Posted on February 12, 2001 in Washington Watch

Most U.S. editorial writers and political commentators offered an easy answer to explain why Israelis elected Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister. It was Yasser Arafat’s fault. Like their Israeli counterparts, from whom these U.S. analysts took their cue, it was Arafat who undercut Barak’s position and it was Palestinian violence that turned Israelis against peace. According to this apologetic assessment, Barak offered too much and Arafat let him down.

This is the shared view in the United States and Israel, but it is wrong. In fact, there were two factors that determined the outcome of this election. One was Barak himself. He was, in large measure, the agent of his own demise, for reasons that had to do with matters of internal Israeli politics.

The second factor was the work of Ariel Sharon, who planted the seeds of this particular defeat of the peace process during the 1970s, when he embarked on the massive settlement building enterprise that led too many Israelis to believe that they could have peace and keep the fruits of their ill gotten gains.

It should be noted first and foremost that Barak was largely responsible for his own defeat. During his short time in government he had become a mirror reflection of the man he had defeated in 1999, Benjamin Netanyahu. Like Netanyahu, Barak alienated his former allies and came to be viewed as an increasingly isolated autocratic figure. What the so-called analysts conveniently forget is that Barak was forced into these elections because he had lost his governing coalition and the support of most of Israel’s Knesset. He then played his political cards wrong by calling for snap elections, hoping to score a quick victory before his foes could organize.

Barak’s 1999 victory over Netanyahu had produced no real mandate. During his first year in office, he wavered between competing Israeli parties attempting to put together a majority coalition. When he attempted to save his relationship with the ultra religious Shas party (Israel’s third largest bloc), Barak lost the support of two left-wing secular parties. Later when he refused to surrender to Shas’ demands on budgetary and social issues, he lost their support as well. In effect, Barak had lost his coalition government before he even went to last July’s Camp David Summit.

It was at that point that Barak confounded everyone by announcing that he would no longer woo the religious groups and wanted instead to lead a “secular revolution,” to which he invited the ultra right (but secular) Likud party to join.

All of these antics combined cost Barak dearly. He lost not only a half dozen cabinet members who resigned in protest but he also lost the trust and support of many in his own party who began to compare him unfavorably to Netanyahu.

While all of this was going on, Barak, with the United States, was attempting to forge far-reaching peace agreements with either Syria or the Palestinians. It is unlikely that this Prime Minister ever had the ability or popularity he would have needed to sell such agreements. This is why, during that period, I had repeatedly urged President Clinton to first help to change public opinion in Israel in favor of peace, before attempting to force a deal at Camp David. I failed in my efforts because the judgment made in Israel and the United States was that if the Palestinians would accept the deal they were offered it would both dramatically increase public support for peace in Israel and enhance Barak’s stature.

And so, almost from the outset, the Palestinians were unfairly set up for the blame they are now receiving.

Now it is true that at Camp David and afterward Barak appeared to go further than any previous Israeli Prime Minister to meet Palestinian requirements. It is also true he did not go far enough. Even more, it is probable that a majority of Israelis (and certainly a majority of the current Knesset) would have rejected what Barak was offering to the Palestinians.

Why Barak could not go further and why Israelis would not have accepted as far as he was willing to go has much to do with popular attitudes long cultivated in Israeli public opinion, and physically reinforced during past Likud and Labor governments.

It must be remembered that no Labor government was ever willing to return the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza to Palestinian control (the best previous offer was the woefully inadequate “Allon plan” of the 1970s). Nevertheless, in the first decade of the occupation, Labor would not build settlements in the heart of the West Bank in order not to preclude some form of partial withdrawal from predominantly Palestinian areas.

It was during the first Likud government in the late 1970s, when Sharon was in charge of settlement construction that all this changed. One of Sharon’s earliest moves was to implement the controversial “Drobbles’ Plan” which placed settlements in the heart of the West Bank and planned to connect the settlements with a network of security roads so as to make Palestinian independence an “impossibility.”

To a great degree this effort succeeded. Today some 400,000 Israelis live in massive settlements in the Occupied Territories-both in a “great wall of concrete” surrounding east Jerusalem and on hilltops throughout the heart of the West Bank. During the past 20 years not only Likud, but Labor governments as well have continued to maintain Israel’s control over these settlements, and to dramatically expand their size.

At the end of the day, an important issue for Palestinians after the Camp David summit was not Barak’s willingness to cede 95 percent of the West Bank, it was the five percent he insisted on keeping. This portion of the territory constitutes both the wall enclosing Jerusalem, effectively severing it from the rest of the West Bank, and a number of fingers jutting out into the West Bank that would have made it difficult for Palestinians to have established control over their own land. This, after all, had been Sharon’s intention in the first place, more than two decades ago.

All of this makes it especially troubling that U.S. analysts and policy makers persist in blaming Arafat and the Palestinians for not saving Barak. But this is not a new development and is symptomatic of the core problem facing Palestinians in the United States. Despite having made real gains in U.S. public opinion, Palestinians are still not seen as the equals of the Israelis. Israelis are viewed, more often than not, as a complex society of individual human beings who are “just like us.” Palestinians are not understood in the same way. They remain a faceless and amorphous mass. Israeli public opinion counts-Palestinian public opinion does not. Israelis are understood to be an unruly society where individual voices are important. Palestinians are seen as a mass that should be, or even can be, controlled.

And so, as the popular “wisdom” of the U.S. analysts would have it-”Barak offered a great deal. He took a risk. Arafat rejected and then incited or at least refused to control his people, thereby turning Israelis against peace and Barak.”

What will happen next?

It is still not certain that Sharon will be any more successful in forming a government from the right, than his predecessor was in holding a government from the left and center. The Knesset, like Israeli society, is horribly fractured.

This very division (ethnic, religious, and political) has the potential of making the situation more volatile. If, for example, Sharon decides to take aggressive measures in Jerusalem or against the Palestinians in order to shore up his support base, violence could escalate and even spread.

What is clear, is that the election of Sharon closes a chapter in the search for a comprehensive Middle East peace. After all, Sharon opposed going to Madrid and Sharon opposed each and every agreement signed by Israeli Prime Ministers, whether he was in or out of government at the time.

With his victory, the Middle East enters a dangerous new phase. What will the official reaction be from Washington?

Whatever it is, Sharon should not expect to receive blank check support. The U.S. may fault the Palestinians for his election, but, given broader U.S. interests in the Middle East, the Administration will not give the new Prime Minister much leeway. And despite the fact that George W. Bush once praised Sharon as a “war hero” during the 2000 presidential campaign and praised the former general for having taught him about Israel’s security needs, Bush, most likely, won’t be repeating that speech any time soon.

There has been a pattern, during the past several U.S. administrations of behaving somewhat more coolly toward Likud governments. Former President Bush hesitated to give Likud leaders Yitzak Shamir the loan guarantees he sought. After Rabin defeated the Likud in 1988, Bush responded by giving Rabin the loan guarantees and diplomatic cover at the United Nations when Rabin expelled 400 Palestinians to Lebanon. So too Clinton, heaped praise on Labor leaders Rabin, Peres and Barak, but applied some subtle but real pressure on Netanyahu in an effort to secure the Hebron and Wye agreements.

One can expect the current Administration to follow the same approach.

Israel’s right wing supporters in Congress will be another matter. Already they have been effusive in their praise of the new Prime Minister. There are also concrete threats in the form of legislation that they will try to slash U.S. aid to the Palestinians and force the Bush Administration to make good on its campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

Thus begins the new chapter.

For comments, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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