The Independent, Opinion: With weary resignation, Israel turns to Mr Sharon, and drifts towards war

By David Horovitz November 1, 2001

Israel was ready for co-existence, desperate for it, but Arafat asked for war. Now he and we may get it

Ariel Sharon’s main campaign slogan asserts that he, and only he, “can bring peace” between Israel and the Palestinians

He won’t. And Israelis know it. Yet tomorrow, barring the spontaneous combustion of the candidate, they are going to elect him prime minister. And life in the Middle East, tense and violent as it is already, is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better.

Mr Sharon, 72, has spent the past six weeks nursing a 20 per cent lead in the opinion polls over the hapless incumbent, Ehud Barak. He’s been avoiding televised debates, and ducking as many interviews as he can. But even when, a fortnight ago, he acknowledged the accuracy of a newspaper report on his magical peace formula – he will transfer no further West Bank land to Palestinian control, relinquish sovereignty nowhere in Jerusalem, and limit the Palestinians’ state to the territory that is in their hands today – that 20 percent lead survived undented.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat calls the Sharon formula “a recipe for disaster”. Comments Mr Barak: “There’s not a soul on the planet who would find it acceptable.” Yet most of Mr Sharon’s compatriots have evidently concluded that they have no alternative; Mr Barak’s much more generous concessions have hardly yielded peace either.

Mr Sharon is anything but an unknown quantity to his voters. He’s been with them as long as they’ve had their country, first as ruthless military adventurer, then as bulldozing politician. He was the general who was kept away from the army’s top job because of his recklessness, the would-be prime minister who until weeks ago seemed certain never to win that post either, for the same reason. He is only competing in these special prime ministerial elections because the most popular politician in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has opted to wait until the next full general elections to make his comeback.

Israelis, tomorrow, will not really be voting for Mr Sharon at all. They will be voting against Mr Barak. And, even more so, against the Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

They are disappointed with Mr Barak for more reasons than there is space to list: everything from alienating Russian immigrants and Israeli Arabs, to neglecting the economy, breaking campaign funding laws and reneging on a pledge to draft the ultra-Orthodox, not to mention failing to make peace with Syria and the Palestinians. He’s been a lousy politician, a poor tactician, and he lacks any charisma.

But disappointment in Mr Barak is nothing compared to Israel’s disillusionment with Mr Arafat. The 40 per cent or so of Israelis who consider themselves “right wing”, may never have believed in the viability of the partnership with Mr Arafat. But, intermittently, much of the rest of the electorate did. Not any more.Popular sentiment might be summed up as: “Barak offered the Palestinians everything we can possibly hand over. We have nothing more to give. If that wasn’t enough, then they don’t really want to make peace with us.”

Most Israelis are troubled, to put it mildly, by the idea of Mr Arafat taking sovereignty over Temple Mount – an area so holy to Jews that Orthodox rabbis forbid the faithful to so much as walk there – as that failed would-be peacebroker Bill Clinton had recommended and Mr Barak had considered. But they regard a capitulation on another of the deal-breakers, the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, as tantamount to national suicide. Israel’s population comprises roughly five million Jews and one million Arabs. The potential influx into Israel of three-to-four million “homecoming” Palestinians, which Mr Arafat is seeking, would immediately dissolve the state’s Jewish character and, given the birthrate imbalances, reduce its Jewish population to minority status within decades. As Mr Barak has pointed out, Mr Arafat’s uncompromising demand for that right (in defiance, incidentally, of Mr Clinton, who believed the refugees should be housed in the new Palestine) amounts to a renewed call for Israel’s destruction. Far from establishing a permanent Israel-Palestine two-state solution, an accord on those terms would soon produce two Palestines side by side, and no Israel at all.

By voting for Mr Sharon, and against Mr Arafat, many secular Israelis know that they will be giving additional power to the ultra-Orthodox sector, on whose Knesset members the incoming prime minister will depend.

By voting for Mr Sharon, and against Mr Arafat, many disillusioned Israeli centrists, former Barak supporters, know that they will effectively be backing an expansion of the West Bank settlements they oppose, and which Mr Sharon has pledged never to dismantle. And they may be letting unabashed extremists into the cabinet – men like Avigdor Lieberman, ex-nightclub bouncer and Netanyahu chief-of-staff, who is talking about burning Beirut and striking at Teheran should Israel be provoked.

By voting for Mr Sharon, and against Mr Arafat, the vast majority of Israelis know that they will be putting a bull in the regional china shop. The soon-to-be prime minister complains that he is demonised in the Arab world, where he acknowledges that he is “known as someone who eats Arabs for breakfast.” But an official Israeli commission of inquiry did conclude that he bore indirect “personal responsibility” for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by the Christian troops he let into Beirut’s Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps during the Lebanon war he initiated in 1982. And his response to the current Intifada has been to suggest that Israel assassinate Mohammad Dahlan, the head of Mr Arafat’s Gaza’s security apparatus.

They will vote for Mr Sharon anyway, because they feel that Mr Barak did everything short of sacrificing his country to try to partner the Palestinians in the establishment of theirs, and got gunfire and lynchings in return. Israel was ready for co-existence, desperate for it, but Mr Arafat asked for war, they’re telling themselves bleakly. Now he, and we, may well get it.

The writer is editor of ‘The Jerusalem Report’, and author of ‘A Little Too Close to God: The Thrills and Panic of a Life in Israel’, published by Knopf