Shimon Peres would have been a more viable Labor candidate than Barak, who had swept out Netanyahu in 1999.

The renewed intifada, of course, has those Israelis who were originally swept along by Yitzhak Rabin's promise of peace depressed and demoralized. In their minds they'd offered as much as Israelis could offer, and in return they've suffered only more violence. On the Palestinian side, of course, the picture is different: Their leader, Yasser Arafat, had assured them that the peace process would end the hated Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and would give them a state with Jerusalem as its capital. But seven years after Oslo, very little has changed in the lives of ordinary Palestinians in those territories, and the breakdown at Camp David highlighted the fact that the peace process wasn't going to deliver on Arafat's promises. By the time the first stones of the new intifada were cast on the Temple Mount last September, few Palestinians still believed there was much to be gained from negotiating with the Israelis.

A rewriting of history

Both sides, then, have laid to rest the illusions of Oslo. The Palestinians know that negotiations won't deliver Arafat's promised land; the Israelis have bumped into the reality that they can't get peace on the terms they had set.

The Israeli reaction to that impasse was to elect Sharon — a man who certainly wants peace, but not if it means giving up parts of Jerusalem or removing Israeli settlements built in the West Bank after its capture in 1967. Perhaps Israelis hope that the more intractable Sharon will serve as a warning to the Palestinians of what will happen if they don't accept Israel's terms for peace. "We want peace, but the Palestinians don't want peace," many Israelis complain. And in a sense they're right. The Palestinians want their national rights and an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The logic of Yitzhak Rabin's land-for-peace policy was that in order for Israel to get the peace it desired, it would have to cede land for the creation of a Palestinian state. The envisaged exchange was land for peace; the Palestinians would have little reason, on the basis of the existing maps, to simply exchange peace for peace.

Embracing the land-for-peace concept involved a number of important historical shifts in the thinking of Israeli leaders — even a rewriting of their own history to acknowledge the fact that the two peoples shared the same territory meant that Israel's triumphs were necessarily tragedies in Palestinian eyes. Oslo brought a new frankness on the Israeli side about the factors underlying the conflict (the Palestinian leadership were singularly remiss about introducing their people to Israeli concerns). Barak, for example, in an interview a few months before his election, acknowledged frankly that if he had been born Palestinian, he would have joined a "fighting organization."

In response to a recent Israeli government proposal to counter the negative publicity generated by the intifada by publishing a litany of Palestinian infractions of various peace agreements, one well-placed commentator observed that "accusations made by a well-established society about how a people it is oppressing is breaking rules to attain its rights do not have much credence." These words were not spoken by Edward Said or Hannan Ashrawi or any other eloquent Palestinian intellectual; they were uttered by Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami.

Arafat's legacy in question

The zealots of the Israeli right and their fans in the U.S. may want to revert to the days when Israel simply wished the bothersome Palestinians would go away and leave the Jewish state in peace, but the growing awareness of Palestinian claims throughout Israeli society means few are likely to believe that will happen. On the other hand, it's likely that Oslo's failure has led a growing number to believe peace is not possible between these two peoples, except in the form of episodes of stability punctuating outbursts of violence.

While the Israeli response to the post-Oslo impasse has been to elect Sharon, the Palestinians have yet to make their next move. And the crisis is most acute for Arafat himself. Having staked his all on a peace process that was never going to deliver the things he promised, the ailing Palestinian leader faces a profound "legacy" crisis. He was unable to accept peace terms he believed would paint him as a traitor in Palestinian eyes, and now even those terms have been withdrawn. And a new generation of Palestinian leaders is increasingly willing to openly defy him in pursuit of an ongoing struggle to end the occupation. In his search for support when Camp David broke down, Arafat also made the Palestinian cause the property of the wider Arab world — and that has further narrowed his room to maneuver.

But there's little comfort for Israel in Arafat's crisis. The next generation of Palestinian militants believes time is on their side, and they're happy to close the book on Oslo and get on with a low-intensity war to end the occupation, at whatever cost. In their eyes, Sharon's election is a sign that their adversary is getting desperate.