Right turn for peace?
Before a Middle East summit, Netanyahu names an old opponent, Ariel Sharon, as his Foreign Minister
By Lisa Beyer/Jerusalem
(Time, October 19) -- Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon are anything but friends. Enemies is more like it. So plainly there was something more on the menu than stir-fried noodles when the two dined together recently with their wives at a seaside Chinese restaurant in Tel Aviv. Last week the Prime Minister confirmed the rumors of an impending alliance of convenience when he announced that Sharon, the 70-year-old warhorse, is his new Foreign Minister.
For Sharon, who had served as Minister of Infrastructure, a post he will keep, the promotion completed a long rehabilitation following his resignation as Defense Minister after the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinian civilians in Lebanon by the Israel-allied Phalangist militia. Though still reviled in much of the Arab world for his role in that outrage and others, Sharon over the past year has gained a reputation for honesty and reliability among Israel's peace partners.
None of which explains why Netanyahu picked him. Netanyahu had held the foreign portfolio himself since January but relinquished it in preparation for this week's U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian summit at the Wye Plantation in Maryland. That meeting is aimed at achieving further Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, a move hotly opposed by Netanyahu's far-right coalition allies, who have threatened to bring down the government over the issue. Sharon's promotion is Netanyahu's sop to them, an unpleasant one for the Prime Minister, given the long rivalry between the two men. The idea is that Sharon, a hard-liner, will vigilantly guard the interests of the ultranationalists, perhaps by sabotaging a deal, perhaps by minimizing Israeli concessions.
Some Palestinians, however, don't see it that way. "Sharon's appointment means that a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is imminent because he will give the agreement legitimacy on the Israeli side," says a close aide of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. With this in mind, Palestinian negotiators have been conducting a quiet dialogue with Sharon over the past year. Although they have disagreed with him, he has earned their respect, unlike Netanyahu, who is widely distrusted.
U.S. officials believe Sharon's imprimatur was important in achieving progress last week during Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. After his first session with Albright, Netanyahu brought Sharon into the meeting so that he could "touch the process," according to a senior State Department official. Last week's diplomacy produced a few steps forward, including progress on a further Israeli redeployment in the West Bank and Palestinian security guarantees. The American negotiators hope to nail down those points this week, announce a package deal and immediately begin long-awaited talks on the final status of the Palestinian territories.
Sharon's direct participation in any such agreements would mark a departure for the retired general. When Israel made peace with the Palestinians in 1993, Sharon deemed the accords "national suicide" and repeatedly called Arafat a war criminal. Still, Sharon was never one-dimensional. When Menachem Begin wanted to remove 8,000 Israeli settlers from the Sinai, which Israel was returning to Egypt, it was Sharon he turned to. The general insisted not only on evacuating the settlers but also on demolishing their homes. Of course, a repeat of that performance on the West Bank is too much for the Palestinians even to dream of.
--With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Jerusalem and Douglas Waller with Albright
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Cover Date: October 19, 1998
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