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Iran: A Danger to the Mideast, Israel and Europe By: Stephen Farrell and Robert Thomson
The London Times | Wednesday, November 06, 2002


The last of Israel’s founding warriors, facing a no-confidence motion that could bring down his Government and make an already convulsed Middle East even more complex, is explaining the fecundity of his cross-bred sheep, his wariness of the smiling Englishman and his frustration that a passion for classical music performances has been thwarted by a necessary security presence that makes the experience more theatrical but less musical for the rest of the audience.

"I don’t want to bother people," he says, with a modesty that is either absolutely genuine or political histrionics of the highest order. Sharon, however, likes to convey the impression that he is the most reluctant of politicians, distracted from a career in law and a love of the land by a combination of duty and destiny, and looking forward to returning full-time to his fertile sheep who give birth three times every two years and deliver an average of 1.8 lambs per pregnancy.

And yet this is the most dominant politician in the region, whose subtle (and not so subtle) changes in domestic tactics and international tack demand responses from virtually every government east from Westminster to Washington. His career has tracked the rise and expansion of Israel, and he has been personally involved in its military successes and blamed for acts of extreme brutality.

He is both charming and blunt, sometimes simultaneously. In assessing the politeness of the English, he notes from experience: "You are polite. All of you are polite. Later you do what you want to do. You always smile when you cause us many problems in this country."

At 74, he is the master of his brief. He ticks every political box and makes sure that the message is not missed. The Palestinians are often "Arabs" — to describe them otherwise would imply an unintended acceptance of traditional territorial legitimacy. He has the figures in front of him, but does the mental arithmetic anyway to explain that 646 Israelis have been killed during the violence of the past two years, which would be the equivalent of 6,460 deaths in Britain ("I don’t know what Great Britain would have done"). He could have emphasised the extent of the human tragedy by citing the losses on the Palestinian side, but this is a region in which an "eye for an eye" has become "two eyes for an eye".

The state of relations in the region can be crudely described as a varying mixture of hope and fear. Rarely in recent times has there been less hope and more fear. Sharon’s sense of self-belief is rooted in his perceived reality of an Israel under constant threat from its enemies and unsure of the long-term loyalty of Arab neighbours with whom friendships have been formed.

"I know I have been portrayed as a general looking for war. Many other headlines speak of that. That’s what people say. But I understand the importance of peace because I saw the horrors of war. That’s how I see it. I lost my best friends in battles — and I had to make decisions of life and death, of others and myself."

There is a strong possibility that there will be another war in the region some time soon, a war against Iraq. Sharon is careful to distance himself from the planning in London and Washington: "We are not interfering in these things. We will support every decision that will be taken by President Bush and his ally, Prime Minister Blair, because we know maybe better than others the dangers of terror: global terror, regional terror and local terror."

Washington is, indeed, hoping that Israel will do nothing, fearing that its involvement will undermine the tacit support of Arab allies. Sharon indicates that he has agreement from the US that taking out Iraq’s missile capacity would be a priority of any military campaign. He cannot bring himself to rule out retaliation, but the strong hint is that if Iraq fired off a conventional Scud or two, Israel will sit out the conflict, but there would be an overwhelming response if there were a biological attack.

While Sharon regards Iraq as "a very, very dangerous country led by an insane regime" (he then asks an aide in Hebrew if there is a stronger word than "insane"), he considers that Iran is a "centre of world terror", and that as soon as an Iraq conflict is concluded, he will push for Iran to be at the top of the "to do" list: "Iran makes every effort to possess weapons of mass destruction on the one hand and ballistic missiles. That is a danger to the Middle East, to Israel, and a danger to Europe. They are working now on a ballistic missile (with a range) of 1,300km. They have almost reached this range already. They were talking in the past about 2,500km and even 5,000km. Later when they saw Europe was worried about that — and they needed materials and parts and equipment — they said they weren’t going to develop the 2,500km."

He sees Iran as "behind terror all around the world" and a direct threat to Israel. He claims that it has sent rockets to Lebanon via Syria, and is a problem in Palestinian areas, where Iranian money supports extremists. His newest concern is within Israel itself, where he has fears about Iranian influence on a "small minority" of the country’s one million Arabs. This is an extremely sensitive issue, given that Arabs already feel insecure in Israel, but Sharon suggests that he will soon crack down on Islamic activists, a campaign that could change decisively the psychology of the country.

