- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2004

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Friday invited his longtime political rival, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, to join the Likud-dominated government in order to implement a withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip. With Labor’s decision to begin talks with Mr. Sharon, the stage is being set for creation of a new Israeli unity government that will preside over the dismantling of all Jewish settlements in Gaza and some outlying wildcat settlements in the West Bank.

Last week, Mr. Sharon won a hard-fought battle when his Likud Party voted in favor of pursuing a coalition government with Labor. Likud holds 40 seats in the 120-member Knesset, the Israeli parliament; Labor controls 22 seats. To guard against the possibility of some Likud defections over pulling out of settlements, the new Sharon government may also include several smaller parties dominated by very religious Orthodox Jews.

By bringing Labor into the government, Mr. Sharon is taking a major political risk. For the first 29 years of Israel’s existence, the Labor-dominated left won every national election and controlled every Israeli government. From 1977, when Menachem Begin led Likud to its first victory, until 1992, the nationalistic, pro-settlement right was ascendant. During this period, no single Israeli politician was more closely associated with the expansion of settlements — regardless of world hostility — than Mr. Sharon.

But Israeli politics underwent a sea change when Yitzhak Rabin’s victory over the very hawkish Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 ushered in a period of eight and a half years in which Israel’s approach to the Palestinians was generally dominated by some of the most dovish governments in Israeli history. Starting with the signing of the Oslo agreement the following year, Israel made concession after concession to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and to Hezbollah by unilaterally withdrawing from Lebanon. In the summer and fall of 2000, Mr. Arafat and his fellow rejectionists responded by killng an extraordinarily generous peace plan put forward by President Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak and launching a new war against Israel.

Aside from Mr. Rabin, no Israeli politician supported the soft Oslo-era approach to Israel’s foes more than Mr. Peres, first as foreign minister and then, after the assassination of Mr. Rabin in 1995, as prime minister. Mr. Sharon is putting his political career on the line by throwing a political lifeline to Mr. Peres, who many Israelis see as a discredited leftist. Since 2001, Mr. Sharon and Likud have repeatedly won landslide victories at the polls over Labor.

Why then has Mr. Sharon decided to woo Labor? Because many in his own coalition are for ideological reasons opposed to any withdrawals from settlements, and Mr. Sharon has come to believe — we think rightly — that it’s time for Israel to cut loose those settlements with little strategic rationale, like the ones in Gaza. Today in Gaza, approximately 7,500 Jewish settlers share the strip with well over 1 million hostile Palestinians. There is no way these settlers will remain under any fathomable peace accord with the Palestinians. Mr. Sharon’s decision to relinquish these settlements is a recognition of geopolitical reality.

Within Israel, Mr. Sharon’s critics on the right claim that his withdrawal from Gaza — which has not been formally negotiated with some responsible party on the Arab side — is analogous to Mr. Barak’s disastrous unilateral pullout from Lebanon under Hezbollah fire in May 2000. But there are important substantive differences between Gaza 2004 and Lebanon 2000. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon four and a half years ago, Mr. Barak (who is now running against Mr. Peres for the leadership of the Labor Party), was continuing a seven-year-old policy that generally consisted of making important strategic concessions to Israel’s enemies while receiving little or nothing in return. Although Israel sometimes retaliated for terrorist thuggery, its military response was generally sporadic and limited. By contrast, since his election in February 2001, Mr. Sharon (much like President Bush has in leading the American war on terror) has taken a much more forceful, energetic approach. He has demonstrated time and again that he is determined to capture or kill, not necessarily in that order, the terrorists who prey on Israelis — whether they live inside the Green Line or in the West Bank and Gaza.

For Mr. Peres, helping Mr. Sharon remove the Gaza settlements is the easy part. The important question is whether he is prepared to set aside his efforts to curry favor with diplomats in France and Germany and cooperate with Mr. Sharon in wartime.

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