- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2006

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon departs the political scene leaving a legacy of war and peace, having fought for both with equal vigor.

For peace to gain a foothold in the longstanding Middle East dispute, it was long argued the two principal actors — Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat — had to first exit politics. Only then could there be concrete steps toward a lasting peace.

Many Middle East observers believed Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Mr. Sharon needed to take a final bow and retire, leaving their places to a younger generation of leaders — with it was hoped less political luggage than Mr. Sharon and Arafat came with.

The longstanding feud between the two leaders that traced back decades prevented a “businesslike” relationship between them. There was simply too much bad blood between the two. There was too much blood, period.

There was so much bad blood and bitter history between the two giants of Palestinian and Israeli politics that only death would finally end their decades-old dispute. For nearly a half-century Mr. Sharon chased Arafat around the Middle East and North Africa, trying to eliminate him and those close to him, while Arafat plotted attacks on Israel.

Arafat died November 2004 in a suburban Paris hospital following a brief but unexplained illness, leaving the leadership of the Palestinian Authority to the much more moderate Mahmoud Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen.

Mr. Sharon in 1982 got Arafat and thousands of his fighters expelled from Beirut after he engineered the invasion of Lebanon. Arafat and his fighters were scattered to a number of Arab countries, some as far away as Morocco and Yemen. Mr. Sharon thought he had distanced the PLO and won the war.

But destiny decreed otherwise and saw to it the two enemy soldiers-turned-politicians were to end up as neighbors — well, practically neighbors. As a result of the 1993 Oslo Accords, Arafat was allowed to rebase in the Palestinian territories. He established his headquarters in Ramallah, just a few miles from the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem.

If the two old antagonists became neighbors, they never became good neighbors. As violence escalated with suicide bombers targeting Israel, and Israel retaliating, Israel, much to the detriment of the Palestinians, began erecting a wall-barrier-fence between them and the Palestinians.

With Mr. Sharon’s absence on the political scene, chances could be better than ever for a fresh start between the Palestinians and Israelis. But that depends, of course, on who replaces Mr. Sharon in next March’s elections. In the last year or so, Mr. Sharon had veered politically from the far right to the center in his politics regarding the Palestinians.

His views changed radically since his days as housing minister when he expanded Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, to unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza and two West Bank settlements late last year.

If his new Kadima (Forward) Party wins the elections in March, chances for peace with the Palestinians might survive. However, a victory by the more hawkish Likud, with Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, could put the peace process on hold. Mr. Netanyahu has said he would make no concessions to the Palestinians.

If on the other hand, Mr. Sharon’s legacy for peace carries through and his political heirs win the election, and if the Palestinian Authority dissuades Hamas from violence, (that’s a lot of ifs) a chance for peace might survive, and Mr. Sharon, the old hawk, will go down in history as somewhat a dove.

Throughout his military career, Mr. Sharon fought hard to defend Israel. He proved one of the brightest and most daring generals in the Israeli army. During the October 1973 War, when the situation looked bleak for Israel as Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal and captured the Bar Lev Line, Mr. Sharon cut through the Sinai with a division of tanks, crossed the Canal and encircled the entire Egyptian 3rd Army a mere 63 miles from Cairo.

As defense minister in Menachem Begin’s government, Mr. Sharon planned and carried out the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent siege of Beirut. While the Israeli army was in control of Beirut, Christian Phalangist militiamen entered the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila and massacred several thousand Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon was found “indirectly responsible” by the Kahane Commission, but he was never tried in Israel. He resigned as defense minister, saying it was the first time a Jewish minister was ever held responsible for Christians killing Muslims.

Mr. Sharon’s exit from Israel’s political arena, much like Arafat’s, ends the era of warrior politicians in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Maybe the new generation can bring the long-awaited peace to the region. But again, there are many “ifs.”

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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