Sharon’s Victory over Barak and the Troubles Ahead

In a Prime Ministerial election characterized by the lowest turnout and the widest margin between two candidates in the history of Israel, Ariel Sharon defeated the incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Unfortunately, this change in the Israeli leadership will likely take the Middle East peace process and the whole region from a bad situation to a much worse one.

Upon Mr. Barak’s departure, it must be said that from a Palestinian point of view he turned out to be a big disappointment. He behaved like a boss, instead of a partner, trying to impose his positions on the Palestinian side and committed many mistakes with grave consequences. From the beginning of his relatively short tenure, Mr. Barak figured it would be better if he did not implement commitments in the existing agreements related to the transitional period, especially the redeployment of Israeli forces. He argued that moving to the final settlement would save energy and time and would make agreements more attainable. He then unilaterally delayed implementation, managing in the Sharm El-Sheikh Memorandum to extend the time for implementation of the redeployment already agreed to by Mr. Netanayahu in the Wye River Memorandum, and then refused to implement the third stage of redeployment, which is probably the most important and substantial.

Mr. Barak also believed that as Prime Minister of all Israelis he had to reach out to Israeli settlers, arguing that he would need their cooperation at a later stage when implementing the final agreement. As a result, he proceeded to allow the continuation of land confiscation, settlement expansion and the construction of additional bypass roads for the settlers. Additionally, Mr. Barak figured that he did not need to invest much effort in establishing and nurturing a positive relationship with President Yasser Arafat and the rest of the Palestinian leadership, arguing that the absence of such a relationship would lead the Palestinian side to be more realistic and thus more agreeable to concessions. At a later stage, he came to the conclusion that for a final settlement agreement to be reached a summit in the U.S. was necessary and began pushing for the immediate convening of the summit in July, without the minimum necessary preparation.

While all of the above, did not necessarily negate Mr. Barak’s willingness to reach a final settlement, it nevertheless led to the disappearance of confidence and exacerbation of tension and made progress much more difficult to realize.

Soon after, the Palestinian Intifada emerged in response to what the Palestinian people saw as an aggression against their most holy site, Al-Haram Al-Sharif, as well as in response to the continuation of the policies and practices of the Israeli occupation in violation of their human rights and the failure of the peace process to improve their living conditions. As evidenced in the months that followed the 28 September provocation in Occupied East Jerusalem, Mr. Barak determined that the best way to deal with such Palestinian frustration and anger was by using excessive, indiscriminate and disproportionate force. He practically allowed the army and, at a later stage, the armed settlers, to commit atrocities against the Palestinian people as a whole. The degree of oppression, the use of military might and the economic suffocation applied by Mr. Barak’s government had never been experienced by the Palestinian people throughout the years of Israeli occupation. These actions, of course, dealt a very serious blow to the peace process.

Towards the end of Mr. Barak’s tenure he appeared to try to take a more serious approach towards the peace process. But unfortunately this attempt came too late, as the situation on the ground had already become impossible, in addition to his constant inconsistencies, which continued until his last moments as Prime Minister.

In light of all of the above-mentioned issues, it is very hard for the Palestinian side to feel a serious loss following Mr. Barak’s departure. This is ironic since he tried to move the positions of Israel on extremely important final status issues, such as Jerusalem, to new levels, which theoretically made agreement between the two sides achievable if a different context and different circumstances on the ground and in the peace process existed between the two sides.

When it comes to Ariel Sharon, the Palestinian assessment is simpler and more straightforward. Sharon represents bad news for the Palestinian people and for the prospect of the peace process. His name in the Palestinian psyche is linked to the massacre of the village of Qibya in 1953, the invasion of Lebanon, and the massacre of Sabra and Shatila in 1982. He is linked to wars and extremism and more recently linked to his infamous visit to Al-Haram Al-Sharif on 28 September 2000, which triggered the tragic events of the last few months and which was condemned by the U.N. Security Council in resolution 1322 (2000).

How the Israeli side perceives Barak and Sharon is the next question that should be posed. There is no doubt that the Israeli public, especially those who voted for Mr. Barak in 1999, were extremely disappointed with him. For the Israeli Arabs, the disappointment and anger felt was largely linked to the barbaric way that the Israeli police dealt with their demonstrations in support of the Palestinian Intifada, which resulted in the deaths of 13 citizens.

For the bulk of voters, there were many other reasons, including the authoritative demeanor of Mr. Barak’s leadership as well as the series of broken promises related to important issues such as, for example, the promise of a secular revolution, which was then put aside in favor of deals with ultra-orthodox parties. There was also the deterioration of the situation on the ground and what some Israelis somehow perceived as "violence" by the Palestinian side, coupled with a lack of progress in the peace process, representing a situation in which neither peace nor security was achieved, contrary to Mr. Barak’s main campaign promise of peace and security.

Those were enough reasons for Israeli voters to not want Mr. Barak, but were these reasons enough for the majority of the voters to go as far as actually casting their votes for Mr. Sharon despite everything they know about him? It seems that, in addition to those reasons, the political position of Mr. Barak in the context of the peace negotiations played a role in the decision of many voters. There is no escaping the conclusion that a large part of the Israeli public could not accept some of the positions put forth by the Barak government for achieving a final settlement with the Palestinian side. And, while no sane person could be against the noble goal of peace, the question is: Were the majority of Israeli voters ready to accept the minimum requirements and the price for such a peace? The answer, following the results of the election, is not encouraging. Nevertheless, this should not necessarily be construed as a lasting position. This is likely a position based on the assumption that peace can indeed be achieved without having to pay the whole price - meaning that such a position would probably be reassessed if the assumption proved to be incorrect.

What now can be expected of Mr. Sharon? The answer is unfortunately lots of trouble. Trouble on the ground for the Palestinian people as a result of the expected increase in the use of lethal force and trouble for the peace process due to the expected non-compliance with existing agreements and progress made in previous negotiations, including Camp David and Taba. This is not only based on the man’s nature and history, but is also predicated on his current public positions on the basis of which he won this election.

No one should have the illusion of a much different Sharon and it remains the responsibility of everybody, including Israelis and especially Palestinians, as well as the Americans, Europeans and the rest of the international community, to work hard to shorten Mr. Sharon’s tenure and to minimize the damage he is about to cause. If against all wisdom and logic he surprises us, we of course will be the most pleased, but we cannot count on such an unrealistic possibility.