- The Washington Times - Friday, November 25, 2005

By reputation, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is the blunt, armored instrument of Israeli politics.

On the battlefield, Mr. Sharon was something like the tanks he led as a general, a visceral juggernaut of a commander dedicated to offensive action. His courage, audacity and intuition inspired personal confidence.

After Operation Peace in Galilee, the 1982 Israeli attack into Lebanon, one of Mr. Sharon’s crack troops proudly told me: “Arik is the closest thing in the world to [George] Patton. Serve with him, and you feel it. You’ll follow him anywhere.”

“Following anywhere” can lead to ambush. During the 1973 October War, Mr. Sharon’s tanks barreled into Egyptian infantry positioned along the east bank of the Suez Canal. The attack was an audacious attempt to push Israeli forces into Egypt. The Egyptians, however, triggered a clever ambush. The Battle of Chinese Farm ended with abandoned and burning Israeli tanks littering the desert. Yet Israeli forces ultimately breached the canal, entered Africa and surrounded an entire Egyptian army.

In peace — or what passes for peace in a nation perpetually vexed by terror and hostile neighbors — Mr. Sharon traded tank for bulldozer. Ariel Sharon in bulldozer mode was a political leader committed to building Israeli settlements, while the other edge of his dozer blade leveled Palestinian homes.

To the Israeli left, European leftist “internationalistas” and his Arab enemies, Mr. Sharon is the devil personified, a war criminal, a mass murderer, a McHitler, et cetera. To his most ardent supporters, Mr. Sharon is the final bulwark, the certain, dedicated defender of Israel who would ensure secure borders and the defeat of all enemies foreign and domestic.

Or at least, he was.

This week, Mr. Sharon quit his own conservative Likud Party to form a new centrist coalition. Once again, the prime minister is gambling, this time on the political field. The historic stakes are huge. Mr. Sharon’s ultimate goal is a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace, with the ancillary benefit of reshaping an Israeli domestic political system that all too often empowers political extremes, left and right, to reject sensible compromise.

Audacious? Of course. Arrogant? Perhaps, but so what? A rash charge into political debacle?

Not likely. The old warrior has always been a deft calculator. The risky charge at Chinese Farm excepted, the Sharon military operations stressed effective reconnaissance and maneuver. Find the weak point, strike, break through, flank and surround.

Here’s the Sharon strategic recon: There is an unprecedented opportunity for fundamental, positive political change in the Middle East. Yasser Arafat is dead. Toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq also undermined the myth of the “Arab strongman” — a point unfortunately missed by critics of the Iraq war.

With Arafat and Saddam gone, Iraq and Palestine have both held democratic elections. In January 2005, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas ran on a peace platform. Mr. Abbas now fights a low-level civil war with his own rejectionist hard-liners in Hamas and Fatah, with Israel as his ally. The blowback from Syria’s assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and Lebanon’s democratic revival weaken Damascus’ Assad regime.

But Israel’s domestic politics are frozen: a weak point. To paraphrase the Jerusalem Post, Mr. Sharon knows he needs a political alternative to “the unconditional negotiations approach of the [Israeli] left and the not-1-inch approach of the right.”

Israel’s left Labor Party and right Likud are both coalitions. Though radical splinter parties may attract a handful of voters, “proportional voting” (with 11/2 percent of the vote as the qualifying threshold) means the one or two representatives the radical parties place in the Knesset often decide the fate of legislation. The radicals can thus control agendas.

Mr. Sharon’s response is to create a “pragmatic center party” where warriors can make peace. One Internet commentator quickly dubbed it “The Arik Party.”

Will Mr. Sharon’s stratagem work? It appears he has been maneuvering for months, planning for new elections next spring. The BBC reported initial polls have Mr. Sharon beating Likud front-runner Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor’s new populist leader, Amir Peretz.

Past attempts to establish an Israeli “center” have fared poorly, but their leaders didn’t have Ariel Sharon’s charisma, stamina and defense credentials.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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