CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — Ariel Sharon, Israel's next prime minister, is a historic figure - whose history is mainly one of using massive violence against his country's neighbors. Can he now make peace with the people he has been fighting all his life, the Palestinians?
I have followed his career closely for more than 25 years. In the 1970s, he bulldozed thousands of refugee shelters in Gaza in an effort to wipe out Palestinian resistance.
In 1982, as defense minister, he tricked his prime minister into a risky, in-depth invasion of Lebanon that caused more than 15,000 Arab deaths, and led to the massacres in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps at the hands of Israel's allies. (An official Israeli inquiry found Mr. Sharon deeply implicated in the incident, and recommended his removal from any responsibility over fighting forces.)
In 1989, when I interviewed Sharon in Jerusalem, he came across as a physically commanding man who exuded raw power, and spoke very demeaningly of his neighbors.
So really, can we hope, as some Israelis have said, that he might be the "de Gaulle-like figure" who, coming from a hard-line background, proves able to make a withdrawal-based peace with Israel's former enemies?
Until around 1993, I would have said, "No way!" But in September 1993, another hard-line Israeli warrior, Yitzhak Rabin, surprised the world by concluding a first-ever peace agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Mr. Rabin's relations with Arafat were never warm and fuzzy. But over the 26 months that followed their historic Oslo peace accord, Rabin came to believe ever more strongly that peace with the Palestinians was necessary - and doable.
Rabin was killed by an Israeli hard-liner in November 1995. After his death, many in the West remembered mainly his later months as a "warrior for peace." But for most of his life, he too, like Sharon, had been associated with get-tough policies against his neighbors. (In 1988, as defense minister, he gave the shocking order that Israeli soldiers should "break the bones" of rioting Palestinians.)
For me, Rabin's conversion to a peace agenda was, frankly, quite surprising. I believe that for Sharon, such a conversion would be even more surprising - but still, not unthinkable. Sharon, after all, is going to have to face some tough, pre-existing "facts on the ground." First, domestically, he cannot get carried away with the huge, 25-point lead he appeared to win over Ehud Barak at the polls Feb. 6.
That vote, in which turnout was an unprecedentedly low 60 percent, was much more a vote against Mr. Barak than it was a clear mandate for Sharon. (At least 62 percent of eligible Israeli voters did not vote for Sharon.)
They either supported Barak, or turned in blank ballots, or stayed home. They had come to distrust Barak for numerous reasons - not just his peace policy. So if Sharon hopes to rule for long in Israel's ever-fractious system, he needs to win the political middle, not the extreme right wing.
The other major fact Sharon faces is the sturdy continuation of the Palestinians' current uprising. He may want to use more-brutal methods against it. Not easy to do. Barak already used tough-guy techniques like extra-judicial killings, helicopter and tank attacks, and punishing, area-wide lockdowns.
If Sharon wants to go even further, he risks stoking anti-Israeli and anti-American ire throughout an already angry Middle East.
He risks forcing a serious confrontation with Washington. And at the end of the day, however much force he deploys, he will learn as Rabin learned before him that the Palestinian issue can't be solved through force alone.
Let's hope he doesn't go too far down the escalation road before he comes to understand those realities.
Of course, resolving the Palestinian issue at this point through a separation of the two peoples into distinct states will be hard. To be stable, any Palestinian state needs a viable, largely contiguous base of territory. (Oslo's endless "interim" agreements never gave them anything like that.) But in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem, the land has been threaded through with scores of Israeli settlements, whose presence makes a two-state solution that much harder to envisage.
Sharon was the person who, throughout the past 30 years, spearheaded the huge campaign that seeded those settlements throughout all the occupied areas.
But now, late in his career, if he wants a credible legacy as a peacemaker, he needs to be the one to pull many of the settlements out. Will he do it?
But we might all need to brace for further violence before that happens.
Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society