Posted on: Thursday, February 8, 2001
Sharon offers Bush a useful interlude
The landslide election of Ariel Sharon as Israels next prime minister marks a deep divide in the Middle East peace process.
It remains to the Bush administration to back off, look for the limited good in the new situation and pursue it with careful diplomacy.
It is impossible to believe the drubbing received by Ehud Barak was unrelated to the relentless and perhaps, in the eyes of history, disastrous pressure applied by the Clinton administration to reach a comprehensive peace.
Indeed, the two sides appeared to come very close to agreement in recent weeks but that appearance was misleading. In reality, Clinton had pushed Barak into positions far beyond his constituencys comfort level. Even that wasnt good enough for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and the street violence that rewarded Baraks effort was more than Israeli voters could stomach.
Speculation has it that Arafat was willing to trade the conciliatory Barak as a negotiating partner for the hard-line Sharon in order to wait for a more Arab-friendly Bush administration to replace Clinton.
If that speculation is accurate, Arafat has blundered badly on every count.
Unlike Barak, Sharon rejects the notion of trying to buy peace by giving away the farm, and he is cool to accepting direction from Washington. With Sharon, the watchword becomes security, and he has demonstrated repeatedly that his pursuit of that end can be ruthless.
Arafat was also far better off with Clinton, who imposed a timetable and proposed what lands the Israelis should give up. Bushs early predisposition is to assist with the peace process if asked, rather than to direct it.
There is always the possibility that Sharon will find his own way to achieve peace, much as it took a Nixon to find rapprochement with China.
Given Sharons record and reputation, however, that seems unlikely. His implication in a massacre in Lebanese refugee camps, plus some brutal raids on Arab towns years earlier, make it hard to believe that the Palestinians will be willing to meet him halfway. If Sharon can impose a period of stability, perhaps the best to be made in the present conditions, Bush should seize on it as a hiatus to better develop some of his still-fuzzy strategies for other parts of the world, including Asia.
But if Sharons election turns out to be like gasoline thrown on a fire, Bush must spare no diplomatic effort to keep Israels Arab neighbors on the sidelines.
If this feud cant be solved now, at least we can hope it will be contained.
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