May Sharon's successor learn from his mistakes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

My longtime colleague and friend, Trudy Rubin of The Philadelphia Inquirer, writes about the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is unlikely to return to office even if he survives the massive stroke that felled him last week.

Reading Ms. Rubin's column, which appeared in the Inquirer on Sunday and is printed below, I was reminded that we both started working in the Middle East in 1973. We both lived in Beirut. She was there on a fellowship; I had just arrived as The Sun's Middle East correspondent.

Looking back on the more than three decades that have passed, it's striking how much more radicalized the Middle East has become.

The Israeli-Arab conflict was not new. In fact, 1973 was the year in which Israel successfully repulsed an invasion from Egypt and Syria. Terrorism was not new, as the Palestinian group Black September had demonstrated the year before at the Munich Olympics; nor was the brutality of life under Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank.

But here is what did not exist:

In the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, there was no Hamas and no Islamic Jihad. In Lebanon, there was no Hezbollah. The Palestine Liberation Organization, operating mostly from Lebanon, launched attacks against usually civilian targets in Israel, often killing innocent people, including women and children. And Israel retaliated with devastating bombing raids against the PLO enclaves. But there was nothing like the scale of fatalities produced in Israel and Palestine during the last five years - more than 3,200 Palestinians and some 1,000 Israelis.

In those days, even during the 1973 war, practically anyone, including the Palestinians, could travel the length and breadth of the country - Israel proper and the occupied territories.

Moreover, in those days, Israeli settlements were being constructed, especially around Jerusalem, in the Jordan Valley and in the Golan Heights, but the government did not talk of biblical entitlement. There was only one mainstream religious party to speak of in Israel, the National Religious Party, and it was not a far-right party.

There was a Likud party, but its leader, Menachem Begin, was viewed as something of a radical outsider. Ariel Sharon's career as a politician in that party was just getting started. No one expected that the Likud, with its view of Greater Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, would control the country.

But they did come to power four years later, and the dynamic changed dramatically. Mr. Begin announced his plan for 1 million Israelis to live in the West Bank.

Mr. Sharon was the architect of that settlement plan, which helped to exacerbate the hopelessness of the occupied Palestinians and contributed to the radicalization of the Palestinian population. Just as Israel was coming under the influence of religious fundamentalism and militancy, so were the Palestinians.

Mr. Begin made peace with Egypt in 1979, but turned around and invaded Lebanon in one of the most disastrous escapades of the modern Israeli experience. Mr. Sharon was the architect of that war. He took it further than even Mr. Begin expected, and was held responsible for the disgrace and abiding casualties it brought to Israel. And the longer Israeli forces stayed in Lebanon, the more radicalized a once quiescent Shiite population became, eventually spawning Hezbollah and suicide attacks as a major weapon.

Given Mr. Sharon's personal role in these developments, it was stunning to see him order the evacuation of Jewish settlements he had helped build in Gaza. It was equally stunning to see him leave the Likud party to form his own more "moderate" party last month. These actions generated hope that Mr. Sharon had a viable end game in mind.

Mr. Sharon's altered direction has been attributed to a realization that Israel was coming to a dangerous point at which it would contain more Arabs than Jews, threatening the essence of the Jewish state. So he seemed to have decided it needed to be reduced, consolidated and enclosed, especially inasmuch as the Arab population lives in a state of political chaos dominated by militant extremists.

Israelis will hope that Mr. Sharon's successor is as committed to their security. They will be well served if that successor is less unilateral and sees the need to alter the conditions that nurture radicalism and militancy among the Palestinian Arabs.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun. His e-mail is gjeffersonprice@yahoo.com.

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