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It was an evening around a campfire in the Shouf Mountains overlooking Beirut. A colleague and I were visiting a group of Israeli soldiers to talk about their impending withdrawal. Don't worry, one of the soldiers laughed, we'll tell you when we leave. It was Sept. 3, 1983, the first day of my life in a war zone.

The Israeli kept his promise. Around midnight, as I recall, Israeli army vehicles pulled up in front of our hotel. They brought a gang of journalists to the shell of an apartment building where we watched the long parade of Israeli tanks and trucks head down the mountain, over to the coast road and southward to the Awali River.

You didn't have to wonder what would follow the Israeli withdrawal. At the very moment the Israelis were pulling out, the mountainside before us lit up as Christian and Druse militiamen began pounding each other's positions. It was the beginning of a new round in the Lebanese civil war that would end in the effective domination of Lebanon by Syria, which continues to this day.

What I was watching that night was the failure of Ariel Sharon's dream. Sharon believed that by invading Lebanon and installing a government sympathetic to Israel, he could reorder power and politics in the Middle East. It didn't happen. The assassination of the would-be Lebanese president, Bashir Gemayel, and the 1982 massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatilla camps by Christian militiamen marked the beginning of the end of what some called "the Sharon Project." A commission of inquiry held Sharon, then defense minister, indirectly responsible for the massacre, and he resigned.

Now, nearly two decades later, the failure of a very different dream has brought Sharon to the very top of Israeli politics. Sharon defeated Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Tuesday's elections because Barak also thought he had a formula for ending the Middle East conflict once and for all.

Barak put everything on the table. He told the Palestinians they could have their own state on almost all of the West Bank and Gaza, and even part of Jerusalem, if they agreed to a lasting peace. The Palestinians said no, and thereby helped elect the very man they most despise in Israeli political life.

The most revealing, and depressing, aspect of the breakdown of Barak's plan was one of the ostensible reasons for Arafat's decision to reject it. At the end, a central issue was the right of Palestinians to return to the land that became the Jewish state. Israel could accept only a limited right of return.

Why? Because Barak's peace idea was rooted in maintaining a Jewish majority inside Israel that would preserve the state's Jewish identity. A land-for-peace swap was quite different from the old Palestinian demand for a "binational secular state in Palestine," i.e., the end of Israel as a Jewish state. By placing such stress on the right of return, the Palestinian leadership - in effect if not explicitly - had gone back to the old formula, which could never be accepted by Israel.

Barak did the right thing for the right reason in what now appears to be the wrong way at the wrong time. Arafat decided he could not risk a radical change in the status quo. You wonder if he'll ever decide otherwise. Barak put on paper the outlines of the one deal that might work. But a large share of Palestinian opinion was not ready for the costs - costs they measured as hopes surrendered and dreams shattered - of a final settlement. And so they face Sharon.

The odd thing is that while Sharon is no less a dreamer than Barak (witness the grand design behind the Lebanese invasion), Sharon's landslide should be seen as an explicit rejection of dreams by the Israeli electorate. The voters who swung from Barak to Sharon want both security and peace. After the new Palestinian violence, they'll settle for security. But can there be lasting security without peace? And can there be peace without a practical dream?

In the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, Yoel Marcus gave Sharon this hopeful advice: "When 65 percent of the public wants a peace agreement, do the opposite of what's expected of you - surprise us!"

But how? Sharon and Barak have trod the alternative roads to peace. In Lebanon, Sharon sought peace through victory in war, and failed. This time around, Barak sought peace through compromise and negotiation, and failed. The only "third way" left is a more peaceful status quo. The only problem is that it may not be possible.

Washington Post Writers Group

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