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Tuesday, 6 February, 2001, 23:07 GMT
What Sharon means for peace
Ariel Sharon
Mr Sharon may find himself constrained
By Middle East analyst Roger Hardy

Few people are indifferent towards Ariel Sharon.

To his supporters he's a saviour, the strongman Israel has so sorely lacked during the last four months of violent confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians.


If he tries to use the iron fist to curb Palestinian anger, he will find there are no purely military solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian problem

They see him as the man who will restore Israel's self-confidence.

To his detractors, he is a warmonger, a reckless extremist who will plunge Israelis and Arabs into an era of fresh danger and even sharper polarisation.

In the words of the Washington Post, he is "a man who embodies Israel's most militaristic impulses".

The newspaper warned in an editorial that "unless Mr Sharon breaks with his past, for months and maybe years the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be destined to be a grinding, occasionally bloody stalemate".

So will he break with his past?

George W. Bush
President George W. Bush is urged to rethink Middle East
'Headaches'

Simply to recount his past exploits - as an audacious and sometimes insubordinate soldier, as the architect of Israel's disastrous intervention in Lebanon in the 1980s, as a champion of its policy of building settlements in occupied Arab territory - is to ignore two things.

First, Ariel Sharon is no longer a young man. One fellow right-winger has called him a toothless lion.

He is now in his early seventies, looking paler and more tired than in the past - no longer quite living up to his nickname the "bulldozer".

Second, his room for manoeuvre will be limited by several factors.

He will inherit the same fractured and fractious parliament which gave his predecessor, Ehud Barak, such headaches.

In fact, some Israeli commentators say there may have to be new parliamentary elections within six months.

Ehud Barak
Mr Barak appealed for support from Israeli Arabs
In that event, his rival Binyamin Netanyahu could challenge him for leadership of the right-wing Likud Party and supplant him as prime minister.

Mr Sharon may be constrained, too, by the new Bush administration in Washington.

So far, George Bush's top officials are keeping the Middle East at arm's length.

Constraints

But if the violence of recent months continues, the new US administration will come under pressure to step in.

It will, at the very least, seek some reassurance from Mr Sharon that Israel has not abandoned the quest for peace.

And, finally, the new Israeli prime minister may find himself constrained by the realities on the ground.

Israeli right-wing militants behind a transparent poster
Mr Sharon is a former general with a controversial past
If he tries to use the iron fist to curb Palestinian anger, he will find there are no purely military solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

An alternative approach (and one which might find favour in Washington) would be to give priority to the search for a peace settlement with Syria and Lebanon, leaving the Palestinian issue to simmer for the time being.

But whatever political alliances he makes at home, and whatever his policies towards the Arabs, there will always be something about Ariel Sharon which makes people uneasy.

There is an impulsive streak to his character, and a question mark over his political judgement.

Many fear that his advent to power will further unsettle a deeply troubled region.

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