I was once asked during a TV interview if my referring to Israel’s Ariel Sharon as "general" rather than prime minister was intended as a slur.
"Au contraire," I replied. "Speaking as a former soldier, I respect generals far more than any politicians, including "prime ministers."
This column has often and sharply criticized PM Sharon’s Arab-bashing politics, and his bloody invasion of Lebanon, but has always admired him as one of our era’s most brilliant generals. Gen. Sharon’s devastating counter-attack against advancing Egyptians in Sinai in 1973, and his dramatic crossing of the Suez Canal, will be enshrined in military history. A water crossing or amphibious landing in the face of the enemy is the second most perilous of all military operations.
Now, the 77-year old soldier has just mounted yet another brilliant and risky maneuver.
The most dangerous and difficult military operation is retreat under fire. This is exactly what Sharon has pulled off by ditching the far right Likud Party that he did so much to build, and starting his own more centrist party, Kadima.
Sharon had enough of Likud’s fanatical religious extremists who bitterly opposed his sensible pullout of Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza. Even Sharon’s plans to impose an unfavorable, unilateral territorial settlement on Palestinians were bitterly opposed by ber-Likudniks, and their leader-in-waiting, Bibi Netanyahu, who won’t give up their dream of biblical Greater Israel.
Polls show Sharon’s Kadima is likely to take a majority of seats in March elections, leaving Likud in the dust.
Sharon’s old friend, Shimon Peres, who plays "good cop" to Sharon’s "bad cop" in dealing with the Arabs, is also decamping to Kadima after being ousted as veteran Labor Party leader by a young firebrand of Moroccan background, Amir Peretz. In a lurid example of Israel’s chronic rivalry between European and Mideastern Jews, Peres’ brother amusingly accused Labor of falling under control, of "North Africans."
Sharon wasted no time after this dazzling maneuver to announce a settlement had to be achieved with Palestinians. Israel could not retain the entire West Bank and remain a democracy, Sharon admitted. He did not say it, but the only alternative is apartheid.
However, Sharon made no mention of Syria’s strategic Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967.
Israel, says Sharon, will keep all Jerusalem and major West Bank Jewish settlement blocks. His East German-style "security wall," which has grabbed large slices of Arab land, will stay. Palestinians will be allowed a mini-state on what’s left of the truncated West Bank.
This plan is certain to be rejected by Palestinians. It would produce what they have long feared: three or four semi-isolated bantustans without Arab Jerusalem, surrounded by Israeli troops, chopped up by Jewish-only roads that is politically and economically unviable. In short, a giant prison camp for Palestinians.
Gen. Sharon won’t achieve lasting peace with this plan. It’s hard to be optimistic about anything in the Mideast, but I am hoping Sharon has a still hidden agenda to implement a viable Palestinian state, and upgrade Israel’s downtrodden Arabs to first-class citizens, that will allow Israel and its neighbors to leave in peace. Otherwise, the 80-year Arab-Israeli conflict will drag on.
Sharon, that human tank, seems to be the only Israeli leader who can convince Israelis to accept a viable peace plan that trades land for security.
Just as the great Charles De Gaulle faced down violent settlers and freed Algeria from French colonial rule, so Gen. Sharon holds the fate of the Levant in his hands. Let’s hope his heart can still bear the strain of his grossly overweight body and ferocious Israeli politics.
The time is ripe. Sharon and his US supporters — I call them the American Likud Party (aka "neoconservatives") — did much to engineer the US war against Iraq, thereby destroying one of Israel’s prime enemies. So far, Israel, Iran and al-Qaida have been the only winners of the 2003 Iraq War. Israel has been able to lower defense spending and cut troops. Sharon, according to former US National Security Advisor Gen, Brent Scowcroft, "has Bush wrapped around his little finger."
Gen Sharon controls all the high ground. Now is the time for him to win his last great battle by making genuine, lasting peace, and be remembered not only as Israel’s finest general, but also its bringer of peace.