Sharon’s dangerous game

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Sharon appears blissfully unaware that his policy of brinkmanship is propelling the region into a full-scale war. Such a war will exact a high price, militarily but also, for Israel, politically: a price it cannot afford to pay, for this war will destroy an entire network of political relations upon which the possibility of Israel’s peaceful existence in the Middle East depends. Sharon is also labouring under an illusion if he believes that the “qualitative military superiority” the US has guaranteed Israel will enable it to win even “limited” political objectives. Too many international interests in the region are at stake, from the immediate consequences of conflict, but also from the disruption to the current regional balance of power.

The very nature of the Middle East conflict, as successive wars have demonstrated, deprives all parties of the opportunity to score a final military or political victory. The persistence of tension and the threat of war, on the other hand, lead only to economic deterioration, as the current state of the Israeli economy amply indicates. At the same time, any military engagement will inevitably entail far greater devastation than preceding bouts of warfare due to rapid technological advances and the destructive capacities of new weapons. This should be especially daunting for Israel, whose military planners, after all, were the ones to coin the term “geo-strategic vulnerability” in reference to their country’s relatively small size and the exposed position of its population, industrial complexes and military stockpiles.

War is by definition the last resort of those seeking to achieve political objectives. This law governed Arab-Israeli relations until the Sharon-led Likud bloc came to power. Throughout the peace process, as Israel maintained its hold on the occupied territories and the other elements of the final-status negotiations were suspended, war was never even a distant prospect. With the Sharon government, however, it is a palpable possibility — not because of the process’s collapse, but given the dynamics of domestic politics under a notoriously shortsighted and reckless leadership.

Sharon is scrambling to score all possible gains for Israel before the last phase of final-status negotiations comes to term. He wants to secure control over the largest possible tract of Palestinian land, expand Israeli colonies (a far more accurate term than settlements), and retain all Jerusalem as the “eternal and indivisible capital of Israel.” To this end, he has adopted the US’s Cold War strategy of brinkmanship. But, Sharon is doing himself, and his country, a grave injustice if he is drawing any parallels between Israel’s situation in the Middle East and the US’s global status in the 1950s. This strategy may have helped the US forestall renewed warfare and bring peace and security to the European arena; it will not achieve these objectives in the Middle East. Sharon is not Eisenhower and Israel does not have the might or prestige the US enjoyed after emerging victorious from World War II.

Thus, rather than enhancing prospects for regional peace, Sharon’s brinkmanship has brought the region closer to war than it has been at any time in the past 30 years — war, moreover, in which highly destructive non-traditional weaponry will inevitably come into play. Sharon is deceiving himself still further if he imagines that Israel holds all the cards in the dangerous game he is playing, or that the Arabs are unaware of his tactics.

The primary thrust of Sharon’s strategy is not to stop the peace process, but rather to alter its ground rules radically. Flexing Israel’s strategic superiority, he believes, is the way to evade legal commitments and convince the Arabs to lower their expectations: by forcing them to relinquish fundamental demands and renegotiate previously agreed-upon issues. The “package deal” that Barak and Clinton sought to impose on Arafat was only a prelude to the arm-twisting and intimidation tactics Sharon is currently attempting to refine. In his battle of wills against the Palestinians, Sharon is manoeuvring to push them to the wall, leaving only the tiniest breathing space. He is willing to use all the weapons at his disposal and to pit himself against regional and international pressures in the process. Eventually, he hopes, the combined attrition from Israeli assaults at home and propaganda abroad will weaken the Palestinians’ resolve, and they will cave in to Tel Aviv’s dictates.

The peace process has been reduced to precisely such dictates. The vision of peace that Sadat offered on his trip to Jerusalem — an initiative based on mutual acceptance and a framework for expanding common ground as the bases for lasting coexistence and stability — were never given much of a chance to expand into reality. The machinations of one Israeli leader after another have destroyed their last vestiges, leaving Sharon to revive the spectre of war.

When Sharon’s visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque sparked the Palestinian Intifada, Israeli forces did not respond with customary anti-riot measures. They fired live ammunition into the crowds and then brought in major weaponry: tanks, armoured helicopters and (unprecedented in suppressing unarmed protesters) F-16 fighter planes. Soon, reports were issued from Israel of plans for a full-scale assault aimed at reoccupying the territories under PA control. Sharon upped the ante further regionally, by having one of the members of his government explicitly threaten to bomb the High Dam and reoccupy the Sinai, and by ordering Israel’s armed forces to bomb Syrian radar installations in Lebanon. He was relentlessly inching his country closer to that fine line separating low-level tactical manoeuvres and full-blown war.

