A 'Butcher' Capable of Making Peace

Times Staff Writer

They have called him "the Butcher" and seldom mention his name without listing the places where he has been blamed for bloodshed: Sabra, Shatila, Jenin. During long decades of Middle East strife, few men have been more thoroughly reviled in the Arab world than Ariel Sharon.

But after years of battles and vitriol, and memories of the deaths in those Palestinian refugee camps, many Arabs grappled this week with a nuanced reaction to the failing health of a warrior who helped change the borders of Arab countries.

As the realization hit the region that the Israeli prime minister might no longer lead the Jewish state, a mood of regret and uncertainty crept into the tone of Arab analysts and editorials. As Sharon clung to life, the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, Arab countries that signed peace treaties with Israel, sent word of their concern.

In the end, after all their historical grievances against his wartime tactics, many Arabs saw Sharon as the only leader stubborn and strong enough to push Israel into accepting a Palestinian state. Arabs worried that the loss of Sharon would throw Israel into tumult and freeze already stagnant peace talks.

"It's not that they bought that Sharon suddenly turned into a man of peace, but they saw him as capable of making peace. There is a very big difference," said Iman Hamdi, a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo. "They may still think he's a butcher, they may still hate him, but he's the only one with the guts to withdraw from Gaza."

Even the faintest nostalgia for Sharon sounds improbable from Israel's neighbors -- and indicates the triumph of pragmatism over history.

Although Israelis revere him as a warrior who fought for the survival of the Jewish state, in Lebanon and in the rest of the Arab world, Sharon is probably best remembered as the hawkish defense minister who pushed his troops north all the way into Beirut in pursuit of Palestinian militants during Lebanon's civil war more than two decades ago.

Many Lebanese hold Sharon responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982. The camp killings in Lebanon were carried out by Israel-backed Christian militias, but an Israeli investigation found the Jewish state "indirectly responsible." Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, but relations remain frozen between the two neighbors.

In Egypt, too, Sharon's image as a warrior is deeply entrenched. He battled Egypt in 1956, 1967 and 1973, fighting that ended with Israel seizing the Sinai peninsula. When Sharon became prime minister in 2001, he had been persona non grata in Egypt since 1982. His relations with Egypt gradually grew warmer but continued to falter with spasms of violence.

In Jordan, similar trepidation fogged feelings toward the Israeli prime minister. Sharon had been cooperating closely for decades on security and intelligence with the late King Hussein, father of the current monarch, Abdullah.

That cooperation flourished quietly in spite of the widespread Jordanian fear that Sharon's long-term strategy for the West Bank, seized from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War, involved the transfer of Palestinians en masse into Jordan.

When it came to Syria, which lost the Golan Heights to Israel in the same war, Sharon never softened his stance. He repeatedly ignored calls from Damascus to open negotiations, saying the Syrian regime was not serious about making peace.

But with the nudging of the United States, ties have held between Israel and its two key Arab allies -- despite the domestic political price paid by Jordanian King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Sharon traveled to Egypt last year for peace talks in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik.

In recent months, Mubarak, who used to declare Sharon incapable of making peace, has called the Israeli prime minister a good peace partner for the Palestinians. And as Egyptian state television aired Sharon's biography this week, there was no mention of his wartime exploits. Instead, the announcer soberly reviewed his political and military posts up to 1981, then skipped ahead to his ascension to prime minister.

Sharon hasn't been a figure of moderation long enough to overcome his regional image as a tough soldier who fought mercilessly for Israel against the Arabs and a canny strategist who fostered Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. He was reviled for overseeing a controversial Israeli incursion into the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin in 2002.

The fighting in the camp -- in the final days of a massive West Bank military operation launched in response to a string of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel -- left 23 Israeli soldiers and 52 Palestinians dead, and reduced a large area of a tightly packed slum to rubble.

"He was a very bad man. His behavior was not human," said Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a political scientist at the University of Damascus in Syria. "He was a murderer."

But in recent years, Sharon appeared to soften his hard-line stances. He spoke of a Palestinian state and put his political survival at risk by pushing Israel to relinquish its settlements in the Gaza Strip. Many Arabs looked on with interest when Sharon broke away from the right-wing Likud Party to found a new movement, Kadima, to work toward a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

Among neighboring countries, his recent concessions were seen as essentially pragmatic moves on the part of a man who had recognized that Israel could not remain a Jewish state without making peace with the Palestinians.

But whatever Sharon's motivations, the Arab neighbors couldn't help but welcome the talk of Palestinian statehood, and hope for some progress on a blood-tinged stalemate.

"I think Sharon, in his last position, was willing to move ahead with some kind of a peace plan," said Adnan Iskandar, a former political science professor at the American University in Beirut. "In my opinion, there's nobody who has the support and strength to make bold decisions like Sharon. I think this will complicate the situation rather than help right now."

In a part of the world where nations are often defined by the strength of their leaders, Sharon garnered grudging respect as the only surviving Israeli powerhouse. Coming just a little more than a year after the death of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Sharon's failing health seemed to signal the passing of an era.

"Everything revolved around himself personally," said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian political scientist.

"I think Sharon would be the only one to force a settlement on both Israelis and Palestinians. It might not be a pleasant settlement, but it would be a serious beginning."

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