All Writings
May 5, 2004

Sharon Must Lead Or Quit

The Likud party's rejection of his disengagement plan represents both a political setback for Prime Minister Sharon and an opportunity for him to strengthen his standing within his party and among Israelis. If the Prime Minister is serious about his plan, as he has repeatedly asserted, then he must now demonstrate leadership, forge ahead, and present it to his cabinet for approval. However this scenario may play out, he, his party, the Israelis, and, ultimately, the Palestinians will greatly benefit from his initiative.

Although Sharon's disengagement plan is not comprehensive and contains no clear vision about the eventual disposition of the West Bank, a fact that has caused tremendous consternation among Palestinians, it does provide a good first step on the long road toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. The fact that Sharon, the leader of the right-wing Likud party and the father of the settlements, is willing to dismantle all the settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank, and relocate the settlers to Israel proper is extremely significant. Not only will he create a precedent for future leaders to follow , but he will put an end to the basic premise that is so dear to Likud and other right-wing parties, of Greater Israel. This notion has stifled peace efforts in the past and raised serious suspicion among Palestinians as to the ultimate goal of Sharon and his party. In spite of his setback, Sharon remains, at present, the only credible Israeli leader who can deliver enhanced security for his people and at the same time take steps toward eventual peace. After nearly four years of the second Intifadah, which has claimed the lives of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians, Israelis are sick and weary of the vicious cycle of violence, and they want to end it. Nearly 70 percent of the Israeli people support Sharon's plans, and there is a growing public outrage against a handful of settlers who hold the entire nation hostage to their long-lost dream.

The Labor Party, led by Shimon Peres, would certainly like to replace Sharon. Such a prospect, however, remains dim at best. The public does not trust Peres, who is viewed as a leader eager to make peace at almost any price. Moreover, there is no new rising Labor star who can rally the nation behind him or her. However, in Sharon's hands, the Labor card can become an extremely potent weapon for him to use against rejectionist Likud members in his cabinet. Therefore, Sharon will risk very little by presenting his plan to his cabinet for approval, for he will be challenging key Likud Minsters to support him while threatening to eject right-wing parties, especially the National Religious Party, if they fail to back his initiative. Should this move fail, Sharon can then call for a new election and make disengagement his central campaign theme. Recent polls indicate that, if elections were held today, he would win handsomely. Although negotiations with Labor to join a new Sharon-led government will be difficult, because Labor is likely to insist on a vision, if not a specific plan, for an ultimate settlement with the Palestinians, the two main parties will strike a deal. The public demands it, and there is no other viable alternative.

Much of this depends on how committed Sharon is to his plan. He has given his word to Mr. Bush to see the disengagement plan through. In return, he received the endorsement of it from the president at a time when Mr. Bush was (and still is) experiencing tremendous distress over the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the growing alienation of the Arab and Muslim worlds toward the United States. It has become even more significant now especially in the wake of revelations of sadistic, cruel and inhuman abuses of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. Consequently, Sharon cannot backtrack on, or water down his plan in order to appease the settlers or their representatives in his cabinet. Moreover, the Israeli public's sentiments on this issue are very clear. The people want an equitable solution that the Palestinians eventually can live with; they have had enough bloodshed and pain. Sharon was given a mandate to do just this. As he has repeatedly stated: "We were elected to provide peace with security and economic prosperity, and we cannot sit on our hands." Neither security nor economic prosperity is attainable as long as the conflict with the Palestinians continues and violence, as it seems so far, is the method of choice in dealing with an increasingly dangerous situation.

The indirect endorsement of the Sharon plan by the Quartet–the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia –which met in New York on May 4th— is a move in the right direction. Hopefully, their endorsement may ameliorate some of the Palestinian resistance to the plan. Resistance may also melt as Palestinians begin to see some of its advantages and as well recognize the absence of any other viable option. Indeed, if the Palestinians accept President Bush's road map for peace in principle, there is nothing in Sharon's plan that runs contrary to, or is inconsistent with it. Ideally, the withdrawal of Israeli forces and settlements from Gaza, and the evacuation of a few settlements in the West Bank, should be accomplished either in direct coordination with the Palestinians or indirectly through a third party, such as the United States, so that there can be an orderly transition during which security is maintained. Sharon himself may or may not see this process through to its ultimate fruition; however, if his plan is effectuated, it offers a solid beginning on which to build future progress.

Sharon must now decide whether he will rise to the occasion, demonstrate leadership, and forge ahead–with the support of a majority of Israelis–in his customary decisive way, or shirk from his responsibility and join the parade of failed Middle Eastern leaders who have brought Israelis and Palestinians to the precipice. I believe that Sharon will not forfeit an historic opportunity.