Despite Previous Bouts, Ariel Sharon Can Bring Peace to Middle East

It’s been less than a month since Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel in the special elections held Feb. 6, and he has already made a remarkable effort to assemble a unity government. Initially many opponents, especially those on the left and Palestinians, were wary of the old general’s intentions and his historically controversial and hawkish actions.

Sharon is head of Israel’s Likud party, the more conservative of Israel’s two main political parties. Though the Likud want peace just as strongly as their Labor counterparts, they are more determined to keep the Israeli borders in their present form, especially those of Jerusalem.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak is head of the Labor party, which is considered the more liberal of the two main parties, and he is willing to make larger concessions in the name of peace. It is this fundamental difference that brought Sharon to power in the recent election and it is this issue that most stringently divides the people of Israel.

It is also this difference in opinion that makes it so amazing that following the election, Sharon offered an outstretched arm to the defeated Barak, offering him the position of defense minister in his Cabinet. Furthermore, the proposed unity government would have Simon Peres, former prime minister and Labor party leader, as its foreign affairs advisor.

Both are highly coveted and powerful positions in the prime minister’s Cabinet. If President George W. Bush had asked Bill Clinton to be his attorney general and Gore to be secretary of state, imagine the implications.

Originally I was staunchly against Sharon becoming prime minister, because Sharon has historically been anti-peace, not to mention he is violently disliked by the Palestinian and Arab communities.

In 1982, Sharon was responsible for sending a group of Christian militiamen into Lebanon, where they went on a rampage and slaughtered as many as 2,000 Palestinians. Sharon was absolved of responsibility for this, but it is clear that he had prior knowledge that the militiamen were capable of such atrocities.

More recently, Sharon visited the Temple Mount, or the al-Haram al-Sharif, as it is known to Muslims. Because of this visit he has been accused of provoking the current uprising. However, since he has been elected, Sharon has taken steps to ensure that his landslide victory will continue to receive the approval of the finicky Israeli constituents.

Mainly, Sharon’s decision to form a true unity government has shocked many people worldwide. More importantly, it has impressed everyone. To me, this seems to be the only reasonable option available to the Israeli people. Under Likud rule, the peace process stopped completely, increasing hostility and anger in the region.

On the other hand, Barak offered more land than almost anyone wanted to give, and Arafat still said no. With both sides unsuccessful in solidifying a peace treaty with the Palestinians, and with the Israeli people anxious for peace yet disappointed with the process, perhaps a unified government will be able to produce a peace treaty that can satisfy both the hard-liners and the liberals.

Sharon is hardly a compromising individual to begin with, so any line he draws is sure to be stood behind, which sends the message to the Palestinian and Arab world that Israel is not going to be toyed with anymore.

But by giving Barak and Peres such powerful positions, he has shown a willingness to bring peace to the region, an action that will definitely be noted by Arafat and other Arab leaders. When Sharon won the election, I’m positive that Arafat all but gave up on the peace process. With a unity government peace seems possible, but Arafat will have to play by a new set of rules. It was a slap in the face of every Israeli when Barak conceded so much of Israeli land in the name of peace, and Arafat promptly rejected the offer. Arafat will never get an offer like that again, and he will be forced to rethink some of his more controversial requests.

Logically, I fear that this may lead to an impasse, with Arafat asking for parts of Jerusalem that Barak previously promised, and Sharon unmoving in his decision to keep Jerusalem whole. But I have hope that this election has been a wake-up call to many Palestinians — a message has been sent that Israel is not going to bend over backward, and results must be shown before any treaty is signed. With Barak, Sharon sends the message that peace is desired, but the rules have changed: Israel will not be pushed around.

The coming weeks will be very telling. At the time this article was written, Sharon’s coalition with the Labor party had not been solidified and Barak was still prime minister. If Sharon cannot form a unity government with the Labor party, he may resort to forming an alliance with the Shas party, Israel’s religious party, which is more adamantly against giving land for peace than the Likud party. This action would most likely bring the progress of the peace process to a snail’s pace, if not a complete halt. It would also unintentionally send the message that Israel does not want peace. This would be a terrible setback in the peace process, which has progressed so far in the past half decade.

Sharon has 45 days from the day he was elected to form a government. Under Israeli law, if he has not formed a government, a special election must be called, and a re-vote will occur, setting the peace process even further back. The Likud party, together with the Labor party, would be a veritable yin and yang in the prime minister’s office.

As long as Sharon’s offer is emblematic of his desire for peace and unity among the Israeli people, there is a possibility of a satisfied Israeli public and a reasonable peace treaty in the coming years. For now, peace is still a dream, and I hope that all parties involved are willing to make compromises and stick by their promises.

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