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[From NYT] Sharon the unifier

Posted February. 13, 2001 19:33,   


"The Israeli nation needs unity," said Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon, continuing our phone conversation, "to try to overcome all the hatred and the unbelievable splits. Arguments have always been part of political life here, but never as bad as this.

"It`s not only that the parties are splintered between each other," the last of the warrior-patriarchs went on, "but now they are splintered from inside. The good thing is that I can talk to all of them."

His job is not merely to cobble together a national-unity government with a majority in the Knesset. (Natan Sharansky as foreign minister? The slot may not be open.) Sharon`s harder task, after the exposure of the Oslo fraud, is to forge a sense of unity and purpose among Jewish and Arab Israelis at home and among Israel supporters abroad.

The Labor Party, his first choice for coalition partner, is a prime example of splinter stress. The appeasement scales seem to have fallen from the eyes of Shimon Peres after last month`s public humiliation by Yasir Arafat at Davos. If the arch-appeaser Yossi Beilin marches his discredited faction off to the ultra-left, that`s one internal split to be desired. It would permit the saddened center of Labor to join a government of national realism.

Will Sharon, to attract the eyes- opened left, adopt any of the sweeping concessions made vainly by Ehud Barak, his naïve predecessor? "The Palestinians know there will not be any negotiations as long as the terror doesn`t stop. They know I`ll prevent entrance of Palestinian refugees, which would be a disaster to Israel. They know I will guard an undivided Jerusalem, with the Temple Mount the holiest place of the Jewish people."

And yet, Sharon is asking himself: What action can he take to show the world that he "really, seriously" means to negotiate with the Palestinians? "We will have to go a different way, with a different plan, because Barak`s plan failed."

Anyone who has been schlepped by Sharon around Judea and Samaria in a helicopter knows that this former general has his specific plan.

For years, on a settlement hilltop, he would hang a map on a fence and show to visitors (including George W. Bush two years ago) his concept of a defensible Israel next to a contiguous state including virtually all the Palestinians on about half the West Bank. Sharon`s potential proposal is not as dreamily self-defeating as the Clinton- Barak bridge to nowhere, but has this practical advantage the other never did: Sharon in power can now deliver what he promises.

He is more of a diplomat than his "bulldozer" image suggests. Since the unity of Jerusalem is central to his Zionist reaffirmation, did Sharon ask President Bush, in their recent phone call, about moving the U.S. Embassy there? "It`s very important, but was not suitable in this conversation."

He dispatched Avi Posner, Israel`s most persuasive multilingual diplomat, to European leaders; this week, his three wise men (Moshe Arens, Zalman Shoval, Dore Gold) will arrive in Washington. They will not be talking just about Palestinian rejectionism; strategy in the Middle East involves a broad range of mutual interests.

For example, in a breakfast talk with Sharon a few days before his reassertion of sovereignty at the Temple Mount, I asked about Iraq. "Not a backward people, but an insane country," he remarked. With plutonium from Russia and uninspected by the U.N., Saddam`s scientists could have a nuclear bomb next year; that would profoundly affect strategy both in the U.S. and Israel.

I suspect former Defense Minister Arens will be discussing global missile defense this week at the Pentagon. Arafat`s intifada may be a migraine headache but Saddam`s bomb would be an existential threat. Sharon, who speaks fluent Russian, is aware of Iran`s tacit agreement with Russia not to supply Islamic Chechen rebels even as Vladimir Putin pays off by advancing Iran`s nuclear development. Though Sharon would like to provide the U.S. an economic and technological bridge to Russia, "Israel will remain Western and American in orientation. We have to take into consideration President Bush`s policy about Russia."

Arik Sharon, the hardliner, has always surprised friends with his combination of cunning and openness, familial constancy and political resilience, sense of mission and sense of humor. What greater surprise than Sharon, the unifier?