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Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2001 / 22 Shevat, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Stop Apologizing!:

Sharon’s victory is nothing for friends of Israel to be ashamed of -- YOU would think that after spending what seemed like an eternity waiting for an outcome to last year’s cliff-hanger election for a president of the United States, most American Jews would be in the mood to enjoy a good old-fashioned landslide.

But unfortunately, for the still largely liberal leadership of American Jewry, the land slid in the wrong direction last week in Israel.

That’s why in the aftermath of Ariel Sharon’s crushing defeat of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, most of the noise emanating from American Jewry has been one of low-keyed apologetics.

Rather than exult in the fact that this time there would be no need to split hairs in characterizing the will of the Israeli people, a lot of what we have heard from Jewish organizations has been defensive and apologetic. And from some on the left, we have gotten the kind of tired, predictable spin that is the province of sore losers.

Rather than taking the offensive against the expected bashing that Sharon began absorbing in the secular media, American Jewry reacted defensively. And if you listened closely and read between the lines of the press releases, the message being put out was that although some think Ariel Sharon is a war criminal, we Jews as a whole are undecided about it, and think the charges are exaggerated.

The official position seemed to also be that if the media and others are calling Sharon “hard-line” or an opponent of the Oslo peace process, they should “give him a chance” to abandon all of his previous positions on the future of Jerusalem and Israeli security.

“Wait and see,” Jewish leaders seemed to be saying; Sharon may not be the monster the media and the Jewish leadership fear him to be.

This reaction was as predictable as Sharon’s shellacking of Barak.

Though few would have the chutzpah or the courage to admit it, many of those who hold leadership positions in the American Jewish community really do think Sharon is a war criminal. Indeed, one Jewish community professional admitted to me that he was criticized by a board member of his group for distributing even a tepid press release defending Sharon.

For those who spend their time worrying about the image of Israel in the American media, Sharon is a problem for which they have no solution. His image, hardened by more than a quarter-century of prominence, is one of an aggressive Israel that is unwilling to compromise with the Arabs and doesn’t truly desire peace. Confronted with the dilemma of presenting a positive spin on Sharon’s unlikely rise to the top of Israel’s government, all they can do is shrug their shoulders and say, “Maybe he’s changed.”

Maybe he has, and maybe he hasn’t. But either way, it’s high time for American supporters of Israel to stop apologizing for Sharon’s victory and for Sharon himself.

Instead, maybe it’s time for a new Sharon-era version of the old American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s book Myths and Facts About the Middle East. But until that book is published, here are a few myths and facts for American Jews and others to start learning:

Myth: Sharon’s victory is not a repudiation of the Oslo peace process.

Fact: Although Israel’s people all want peace, it is a mistake to think that they haven’t been paying attention to the events of the last year. The point of Oslo was for Israel to trade concessions on land for a Palestinian renunciation of armed conflict and acceptance of Israel.

Though the Palestinian Authority already rules much of the West Bank and virtually all of Gaza, Israel’s concessions have been treated by the P.A. and its loathsome leader, Yasser Arafat, as just the down payment on more Israeli concessions, which would include all of Jerusalem. And he is perfectly willing to wage war to get them.

Thus, Oslo was finished when Arafat launched an intifada against Israel in September, and virtually everyone in Israel already knows it. Barak sealed his government’s fate not so much by offering unpopular concessions on Jerusalem last year at Camp David, but by persisting in pushing them even after Arafat started shooting. That’s why many centrist and left-leaning Israelis deserted Barak to vote for Sharon and others stayed home, since they could not bear to vote for the Likud leader.

Myth: The decline in Israeli voter turnout means Sharon has no mandate.

Fact: Sharon did win an election in which Israel’s Arabs and many left-wingers stayed home. But in a democracy, the only votes that should count are those that are cast, dimpled chads notwithstanding. No Israeli election has ever been decided by as huge a margin as this one. Winning more than 60 percent of the popular vote is a landslide by any definition.

Considering that American Jews are always talking about Israel as the Middle East’s only democracy, it is high time that some liberals accepted the fact that democracy creates the possibility that the side you don’t like has a chance to win.

Myth: Sharon will have to emulate Barak’s policies.

Fact: Barak’s concessions are off the table, and even if there is a unity government with serious Labor Party representation, there will be no repeat of Barak’s Camp David disaster. What would be the point? If Arafat said no to Barak’s concessions — which the Israeli people didn’t support — why should Sharon make the same mistake?

Myth: Sharon’s election means war in the Middle East.

Fact: The last thing the Arab nations bordering Israel want is a war. They can’t win or afford one. They will be happy to bash Israel and Sharon verbally, but Israeli defense analysts almost all say the chances of Egypt, Jordan or even Syria launching an attack are slim and none. In fact, Jordan may be quite pleased with Sharon’s victory since their fear that Israel will hand Arafat the strategic Jordan Valley and thus threaten the Hashemite kingdom are now reduced.

Myth: Sharon’s past makes him an unsuitable leader for Israel, one who cannot be accepted internationally.

Fact: The charges of so-called war crimes against Sharon are both unfair and not grounded in the truth.

He is routinely described as having been judged “indirectly responsible” for the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps during Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon. Yet the fact that the massacre was committed by Christian Lebanese militia acting without the permission of Israel is often left out.

Sharon made many mistakes in 1982, and it is fair to say that he may have overstepped his power in escalating the conflict without then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s knowledge. He certainly miscalculated when he assumed that the Lebanese Christians would fight alongside Israel and could be trusted to behave as soldiers, rather than in the same fashion as the Palestinian terrorists who had abused the Christian population.

An Israeli commission judged him harshly for these mistakes, but there is a difference between a mistake and a crime, even if the consequences were serious.

Charges about supposed crimes committed by Sharon when he led Israel’s counter-terrorism force in the 1950s should be seen for what they are: an attempt to delegitimize Israel’s right to defend itself from a campaign of Palestinian terror in a time when there were no “occupied Palestinian lands” other than pre-1967 Israel itself.

But hasn’t anyone noticed that those who judge Sharon so harshly for sins of omission in Lebanon are the same ones who are always prepared to ignore or excuse the past and ongoing crimes of Israel’s supposed “peace partner” Yasser Arafat? Rather than playing defense in our statements about Israel and Sharon, perhaps it’s time to speak more forcefully about the fact that it is the Palestinians who have rejected peace and who have not lived up to past commitments made under the aegis of Oslo.

Myth: The combination of President George W. Bush in Washington and Sharon in Jerusalem is fatal for the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Fact: Bush’s acceptance of Sharon and his unwillingness to be drawn into dead-end summits with Arafat will be to Israel’s advantage. Sharon may also do far better with the Republicans in Washington than Barak did with his old pal Bill Clinton.

Myth: Sharon’s government can’t last.

Fact: Sharon-haters are going to have to swallow hard and prepare themselves for a long haul. The current alignment of the Knesset gives him plenty of allies, even if there isn’t a unity coalition with Labor. Barring an unforeseen catastrophe, Sharon is likely to be prime minister till at least November 2003. Those Americans and Israelis — like the outmaneuvered Benjamin Netanyahu — who bet on Sharon failing soon are probably out of luck.

The bottom line is that Sharon is a leader with a heroic past, as well as a few black eyes. A new generation of Israelis has given him a chance to govern after the most lopsided Israeli election in history. He has promised to protect Israel’s security and not to turn away any real chances for peace.

That ought to be good enough for American Jews.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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