Regional and international pressures temporarily halted the slide into belligerence. Sharon’s tactics had brought the region too close to the precipice; it was hoped that reality would be sobering enough to make the parties involved amenable to talks. But such hopes did not reckon with the fact that Sharon is too thoroughly a warmonger to change his ways. Just as the Tenet plan seemed on the verge of restoring sufficient calm for a resumption of negotiations, Sharon, in what can only be construed as a deliberate act of provocation, granted a group of Jewish extremists permission to lay the foundations of the “Third Temple” in the perimetre of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Sweeping away years of peace negotiations, the Sharon government has revived a climate of war that could easily spin out of control. The Arabs, in consequence, must prepare for the worst-case scenario. To every bid for peace, Sharon has responded with more violence and provocation, suggesting that, although the Arabs may be prepared to settle, for Israel peace is not a high priority. Indeed, mobilisation, warmongering statements made by government officials and the tenor of public opinion in Israel indicate that peace is not a priority at all.

A long legacy of Israeli attitudes and behaviour, which Sharon epitomises to the point of caricature, suggests that Israel is not even psychologically capable of making the compromises necessary to ensure a lasting peace. Above all, the belief in the right to “Greater Israel” is deeply rooted in the minds of even those Israelis who believe in the need for peace. This ideal, to which they cling, makes the Palestinian people a mere obstacle and therefore rules out Israeli acceptance of any compromise affirming the equal right of two peoples to security and sovereign nationhood. Sharon is a militant exponent of “Greater Israel,” of which the inherent corollary is the elimination of the Palestinians one way or another.

Further encouraging this trend is a general tendency to dehumanise the Arabs, born of a lengthy history of Western racism and deliberately fostered by Israeli propagandists in order to justify its brutal repression of an occupied people — indeed, to rally international support for such brutality.

Anti-Arab racism in Israel presents Arabs as terrorists, which, in turn, is used to justify that long-cherished cornerstone of Israel’s military and political policy: “massive retaliation.” For some time this strategy has been the prime component in Israel’s unceasing bids to ensure that all attempts at negotiating disintegrate into renewed violence. Sharon has used massive retaliation with such ferocity that Arab hatred for Israel has reached unprecedented intensity. Large-scale destruction must inevitably precipitate an Arab response and is therefore guaranteed to halt the peace process, even if the agreements this process produced are kept alive formally.

The Israelis’ attitude toward the Arabs has also generated a warped “realism” that makes security concerns a permanent obstacle to any compromise. Unfortunately, the Israelis, and Sharon in particular, cannot see that what constitutes absolute security to Israel represents an absolute threat to the Arabs. In barricading themselves behind this fortress mentality, moreover, the Israelis only succeed in enhancing their sense of insecurity, which drives them to further military excess, augments Arab hostility and generates a self-fulfilling prophecy of spiraling tensions. This is not a mind-set conducive to assuming the responsibilities necessary for reaching rational peace, but it is one that Sharon has assiduously cultivated.

Past years of Arab-Israeli interaction have produced certain ground rules for preventing renewed regional warfare and these rules are still operative, despite the war of attrition Sharon is waging upon them. At the same time, however, the framework of Arab-Israeli relations has not yet eliminated the war option entirely, and while there is nothing inherent in these relations that must precipitate a conflagration, Sharon’s brinkmanship propels in that direction. Brinkmanship is a gamble; in the very tense and complicated Middle East conflict it is a very dangerous gamble, because it is so easy to raise the stakes to the point of no return.

Egypt is the most pessimistic it has been since the beginning of the peace process. President Mubarak himself has said that the chances of reaching peace with the Sharon government are slim because Sharon only understands violence and murder. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the Israeli prime minister’s attempts to drive the region to the brink, Egypt has been careful not to be lured into his game. This stance, it should be stressed, does not emanate from weakness or lack of resolve, but rather from the desire to spare the region the disasters attendant upon the perpetuation of Sharon’s folly — disasters that will afflict all the parties, including Israel. As Mubarak said: “There will never be another 1967 in the region. If war breaks out, there will be severe losses on both sides.” One can only hope that Sharon heeds this warning, discards the mantle of John Foster Dulles and turns his mind to some earnest peacemaking efforts.

The writer is an expert in military strategy and deputy director of the Centre for Middle East Studies.

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