Sharon Gets His Chance to Fail
[New York Times - 3 Nov]
By Yossi Beilin; Yossi Beilin was Israel's justice minister in the
government led by Ehud Barak.
Tel Aviv -- For the first time since Ariel Sharon was elected prime
minister of Israel on Feb. 7, 2001, his policies will be put to the
test by the Israeli public and world opinion. Having come to power on
promises of bringing peace and security to Israel, he has
subsequently tried to hint that despite his brilliant ideas, he is
constantly being stymied by his coalition partners in the Labor
Party. Mr. Sharon continues to imply that he is forced to sacrifice
his effective plans for the lofty ideal of "national unity."
The national unity government in Israel was wrong from the start,
though many Israelis have tried to deny this. After most of the
highest ranking Knesset members from the Labor Party had resigned
from the Knesset or refused to serve in a government under Mr.
Sharon, most of the Labor Party ministers who entered the government
were a group of backbenchers headed by Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a group
determined not to give up its rare and unexpectedly elevated share of
power. For Mr. Sharon, this was a real lifesaver, since the political
right does not have a majority in the Knesset and, without a
coalition, he cannot govern. Shimon Peres's surprising willingness to
act as foreign minister in such a government gave Mr. Sharon a
coalition majority and, more to the point, legitimacy for a string of
actions that undermined, stage by stage, all elements of the peace
process that had been painstakingly built by Prime Minister Yitzhak
Rabin and Mr. Peres himself in the 1990's. The result is that
Palestinian-Israeli relations have reached their lowest point since
the Six-Day War in 1967.
There was no genuine meeting of interests behind the unity
government. It did not manage to provide any problem-solving approach
that could bring together the left and right. Instead, Mr. Sharon
managed to drag the Labor Party into the gradual escalation of the
conflict with the Palestinians (who did not sit idly by, and gave him
plenty of fuel for the fire), while Labor's great "triumph" was its
efforts, at the occasional government meeting, to prevent Mr. Sharon
from taking even more extreme measures. The truth, incidentally, is
that in most cases it was the United States government that acted to
prevent particularly extreme measures.
The disbanding of the government was inevitable and healthy. The
pretext for the dissolution -- disagreement over approval of the
national budget -- was of secondary importance, not unlike the small
disputes that can be the cause of divorce in an unsuitable marriage.
But it is a pity that for 20 months, the Israeli public has been
paying the price for the absence of an opposition force in the
Israeli parliamentary regime. In that time, they have come to live
with fading hopes of peace, the result of which has been the weakest
economy in a decade.
The new political situation, however, creates new and encouraging
possibilities. If Mr. Sharon manages to form a narrow, right-wing
government, he will no longer be able to claim that he is being held
back by Labor's peace camp. He will then have to prove at last
whether, after dictating the supposedly logical formula of "no
negotiations under fire" and using that position to veto negotiations
with any gun owner in the Middle East, he is actually capable of
bringing peace and security to Israel.
Should it be that he does indeed have a security plan that is full of
original solutions and can be implemented, then public opinion will
surely reward him in the next general elections in 2003. But if Mr.
Sharon's true agenda is revealed, and it turns out -- as I believe it
will -- that he has no solution whatsoever, other than living from
day to day and putting off the moment of truth for as long as he
possibly can, then it is almost certain that he will pay the price in
the next elections.
And as far as the Labor Party is concerned, it cannot go to the next
elections under the leadership of the group that has supported Mr.
Sharon for the last 20 months. In this month's vote for the next
leader of the Labor Party, it is vital that a candidate advocating
peace be elected, someone who can present a genuine alternative to
the present policy of paying lip service to any solution put forward
(the Mitchell Report, the Tenet Plan, President Bush's vision as laid
out in his speech on June 24 and the Bush administration's new "road
map," recently presented to the two sides) with no intention of
The alternative plan presented by the Labor Party must make one
promise, loud and clear: During its next term in government, the
border between Israel and the Palestinian state will be determined,
thus guaranteeing Israel's future as a democratic Jewish nation. All
efforts will be devoted, during the first year of the government, to
reaching an agreed solution with the Palestinian Authority (without
any preconditions as to who its leader will be, and without giving
the terrorist organizations the opportunity to stop negotiations
And if such efforts should fail, then Israel will carry out a
unilateral withdrawal to borders that Israel itself shall determine,
including a full withdrawal from Gaza and the vast majority of the
West Bank, with evacuation of all the settlements in those areas from
which it withdraws.
If this is the basis for the elections in Israel to be held next
year, then new hope will arise for change in the Middle East -- after
two years of Palestinian violence, Israeli retaliation, hundreds of
Israeli victims, thousands of Palestinian victims and the fatalistic
view, however unjustified, that the right to live in peace is not to
be granted to the inhabitants of the Middle East.