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Sharon is Arafat’s gift to Israelis, Palestinians

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Israelis on the right and left say Yasser Arafat is the one who brought Ariel Sharon to power, and it is hard to disagree.

The Palestinian leader saw nothing wrong with waging an intifada while talking peace, but objected when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak used the same tactic — fighting back militarily while offering him better terms for a final settlement than any of his predecessors.

This hardened Israeli attitudes both against the peace process and Barak, who suffered a crushing defeat at the polls. Sharon beat him by a margin of almost two-to-one, winning 62.5 percent of the vote to Barak's 37.4 percent.

"Ariel Sharon is Arafat's gift to the Israeli people and the Palestinian people," wrote Amos Oz in a front-page column for the daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

And both sides will have to live with the consequences.

Arab nations, universally appalled that Israelis chose the "Butcher of Beirut" to be their leader, see it as a signal that the Jews are not ready for peace. By the same token, Israelis see Arafat's rejection of what they regard as Barak's overly generous terms, accompanied by ongoing violence, as a signal that the Palestinians are not ready.

What Barak offered Arafat — a state on 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, a shared Jerusalem and dismantling of many Jewish settlements — may not have been enough to meet his "minimum demands," but it was certainly a lot more than he can expect from Sharon.

His insistence on a Palestinian "right of return," however fair in light of Israel's "right of return" for Jews, was simply unrealistic and will remain so no matter who runs Israel. The Jewish state would be swamped by the return of 4 million Palestinian refugees, just as it would be swamped if 6 million American Jews suddenly decided to exercise their "right of return."

There are simply not enough jobs, schools, housing, infrastructure and sheer geographical space to accommodate such an influx, either in Israel or the Palestinian territories, even if every Jewish settlement was dismantled tomorrow. So its best to start talking compensation for the land the Palestinians lost and consult other Arab governments on how best to end their refugee status.

But Arafat and his henchmen are clearly at a loss on how to deal with Sharon.

Some want to continue the intifada, or even escalate it, meaning no peace talks at all. Sharon has said there cannot be negotiations while the violence continues. Some want to establish a dialogue with Sharon, though on what basis is hard to imagine, since he refuses to honor the concessions previously offered by Barak. Still others believe Sharon won't last long and it's best to wait for his successor.

The 72-year-old former general certainly has little time to savor his victory. He faces a deadline both for forming a new government and passing the 2001 budget.

If he cannot form a government by March 30, special elections for prime minister must be held within 60 days. And if the budget does not pass its required three readings by March 31, the Knesset is automatically dissolved and general elections for both parliament and prime minister will take place within 90 days.

As long as Sharon cannot form a government he cannot be sworn into office, and Barak remains the sitting prime minister, even though he has resigned as Labor Party leader. Sharon wants Labor to join his Likud in a "unity government," but a leadership battle will make it difficult for Labor to conduct coalition negotiations, forcing Sharon to fall back on a narrower coalition of right-wing and religious factions.

Sharon also faces a tough job on the international stage, where Israel's image has been battered by accusations that it is using excessive force to put down the Palestinian uprising. He plans to dispatch envoys to explain Israel's version of events, which can't wait until he is sworn in.

"These essential tasks cannot be delayed until a new government is formed and formally takes office," says political analyst Gerald Steinberg.

"Otherwise, Sharon's tenure will be even shorter than Barak's and Israel will find itself more isolated and entrenched than ever."

Sharon's most difficult task may be healing the rifts in Israeli society, between Arabs and Jews, the secular and religious, and supporters and opponents of peace. For that, he needs time — a commodity he may not necessarily have.


Holger Jensen is International Editor of the Rocky Mountain News. E-mail to hjens@aol.com.