- The intense public relations barrage notwithstanding, the outcome of Tuesday's elections will not be determined by the relative merits of Prime Minister Ehud Barak (or perhaps Regional Cooperation Minister Shimon Peres) and Ariel Sharon, their leadership abilities, or future policies and scenarios. Rather, Israelis will cast their votes in the context of the long- promised referendum on seven years of the Oslo process, and on the efforts and responses of the Barak government during the past 18 months.
A vote to return Barak to the Prime Minister's Office means proffering ever-deeper sacrifices on basic Jewish and Zionist values regarding Jerusalem and a Jewish State in return for a mythical peace. It also means half-hearted and sporadic responses to Palestinian terror, and dismantling the shield of Israeli deterrence that has been the ultimate guarantor of survival.
In this context, the claim that Israelis and Palestinian negotiators "have never been closer to a agreement" may be true, but since Palestinian society has not moved a centimeter towards any fundamental compromise, this statement is also meaningless. The gap is still a chasm, and the idea that after the efforts made at Camp David, Sharm e-Sheikh, and finally, in Taba, a comprehensive stable and real peace is "around the corner" is not credible. Arafat's hate-filled speech in Davos made a farce of these optimistic declarations, and provided the epitaph for the Oslo experiment.
Under the ground rules of democracy, the only alternative open to Israelis who have given up is to vote for the opposition, which happens to be headed by Ariel Sharon. His famous successes (leading the counterattack in the 1973 Yom Kippur War) and disastrous mistakes (such as the Lebanon war) are irrelevant. Sharon's lead in the polls is strictly a reflection of the failures of Barak's policies (as well as those of Peres and Justice Minister Yossi Beilin), in general, and the shattered dreams of peace, in particular.
By the same token, assuming that he wins, Sharon will have no basis for concluding that he has received a personal or political mandate.
Both Netanyahu (in 1996) and Barak (in 1999) made this fundamental mistake, misinterpreting negative votes against the incumbents as popular endorsements. Sharon's first task, in spite of his military background, will be to break the cycle of Napoleonic one-man rule, and to form the widest and most qualified government possible. Instead of relying on a small circle of relatives, cronies and yes-men, this means forming a policy cabinet involving qualified leaders with different views.
With this background, the new government's immediate objective will be to work with IDF officials and experienced diplomats in restoring Israeli security and deterrence, while preventing regional instability.
If, as is likely, terrorism increases, an effective response is necessary, but it must also be chosen and applied with great care. This would be an appropriate occasion for Sharon to demonstrate that he has indeed learned the lessons of the Lebanon war.
Sharon's election is sure to unleash a torrent of politically correct criticism, primarily from European journalists and "intellectuals," for whom the uniqueness of Israeli democracy in an otherwise totalitarian Middle East has never been a consideration of importance.
While there is little that can be done to deflect this demonization, which will be supported from remnants of the Israeli Left, an intense and carefully considered diplomatic initiative can limit the damage. Ehud Barak showed that even when an Israeli leader is willing to pay a tremendous and unlimited price for peace, the Palestinians are not prepared to move from the positions held in 1993, or even 1947.
Similarly, serious observers now understand that the violence and terrorism that began at the end of September was carefully planned, and not a "spontaneous popular uprising." (The use of the term "intifada" is also losing currency, for this reason). There is, in fact, no Palestinian partner for peace.
In this political environment, public statements claiming legitimacy for the construction of new Israeli settlements, or any move in this direction, as well as boisterous military threats in any and all directions, would be major errors. Rather, Israel should focus attention on Palestinian rejectionism and terrorism, while adopting Teddy Roosevelt's policy of talking softly and carrying a big stick in response to regional threats.
On the ground, to fill the diplomatic vacuum left by Oslo, the new government should continue in the direction of extensive separation and reduction of points of friction. This can be achieved on the basis of informal coordination with the Palestinians and mediators from the US, or, if this fails, on a strictly unilateral basis.
The process will be painful, requiring the evacuation of some isolated settlements whose continued defense is too costly, while increasing contiguous territory under Palestinian control, and removing a number of Israeli military checkpoints.
Most importantly, for Sharon, a victory on Tuesday will be a very limited triumph. If he wants to avoid a quick no-confidence vote in the Knesset, new elections in a few months, and likely defeat, he needs to select his government and its policies extremely carefully. He will only get one shot at being the prime minister of Israel, and will not receive any grace period to make mistakes.
(The writer is the director of the Program on Conflict Resolution at Bar-Ilan University.)
©2001 Jerusalem Post