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. . . AND THE PALESTINIANS'?
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
January 6, 2006

January 6, 2006 -- AS Ariel Sharon fights for his life, his sudden removal from center-stage has already had the effect of a political earthquake in the Middle East.

It is not only Israel that ponders the post-Sharon era with apprehension. Judging by the coverage in the Arab media, the broader Middle East is also concerned about the imponderables of a post-Sharon era.

While Al-Jazeera was airing the jubilant utterances of radical Arabs over Sharon's latest stroke, more moderate Arabs appeared on the rival channel Al-Arabiyah, acknowledging that the Israeli leader had become the Palestinians' "most serious partner for peace."

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has described Sharon as "a man of peace," echoing his Tunisian counterpart Zinalbedin Bin Ali's "esteem and admiration" for the Israeli leader. Sharon also has a surprising number of friends in other Arab countries from Oman to Mauritania. In the wider Muslim world, he has fostered a "working dialogue" with leaders in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan with a view to establishing diplomatic ties.

Even a year ago, many in the Islamic countries still saw the ex-general as the quintessential "Zionist enemy" portrayed by years of propaganda. What changed this was what Israel's interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert calls "the Gaza magic." For the first time, an Israeli leader made a unilateral withdrawal from disputed Arab territory without internal or external pressures. At the same time, Sharon proceeded with the construction of his "security fence," which the Arabs call "the wall," and insisted there would be no further unilateral withdrawals.

All that gave Sharon a new image, one that resembles a holograph.

From one angle, he seemed the man of peace that a majority of Israelis have longed for since the 1980s. From another angle, he seemed a leader who had given up Gaza in a tactical move to be better able to hang on to the West Bank.

The holograph earned Sharon a place that no previous Israeli leader had enjoyed in public opinion. In most recent polls, almost two-thirds of all Israelis believed that Sharon was the man to lead the country at this moment.

But was the holograph a conjuror's trick to mislead friends and confuse enemies? I think not.

Sharonism, to coin a phrase, reflects the complex realities of the Israel-Palestine solution.

Sharon is an instinctual politician, an increasingly rare breed, in the sense that he can cut through the meta-political stuff that renders political decision-making difficult or impossible.

As a professional soldier, Sharon saw that Israel had won all its wars with the Arabs in military terms, but failed to translate those victories into lasting political gains. At some point, he must have wondered why.

For a war to be won, it is not enough for one side to claim victory. It is also necessary for one side to admit defeat. Yet in the Arab-Israeli wars, the side that had won every time was not allowed to claim victory, while the side that had lost was prevented from admitting defeat. Why? Because each time the United Nations had intervened to put the victor and the vanquished on an equal basis and lock them into a problematic situation in the name of a mythical quest for an impossible peace.

This novel situation saw bizarre new concepts invented to prevent the normal mechanisms of war and peace from functioning. These include such concepts as "land for peace" and "peace with justice." Yet there is no instance in history in which the winner of a war has given the loser any land in exchange for peace. Nor is there a single instance in which justice and peace went together as Siamese twins. In every case, the winner wins the land and gives the loser peace. In every case, the peace that is imposed is unjust to the loser and just to the winner.

Thus for more than 50 years Israel and the Arabs were asked to achieve what no others had ever achieved in history.

And so Israel-Palestine became the only conflict to defy a resolution. Successive Israeli governments preferred to wait for a Palestinian partner that would accept the kind of peace Israel could offer. This was mirrored by the Palestinians, who were asked by their Arab brothers and others in the United Nations to wait until Israel offered a peace that they would like.

Sharon understood that if such a formula remained in force, there would never be peace. It was necessary for the victor to claim victory, regardless of what anyone else said. It was also necessary for the victor to take unilateral action, imposing the peace it could live with.

Paradoxically, many Palestinians say, even in public, that they would rather see Sharonist unilateralism at work than a prolongation of the stalemate that has lasted since 1948. It was clear that Sharon, his denials notwithstanding, was planning to claim victory for Israel and impose an Israeli peace.

That Israeli peace would see Gaza and, perhaps, up to 90 percent of the West Bank allocated to a putative Palestinian state while Israel would demarcate its permanent borders on the ground, partly along the "security fence."

That would not be the kind of "land for peace" that countless U.N. resolutions have vainly called for since 1968, nor would it satisfy the radical Arabs, who would not see any peace as "just" without the total elimination of Israel.

Sharon may never return to the helm. But Sharonism need not fade away. It is still possible for Israel to create on the ground the kind of peace it can live with and then let the Palestinians decide whether or not they, too, can live with it.

My guess is that they will.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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