Re-electing the devil you know

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History is full of it, that is, full of the remorse and disbelief some people feel when remembering how their ancestors acted in a certain way at a specific point in time. Like them, future Israeli generations will one day wonder how and why their parents and grandparents elected Ariel Sharon twice in a row to lead their nation into ever greater depression. Unless something dramatic happens before Jan. 28, polls indicate that Likud, and therefore Sharon, is assured of victory.  And unless something dramatic happens, Israelis and people affected by what happens in Israel will be paying the price dearly.

Twenty-nine political parties reflect the division of Israeli society on essential issues, but campaigning has bypassed concerns which typically play a role in national elections. Sharon’s Israel is going through the worst recession it has ever known, with a shattered economy, rising double-digit unemployment and no damage-control measures on the menu. With Sharon’s coaxing, however, these problems have been ignored by candidates and electorate alike to focus on two key issues: Palestinians, and Iraq.

President Bush’s depiction of Sharon as a man of peace has apparently helped convince Israelis they should re-elect him. In the heat of the moment, most are forgetting that he, precisely, is responsible for the greatest escalation of violence the region has ever known. The present government, to a much greater extent than previous ones, has violated practically every international protocol on human rights, given trigger-happy soldiers a green light to kill indiscriminately, razed countless Palestinian homes, expropriated more Palestinian land to build more settlements, and continued to bring Palestinians under occupation to new lows of humiliation and despair. Oddly enough, Israelis seem to believe this will bring them peace and internal security, and their re-election of Sharon will give them more of the same.

The sounds of war drums from Washington have also given Sharon the benefit of a supposed Iraqi threat, creating fantastic scenarios and pressing unto ordinary Israelis the contrived need for a tough man at the helm. The more Bush and his hawks shriek about Saddam’s invisible weapons of mass destruction, the more Sharon milks the situation to his advantage. Images of gas masks distributed in schools throughout Israel have had the desired potent effect, as have timely “revelations” about Arab states supposedly aiding and abetting Iraq’s circumvention of UN Security Council resolutions, which apparently only Israel can flout.

Imaginary dangers aside, Israelis have borne the physical consequences of their government’s belligerence and savagery in the Occupied Territories, consequences which continue to affect most aspects of daily life.

Yet, until recently, Israelis seemed mostly content with the “Bulldozer” and were on the verge of giving him another landslide victory é- until tales of corruption and fraud surfaced. Suddenly, polls predicted Likud would lose some 10 seats and Sharon’s position became shaky when some Israelis objected to dirty politics.

For a brief time, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope that Sharon would be sidelined for his involvement. The Labor Party inferred that Sharon and his sons were reminiscent of Mario Puzzo’s fictitious Don Corleone and his notorious famiglia, hoping for Sharon’s dramatic exclusion from politics. While that was entertaining, the godfather is no Sharon, and the Bulldozer certainly surpasses the Mafioso in criminal matters. Should Sharon be indicted on corruption charges, rather, he would become a modern version of Al Capone. Like the recognized criminal who was finally sent to Alcatraz on mere tax evasion charges, Sharon would be brought to justice for financial and political offenses while his greater crimes remained unpunished.

Should this happen, Israel’s electorate é- which accepted being ruled by a war criminal whose responsibility for massacres has been ascertained by Israeli authorities themselves é- would at least be remembered as the generation which turned Israel around, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Alas, even that dim hope was short-lived. Whether because of sympathy voting or because the opposition hasn’t properly managed these opportunities, a man with whose criminal record few people dead or alive can compete will ride smoothly to victory again.

The few voters who had decided that a corrupt Israeli was not an acceptable leader have not gone to Labor, but to smaller parties and religious or secular extremists, and part of Sharon’s achievements will have been to polarize Israeli society even more under his rule. But while the Likud’s top echelons may have expressed frustration, Sharon has little to lose.

Likud’s majority may not be as solid as it once was, but Sharon will still command considerable clout and the power to steer coalition partners into his own hazardous path. Far from bringing the usual inconveniences of an alliance with extremes of either direction, a Likud-Shas coalition (the most likely arrangement) could allow Sharon to appear hand-tied in spite of his supposed desire for peace. Such a right-wing alliance will contribute to the growing divide between secular and ultra-religious poles, to Palestinian resentment, and consequently to Israeli insecurity.

In reality, this hard-line coalition would only be trying to enforce Likud’s founding goal and mantra, reconfirmed at its May convention, that Israeli sovereignty extend to the west of the river Jordan.  Where would the eventual Palestinian state then be?

Sharon has not even begun to shed light on the “painful concessions” he would be willing to make for peace, promised in the last campaign that brought him to power. His actions, however, have spoken loudly on those he was unwilling to make, to which he recently added the acceptance of the European Union as a peace maker. Finding Europe too biased and the “Quartet” to be “nothing,” Sharon confers only on the US the dubious honor of his blessing.

Assured of American support and fishing for a further “emergency” $12 billion aid package (thus also ensuring that the American taxpayer continues to subsidize his crimes), Sharon has appealed to Israelis’ sense of fear. The more scared they get, the fewer alternatives they see to Sharon. “Better the devil you know,” Israelis must be thinking as they go to the polls in a few days, but they are demonstrating remarkable shortsightedness. Only they still have the power to change their own destiny and that of the next generation.

The thought of Sharon behind bars would delight many of his victims and gratify human rights advocates, but it would be a hollow victory to have him indicted on minor offenses rather than for the horrific crimes against humanity he has repeatedly committed. But while a corruption indictment may leave a bitter aftertaste, there are times when it is better not to question the means to an end.

Until justice is served, a temporary relief would be Sharon’s defeat at the polls, even if it is a consequence of his corruption. It is still better to oust and confine Sharon a la Al Capone than to willingly re-elect him to a position from which he will continue to destroy Palestinians and bring Israelis to continued misfortune. Israelis still have time to do the right thing.

Rime Allaf is a writer and specialist in Middle East affairs. She is also a consultant in international communications and new economy business.

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