MAXWELL:  Sharon’s re-election would be bad news

1/29/2003 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

As I write, Israelis are trudging to the polls to elect a prime minister. Polls indicate that Ariel Sharon will be re-elected. Sharon’s re-election is the worst thing that can happen for Israel, Palestinians and American taxpayers.

When the New York Times asked what he thought of Sharon’s leadership, 30-year-old Yossi Cohen, an unemployed Israeli resident, said: “Sharon is cool. He’s going to strike at the Arabs, and you’ve got to have somebody who’s going to strike at the Arabs.”

“Strike at the Arabs” is the sum total of Sharon’s vision for the future of Israel and the Palestinian diaspora. Time and again, Sharon has proved to be a man bereft of any substantive ideas for peace in the region. What has his bankrupt vision yielded? Listen to Eitan Cegla, 26-year-old Israeli soldier, on the eve of the election: “I think we’ve lost hope. We don’t see the solution. I don’t see anyone who can help us.”

Wrong. Help exists. The main problem is Israeli leadership. Sharon and his right-wing Likud Party have bad attitudes. They do not want peace with the Palestinians. They want to remove these beleaguered people from Gaza and the West Bank, their rightful homeland.

From the beginning of his public life, Sharon has been striking at the Arabs. For many years, in fact, even Israelis saw him as a dangerous Arab-hater who did not deserve to hold high political office. His ill-advised trek to the Temple Mount two years ago, sparking the current intifada, thrust him into the prime minister’s office and tossed the relatively dovish Labor Party out of power. Since then, life in the Holy Land has gone to hell for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Again, Eitan Cegla and all who claim that Israel cannot live in peace alongside its Palestinian neighbors are wrong. Israelis need to develop the courage to elect a prime minister and a Parliament who are not anti-Palestinian. Then, the leadership needs to implement a permanent, irreversible policy that pursues peace with the Palestinians.

Implementing such a policy is the hard part. But without it, violence and fear will rule the day. Having a permanent, irreversible policy for peace will do several things. Most important, the peace process itself never again would be held hostage by extremists and terrorists.

Today, a single bomb _ that has no connection to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat or his Fatah faction _ can derail talks with the most moderate Palestinian negotiators. Halting peace talks, when the region has never really tried peace, is the worst kind of lunacy. Israel, a legitimate nation, must get beyond such immature, mercurial political behavior. It is unworthy of the Middle East’s only democracy and a major U.S. ally.

By remaining at the negotiating table, Israel can put terrorists on notice that they cannot stop the cause for peace. Palestinians who want a world-recognized state and better lives for themselves and their families would join hands with Israelis earnestly seeking peace. Smart Palestinians (I have met many) would not tolerate suicide bombers among them.

Like average Israelis, average Palestinians want to attend college, they want to travel abroad and vacation in exotic places, they want decent homes, they want good food, they want trustworthy vehicles, they want good medical care, they want good highways, they want clean water, they want blue jeans.

I still correspond with three Palestinian university students I met in Gaza City two years ago. All have given up all hopes of attending graduate school in the United States. Their dreams of joining the world community have been dashed.

Like these three, few Palestinians have ever experienced life beyond Israeli roadblocks and economic strangulation.

For the short term, a permanent, irreversible peace policy would seem to reward the terrorists because negotiators would continue to talk. In time, however, the message would get out that the two sides intend to build a future of peaceful coexistence.

Naive?

Perhaps. But no more so than the foolish attempt to subdue the Palestinian diaspora with military force and various other measures of suffocation. Palestinians are not throw-away people. They are proud. They are fighters. They are survivors. And they want an independent state.

The future Israeli prime minister who has the guts to recognize and honor this reality will change life for the better in the region. Until then, human carnage will continue to pile up under Sharon’s policy of “strike at the Arabs.” Along with the loss of life, Israel’s own economy will continue its downward slide with no real hope of improvement in sight.