Sharon without an end game

Conflict: The Israeli leader again shows that he is skilled at making war, not peace.

April 21, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

At some point, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will say that his "Operation Defensive Shield" is over.

By then, presumably, all suspected Palestinian militants will have been rounded up, Palestinian weapons will have been confiscated, the remaining Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank will be left to rummage in the ruins of Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarm and elsewhere, the Palestinian fighters in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity will have surrendered or starved to death. And Yasser Arafat will still be holed up in his compound in Ramallah, howling about the indignity of it all and crying out for martyrdom.

Then what?

Unfortunately for Sharon, the Palestinians will still be there, much as a large part of his constituency wishes they were not. Arafat will still be there, too, much as Sharon wishes he were not; in fact, he wishes he had killed Arafat in Beirut 20 years ago when he could have. Still, he has labeled Arafat the enemy of Israel, and the circumstances in which he might say otherwise are unimaginable. It's reminiscent of a time when the Palestine Liberation Organization was so thoroughly banned in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza that membership in the PLO, even flying the Palestinian flag, was punishable by imprisonment or deportation.

So whom will Sharon talk to? The leaders of Hamas? The leaders of Islamic Jihad? Not likely. They don't see their role as making peace with Israel. They want to get rid of Israel. Their time and energy from now into the foreseeable future and beyond are going to be spent trying to accomplish that. And they'll use the same weapon they've been using for the past 19 months: suicide bombers who kill Israeli civilians in restaurants and markets and shopping malls. (By the way, who came up with this idea to call them "homicide bombers"? Timothy McVeigh was a homicide bomber. These are suicide bombers.)

The problem with Sharon's strategy - apart from all the misery it has caused - is that there's no apparent conclusion to point to as a victory that made it all worthwhile. Characteristically, this will not have been the first time that Sharon has led his countrymen in a military adventure that made matters worse.

Twenty years ago, Sharon masterminded the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to get rid of Arafat and the PLO. He succeeded, for a while, but it took Israel 18 years to get out of Lebanon, and in that time Lebanon became more radicalized than it had been before the invasion, spawning Hezbollah - the Iranian-supported Party of God - and suicide bombers. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers were killed while Israel tried to find a satisfactory way to pull out of the mess that Sharon had led them into.

In Lebanon at least, Sharon had an end game in mind, repulsive as it turned out to be. The idea was that Lebanese Christian warlords would be Israel's ally in getting rid of the Palestinians, then take over the country and make peace with Israel. The Christian warlords did little to help the Israelis in the invasion, and afterward they massacred Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut while the camps were surrounded by the Israeli army. This atrocity follows Sharon. He was compelled to resign as defense minister after an Israeli inquiry held him responsible for failure to prevent the slaughter.

The end game for Operation Defensive Shield has not been revealed, beyond punishing Palestinian terrorists, disarming them and invalidating Arafat. The promise that Sharon made to Israelis when he took office 14 months ago - security and peace - is far more elusive than his dream for Lebanon was. The Palestinians now under Israeli domination in the West Bank and Gaza are not the same as they were in Sharon's earlier incarnations.

Nearly 25 years ago, Sharon and Prime Minister Menachem Begin - flush with their stunning victory over the more moderate side of Zionist politics - embarked on what they hoped would be an irreversible program to annex the West Bank, biblical Judea and Samaria. In the process, they looked for compliant Arabs who would go along with them. They found some and made them into what they called Village Leagues. These were mostly Palestinian thugs who had about as much respect among their fellow Palestinians as a thug in Baltimore who might be chosen to help local authorities because he "knew the neighborhood." In those times, the notion that Israel ever would really give the West Bank to the Palestinian Arabs was unthinkable. Autonomy? Discussible. Freedom? How to define that? Statehood? Forget it.

The Village Leaguers who so enchanted Begin and Sharon were repudiated - executed, in some cases - during the intifada that erupted as a grass-roots defiance of the Israeli occupation in 1987. Sharon is not likely to find any like them wandering around the ruins of Ramallah or Jenin.

Quite the opposite. Even if Arafat were to die in his bunker in Ramallah, Israel would find itself confronted by a militant resistance generated by Operation Defensive Shield, exacerbated by the absence of any cause for hope among the Palestinians in the operation's aftermath.

Thus, the single-mindedness of Sharon's ambition, consistently devoid of any apparent nonmilitary impulse, could leave Israel where it was in Lebanon. Who will get Israel out of this deadly quagmire? Not Sharon. He is a warrior, and unlike his former commander, Yitzhak Rabin, he has no history of peacemaking.

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