Sharon’s Balancing Act

Yossi Klein Halevi is the Israel correspondent for the New Republic and a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report. He is author of "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for Hope With Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land" (HarperCollins, 2001).

The Bush administration’s endorsement of Ariel Sharon’s right to retaliate against a possible Iraqi missile attack on Israeli cities is a necessary recognition of the political reality of the Middle East, where restraint is often mistaken for weakness.

During the Gulf War in 1991, 39 Scud missiles fell on Tel Aviv and Haifa. Back then, Israel accepted Washington’s call for restraint to avoid disrupting the Arab anti-Saddam Hussein coalition. Low Israeli casualties also helped ease domestic pressure for retaliation.

This time, though, there is no Arab anti-Hussein coalition to appease. And if Hussein attacks Israel with chemical or biological weapons, the casualty figures will look very different from 1991.


Many here are convinced that Israel’s restraint during the Gulf War undermined its deterrence and emboldened subsequent Arab attacks, culminating in the current Palestinian terrorist war.

Over the last decade, the perception has grown in the Arab world that Israel has become a society of lazy and fearful consumerists who lack the will to defend themselves. Reversing that perception is a key goal of Israel’s war against terrorism. A second Israeli failure to respond to Iraqi missiles would be perceived in the Arab world as weakness and invite aggression.

Although President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon agree on Iraq, Washington is urging Israel to ease up in its war against Palestinian terrorism.

However, Sharon will find it hard to persuade the Israeli army of the wisdom of Washington’s demand.

The generals are understandably concerned that the Israeli military’s impressive success in reducing the number of suicide bombings will be compromised by U.S.-imposed restraint.

The army is now occupying the major West Bank cities, and most Israelis want to see the soldiers stay there until the Palestinian Authority accepts responsibility for controlling suicide bombers. Washington, though, is eager to calm the Palestinian front as it prepares for war against Iraq, and it is pressing Israel to begin withdrawal -- a move that would almost certainly result in more atrocities in Israeli cities.


Contrary to the predictions of Israel’s critics, Sharon’s war against Yasser Arafat’s terrorist regime hasn’t hardened Palestinian resolve but rather has produced the opposite result.

Since Israel began its massive crackdown last spring, several key Palestinian leaders, including possible Arafat heir Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, have begun to publicly concede that the chairman’s terrorist strategy has backfired and are now urging a cease-fire.

One former Palestinian Cabinet minister, Nabil Amr, went so far as to publish an open letter to Arafat in the Palestinian press deriding him for rejecting Israel’s offer of Palestinian statehood at Camp David in July 2000.

Emboldening Palestinian moderates is another key goal of Israel’s military assault. But that trend could be jeopardized if Israeli pressure on the Palestinian terror apparatus is forced to ease.

Still, Sharon doesn’t want to complicate the American war effort, and he sees Hussein’s removal from power as a prerequisite for freeing the Middle East from its pathological culture of terrorism.

That’s why, in recent weeks, he has ordered the army not to retaliate against repeated shelling of the Galilee by the Lebanese fundamentalist group Hezbollah.


Nor has he responded to the Lebanese government’s provocative act of diverting a key source of the Jordan River, potentially threatening 15% of Israel’s water reserves.

Despite his image abroad as an unreconstructed warrior, Sharon is resented by some on the Israeli right for preferring national unity with the moderate Labor Party over a narrow, hard-line coalition.

Many within his own Likud Party haven’t forgiven him for promising the Americans that he would not expel Arafat from the territories. One right-wing politician sarcastically suggested that Sharon retire to an old-age home.

The coming weeks will be among the most trying ever faced by an Israeli prime minister. Sharon now must balance the conflicting needs of respecting American interests while protecting Israeli citizens and the nation’s deterrence capability.

The understanding that Bush has shown for Sharon’s dilemma will help the Israeli leader assume the role of responsible ally and resist domestic pressures to intensify Israeli retaliation against Arab provocations.