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Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2005

Sharon's rebirth as 'centrist' overrated


Special to The Japan Times

KUALA LUMPUR -- Most of what has been written or said to depict Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's departure from the Likud party is parable to an "earthquake," or the "eruption of a volcano," and has, without a doubt, turned the Israeli political map "topsy-turvy," to borrow Ha'aretz Gideon Samet's phrase.

Like an earthquake it was unforeseeable -- except to the prudent few, mostly in Israeli political circles who predicted a dead end in Sharon's dealings with the Likud, the same political party he helped create 30 years ago.

But acknowledging the significance of the undeniably consequential event is one thing. Succumbing to a flawed analysis that it is a real opportunity to resuscitate the so-called peace process -- is entirely a different matter.

Similar to his unilateral move to "disengage" from the Gaza Strip earlier this year, the rightwing prime minister once again managed to control media discourse surrounding his Nov. 21 decision to jump the Likud ship in favor of a new center-based "liberal movement" -- a political party tentatively known as National Responsibility.

The U.S. media almost immediately accepted, with little scrutiny to speak of, Sharon's announcement that he -- a 77-year-old leader with extensive history of political extremism and a longer history of war crimes -- has become a "centrist."

The depiction of Sharon as a moderate, risking it all to salvage the peace process, is a misguided, if not embarrassing, inference to say the least.

While one can easily decipher the source of the upsurge in Sharon's reputation in the media as a rising "liberal politician" -- his decision to disengage from Gaza being the most obvious -- one cannot help but wonder whether Sharon's enthusiasts, who hurryingly registered his renewed commitment to the "road map" for peace in the region, were even aware of his concurrent decision to further expand three major illegal settlements in the occupied territories -- Maale Adumim, Adam and Ariel.

If they were aware of his future designs, wouldn't responsible journalism compel them to report that the road map calls for the halting of settlement expansion, as it would prejudice the outcome of any final status negotiations? Instead, the process of split-up and formation in Israeli politics was portrayed as having the potential of determining the future of the peace process, while every other fact that might negate such an assertion was omitted.

True, the upheaval and subsequent reshuffling that recently took place among the Labor party rank had more to do with redefining Israel's priorities than achieving peace with the Palestinians. The deposing of the elitist Deputy Prime Minister and former Labor party leader Shimon Peres, in favor of the more socialist-like Amir Peretz, is in essence an attempt to reroute the government's focus and resources to poorer Israeli communities, whose plight has deteriorated as a result of the government's endless spending on its illegal settlements projects in the West Bank.

Nonetheless, the Likud party mayhem is essentially ideological. Though the outcome of the Israeli debacle will implausibly yield a full recognition of long denied Palestinian rights and the acceptance, without further spins, of international law as the basis of resolving the conflict, one must not unwisely write off scenarios that will possibly emerge following the March elections.

The Likud and Sharon's emerging political party have not changed; nor have they substantially altered their ideological interpretation of their conflict with the Palestinians. Even in the midst of the disengagement hype, Sharon never ceased to assure Israelis that the move is tactical, that his commitment to the country's expansionist project is as ever strong and so forth. The prevailing understanding among Israeli officials was that the "painful" and indeed marginal withdrawal from Gaza was merely aimed at altering demographics in favor of Israel, converge the country's resources to expand West Bank settlements, and indefinitely postpone the peace process with the Palestinians. The strategy proved a winner when the Americans gave the nod that no such process was needed for the time being until Palestinians disarm, quit incitement, prove able to govern themselves, etc.

Empowered with unadulterated American support and a corruptible Palestinian leadership, Sharon is hoping to persist with the implementation of his vision that, in his opinion, will secure and irrevocably define Israel's borders -- even if at the expense of Palestinian land and rights. Thus, if one must accept that Sharon has indeed metamorphosed from one character to another, it was his move from being a rightwing ideologue to a rightwing strategist. Alas, for Palestinians, the end result is the same.

The changes in the Israeli political scene place Palestinians under yet more pressure to "reciprocate" while their land is being actively stolen, as their aspiration for a meaningfully sovereign state is gravely diminished.

Ramzy Baroud, a veteran Arab American journalist, teaches mass communication at Australia's Curtin University of Technology, Malaysia Campus.


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