Sharon Must Avoid Shamir’s Errors

Ariel Sharon is taking power in Israel with more baggage than any Prime Minister in history. Even Menachem Begin had a better image coming in, largely because his “sins” were committed decades earlier, whereas the grievances against Sharon are more recent. Yitzhak Shamir also came into office with a very negative image and, unfortunately, much of what he said, especially early on, reinforced the perception of him as a hardliner with no interest in peace. He never escaped that image, even after devising a peace plan and agreeing to participate in the Madrid peace conference, which started the Oslo process. Within 48 hours of his election, Sharon was repeating Shamir’s mistake.

One advantage Israel has long held in the PR aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the image of being the party seeking peace. That image has been reinforced by the Palestinians’ recent behavior, rejecting unprecedentedly generous Israeli concessions and then resorting immediately to violence when failing to have all their demands met. Still, Israel can quickly lose the high moral ground by adopting a tone that gives the impression that peace is not the government’s primary objective.

This was Shamir’s error. His policy positions were reasonable, but he came across, at best, as reluctant to engage in negotiations. He focused his rhetoric, especially initially, on everything he would not do, all the concessions he would not make, all the reasons the other side could not be trusted. His tone was reminiscent of the Arabs at Khartoum in 1967 when they enunciated the three noes: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel. Shamir became “Mr. No” with his refusal to make peace with the Palestinians, recognize the PLO or negotiate with the PLO. At the time the policies were consistent with those of his predecessors, but Shamir came across as disinterested in peace. When you combined Shamir’s tone with his prickly personality and a U.S. president who did not have his predecessor’s innate appreciation of Israel, you had a recipe for the tension that characterized the Bush-Shamir years.

Now comes Sharon, a man with a prickly personality who will be dealing with another Bush who comes to office feeling no special warmth toward Israel (and no hostility either). He also comes with the image of an uncompromising hardliner who is a brute. Everyone understands that he is not Rabin or Peres and that he won a landslide victory universally interpreted as a repudiation of Barak’s negotiating tactics and concessions. No one can have any doubt as to where he stands on issues like Jerusalem, so he does not need to repeat the slogans of his campaign. Now is the time for governing and statesmanship and one of his top priorities should be to portray himself as the man who wants peace more than anything else and will work 24 hours a day to find a way to achieve that goal.

Instead, what did Sharon do? Immediately after his election victory the news reports were all about what he said he was not going to do: he won’t shake hands with Arafat; he won’t negotiate until the violence stops; he won’t compromise on Jerusalem; he won’t uproot settlements. It’s now “General No.”

This is not the way to win support from the American public or the new administration. It will also exacerbate the divisions in the Jewish community that were first created during Shamir’s term when the Jewish left abandoned the principle of public support for the elected government of Israel and began to take independent, critical stands on Middle East issues. The left, already infuriated by what it perceives as the failure of the Jewish community to support Barak’s peace initiatives and willing to quickly forgive Palestinian intransigence, will not hesitate to work against Sharon.

Sharon has wisely dispatched three experienced diplomats with an understanding of the United States to explain his policies. Their mission will be a disaster, however, it is a repetition of Sharon’s “noes.” The delegation here, and all the new players in Jerusalem, must focus on a positive message: Israel wants peace, Sharon will work for peace, an agreement is achievable with a partner that shares Israel’s interest in peace. The word peace should be in every sentence and the emphasis must be on Sharon’s optimism and commitment to go the extra mile to reach a peace agreement. He does not have to change the positions he campaigned on or announce concessions. He must simply make clear that Ariel Sharon is the one leader in the region pursuing peace. If he does not immediately create this image, Israel and the American Jewish community are in for a longer, colder winter than the groundhog predicted.