Loose cannon Sharon leaves trail of destruction

April 28, 2002|By Arthur S. Obermayer

WEST NEWTON, Mass. - Give Ariel Sharon an inch, and he'll take a mile. This is his pattern.

Early in his military career, he was asked to respond to Palestinian attacks from a village along the Israeli frontier. His commando unit reacted by decimating the entire village; more than 69 people died, two-thirds of whom were women and children, crushed when their homes were destroyed.

Twenty years ago, he was supposed to get rid of Palestine Liberation Organization fighters firing rockets across Israel's border with Lebanon. But he didn't stop after crossing the border and conquered much of the country up to Beirut. He would have destroyed the PLO and killed its leader, Yasser Arafat, if it had not been for U.S. intervention, which allowed the PLO to escape to Tunisia.

Mr. Sharon never favored the 1993 Oslo accords. He supported the Jewish settlement movement and maintained that Greater Israel should include all of the West Bank and Gaza, a view not shared by the majority of Israelis. So when he's had the opportunity to hit the West Bank, he's always ratcheted up the level of violence.

For example, when Mr. Sharon ordered counterstrikes to last summer's terrorist attacks, he jettisoned the idea of a measured response - unlike every previous administration. Instead of attacking specific buildings in Ramallah with helicopter gunships, he was the first Israeli leader to use F-16 jets, which, by their nature, are far less discriminating in the damage they can cause and the numbers of civilians they can kill. His skill is in intimidation rather than negotiation.

Mr. Sharon harbors personal animosity toward Mr. Arafat. Even in more peaceful times, he has never been willing to meet with Mr. Arafat or even acknowledge him when they were in the same room. Mr. Sharon declared Mr. Arafat "irrelevant," even though he is the elected head of the Palestinian people and is considered their leader. Such statements have no constructive value in stopping suicide bombers. But they do have the effect of humiliating Mr. Arafat and infuriating the Palestinians.

He has been destroying the Palestinian Authority infrastructure for months - its buildings, police force, transportation equipment and communication facilities. He has turned a weak Palestinian government into anarchy, giving him the excuse to crack down even further.

On many occasions, Mr. Sharon has sent in tanks ostensibly to destroy buildings housing Palestinian terrorists. Recent TV pictures of Ramallah and Jenin in the West Bank confirm the wanton brutality, the civilian deaths and the widespread destruction of peoples' livelihood.

And, so far, Mr. Sharon has not made Israelis safer, either. As he escalated the violence and recklessness of his attacks on the West Bank, the Palestinians escalated their terrorist attacks.

While the increase in terrorism cannot be condoned, it should not have surprised Mr. Sharon or anyone else. In fact, Mr. Sharon sees it as an opportunity. The Palestinian's response to their desperation has consistently been to use terrorism as a weapon.

After Sept. 11, Mr. Sharon realized that if he goaded the Palestinians into more terrorist acts, he could gain the support of the United States as part of its war on terrorism and have a free hand, regardless of how violent his reoccupation of the Palestinian lands. Mr. Sharon is a brilliant strategist. He has effectively exploited Mr. Arafat's weakness and the U.S. determination to fight terrorism.

President Bush has played into Mr. Sharon's hands. The two men have a close relationship. In 1998, when Mr. Bush was governor of Texas, he visited Israel, and Mr. Sharon was his guide through the West Bank. Afterward, Mr. Bush described his time in the West Bank as one of the most moving events of his life.

It's unfortunate that Mr. Bush is blinded to Mr. Sharon's being a loose cannon. Mr. Bush's aloofness from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, until recently, gave Mr. Sharon a green light to attack terrorists in the West Bank without restrictions. Mr. Sharon jumped at the opportunity to expand the effort, as he had in Lebanon.

Mr. Sharon's ultimate goal is to make Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories permanent. This is not what most Israelis want. It took them more than 20 years to extract themselves from Lebanon.

How long will it take this time for Israel, the Palestinians and the world to recover from Mr. Sharon's belligerence?

Arthur S. Obermayer was the founding president in 1999 of what is now Meretz USA. Israel's Meretz party is the principal political opposition to the Likud-led government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

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