Small World

Jewish World Review / Oct. 15, 1998 / 25 Tishrei, 5759
"Arik" Sharon and Netanyahu

Hawkish Sharon May Bring Home the Dove of Peace

By Richard Z. Chesnoff

MY LATE GRANDFATHER "WIRELESS" LOUIS ZELTNER, who wrote for New York papers (including, on occasion, the Daily News), used to complain about "reporters who like to quote themselves." Then he'd go on and quote himself.

So, in keeping with a hallowed family tradition, allow me to hark back to a column that appeared in July 1997 discussing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's chances for making peace with the Palestinians: "Netanyahu, with an assist from [Ariel] Sharon, may just be able to carry it off. . . . It's the old Nixon-China syndrome: Only an archconservative can get away with a radical shift in policy."

I remembered that column when I heard the news that Netanyahu had named the 70-year-old ex-Israeli general as his foreign minister.

Down at the State Department, the idea that hawkish Sharon, the epitome of Israeli toughness, will be accompanying Netanyahu when he meets with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at their Washington summit tomorrow has more than one official shaking. "We thought Netanyahu was tough," says one Mideast specialist, "but this is like going from biting on cement to chewing on cast iron!"

Even Sharon's own personal friend and fellow soldier, Israeli Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, is wringing his hands. Sharon's appointment, Barak said in Tel Aviv the other night, is "a sure recipe for a continued impasse and for hastening the advent of violence."

Interestingly enough, one of the few relatively positive comments came from Palestinian Transport Minister Nabil Shaath. The frequently reflective Shaath said he and other Palestinian leaders were willing to "forget history" if Sharon's appointment gave Netanyahu the kind of political backing he needs to strike a deal with Arafat and break the peace process impasse.


And that's the key to the meaning of Sharon's new job. The former defense minister and hero general, who has fought in every one of Israel's wars, has a decidedly hawkish, if checkered, record. It was Sharon who helped architect the costly and some say ill-conceived Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

And it was Sharon who many still believe played an indirect role in the Lebanese Christian massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.

But it was also Sharon who stood up to Israeli right-wingers when Israel's Sinai Peninsula city of Yamit had to be dismantled as part of the U.S.- brokered Egypt-Israel peace agreement of 1978.

He also has the ability to talk peace deals with Arab leaders and be believed. Again, to quote myself: "I wish I had a shekel for every time I've heard an Arab political analyst say that only right-wing Israeli leaders like Netanyahu, Sharon and the late Menachem Begin can make lasting peace with the Arabs."

In fact, it is Sharon's toughness and insistence on maintaining levels of territorial security he believes vital to Israel that may save the Arab-Israeli peace process. If Sharon goes along with plans for a further turnover of West Bank territory to Palestinian control, it's going to be hard for most right-wingers to argue that Netanyahu is knuckling under to American pressure and compromising Israel's future.

To be sure, says Israeli analyst David Makovsky, Sharon sees his role at tomorrow's summit as "a watchdog." He'll want to make sure Netanyahu doesn't make any concessions on demands the Palestinians live up to their security commitments before Israel pulls soldiers out of one more inch of West Bank territory.

And Sharon has sworn he'll never shake Arafat's hand. Netanyahu used to say the same thing, but last week Bibi had a kosher lunch with Yasser. Bill Clinton may yet have his October surprise.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News.


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