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Sending Arafat A Message
By Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

With the election of Ariel Sharon, the demonization of the new Israeli leader is proceeding apace. No one denies that the complex Mr. Sharon has had a controversial history, a national hero on the one hand during the Yom Kippur War, a censored Minister during the Lebanon War.

The election of Ariel Sharon is no accident. It reflects the impact of regional developments on an Israeli public longing for peace. It is now time for true change to take place in the Palestinian and Arab worlds.
But the truth is, while no one knows exactly what Sharon will do as Israelís Prime Minister, he is known to be a tough negotiator and a man of his word.

For many Israelis, the past six months have been the most disillusioning in the history of the country. Many of the assumptions of those eager for peace have been challenged, if not destroyed. Israel had its most generous peacemaker in Ehud Barak, who offered more to his Palestinian counterpart than anyone before him, and got only violence for his efforts. Israelis told us by their votes that they want a different kind of negotiator, especially after the lessons of recent times. They want a leader who drives a hard bargain, making an effort to lower expectations of the other side. As a result of the current crisis, they want a leader who will demand reciprocity from the other side. That means real change to demonstrate in fact that the Palestinians are ready to live in peace with Israel, to educate their people to accept peace with the Israel, and to ensure that terrorists and others engaging in violence against Israel find no haven with them. If they believe over time that Sharon is not working hard enough to make peace possible, he will lose support.

All of this speaks to the great differences between Israeli and Palestinian societies, differences which have a real impact on the process of peacemaking. With the media feeding the public a Sharon who is a hawk with a checkered past -- and worse, buying into the Arab propaganda that his election tolls the end of the peace process --the real story of the last six months is not the differences between Barak and Sharon, but those between any Israeli leader and Yasir Arafat. Whether one is on the left or right of the Israeli political spectrum, all stand for a democratic political system, accepting the will of the people, observing the supremacy of the rule of law, and seeking to reach accommodations and peace with oneís neighbors through negotiations. Unfortunately, none of these obtain in the case of Arafat. Democracy, the rule of law, and negotiations without violence, are all foreign, if not anathema, to his leadership.

Certainly, there is legitimate interest in what policies Sharon will pursue. But what we learned from the Barak experience is that what Arafat and the Palestinians will do is more important. Will they educate their population to peace? Will they begin to accept that legitimate peace can only come by rejecting violence and terrorism as tools? Will they recognize that they must make compromises and that what Israelis want to know is that in exchange for concessions they are getting real security with peace?

There is no doubt that if eventually the Palestinians act on these questions in a positive way, Prime Minister Sharon will act appropriately because the people of Israel will insist that he do so. As a product of a democratic system he must respond to the needs of the people he represents

For now, the Bush Administration would be wise to be understanding of an Israel that has gone through the trauma of taking risks for peace with only bad results. The last thing the region needs now is for the Palestinians to believe, that after months of rejecting opportunities for peace and turning to violence, they will be rewarded by the international community turning on Israel and its new Prime Minister. That is the surest formula for greater Palestinian demands, more Israeli alienation and greater crisis and violence.

The election of Ariel Sharon is no accident. It reflects the impact of regional developments on an Israeli public longing for peace. It is now time for true change to take place in the Palestinian and Arab worlds.


Note: This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Jewish Week on February 9, 2001.


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