Apart from the lessons of war, Sharon bases his political philosophy on his experience on his farm, Sycamore Farm, which, for American consumption, is sometimes referred to as a ranch: "I believe that Jews and Arabs can live together. It’s not an easy thing but I believe we can reach an agreement. I don’t want to pretend about talking to Arabs because I meet Arabs, here and on our farm at home. I would like to very careful not to pretend but I think I am one of the only ones here at the present time that will have the power and the strength to tell the citizens of Israel what they have to do and to make compromises and painful compromises, to look into their eyes and say that."

Often guarded in his words, he is not shy about suggesting that he is a man of destiny and hinting that, as only a Republican such as Richard Nixon could restore relations with China, only a proven warrior with a reputation for toughness can convince his country to do a lasting deal with the Palestinians. There are senior figures on the Left in Israel who concede that he is correct, but Palestinians argue that he has polarised opinion in the region and provided sustenance for radicals on both sides who thrive on conflict.

If it has become his destiny to deliver peace for Israel, it was not his intention to spend 28 years in the military and, until now, 28 years in politics: "If I go back to being very young I didn’t think I was going to serve in the military for about 28 years and to be involved in all those problems. I started to study here at the university in Mount Scopus when I was 19 years old. I wanted to proceed as my father as an agronomist and a scientist and a farmer. I thought I would be doing that."

The conversation turns to sheep breeds, but, like so many incidental subjects in Jerusalem, the words are heavy with history. He talks of a 5,000-year-old sculpture of a ram’s head which strongly resembles the sheep on his property. "We had the breed only in Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Syria. The only other place I saw the same kind was in Mongolia because the Mongols were in and out of this region for 200 years, and when they went back I believe they took some of them back."

He is fascinated by the Mongolians’ milking of mares. Has he drunk any fermented mare’s milk? "I’m not going to admit to that — because once I admitted it and all the ultra orthodox attacked me. So I denied it, of course."

Twice seriously wounded in battle, Sharon is fortunate to be alive, but his family has been blighted by accidental tragedy which has had no connection to the region’s endless wars. His first wife, Margalit, was killed in a car accident in 1962, and his 11-year-old son Gur died in a shooting accident in 1967. The loss of his second wife, Lily, Margalit’s sister, almost three years ago to cancer clearly haunts him. Asked whether he felt the pain of the many, many families torn asunder by war, Sharon appeared on the verge of weeping as he fumbled with his glasses with his right hand and averted his gaze.

"I feel the pain. I feel the pain. There are whole families who have disappeared. Parents have lost their children and children have lost their parents."

It is obvious that Sharon is referring only to Israelis who have been victims even though he was asked about the tragedies that have befallen families around the region. He then tells the stories of the photographs of Lily, one of them together in a wheatfield ("not the best of wheat"), and begins to speak in the plural of their preference for the quiet life at home: "We are not someone who goes to visit somebody and next Friday somebody comes to visit you."

Work now dominates. After about three or so hours sleep, he rises at around 5.30 — he listens to the radio headlines and then one of his aides has what must be the awkward task of reading him relevant news items while he shaves. Given that his press is hardly flattering, choosing what to read the Prime Minister each morning must be one of the world’s more demanding acts of diplomacy.

If working at home, he uses an office whose shelves tell of his devotion to his late wife, his admiration for David Ben Gurion, the founding father of Israel, and mostly Hebrew texts. One of the few books in English is a biography of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, which Sharon has fond memories of visiting as a young man. He has particularly close relations with the country’s outgoing prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, whose party was defeated in Sunday’s elections.

News of that defeat was brought to Sharon during our interview. He sighed deeply, perhaps in sympathy for the defeat of an ally (at 77, Ecevit is of the Sharon generation), but also probably in recognition of the difficulty that Israel may have in dealing with a new government which has Islamic roots even if it insists that it is now thoroughly secular.

Relations with Europe as a whole are a vexed issue. Sharon lists individual leaders, giving Tony Blair high marks and describing his ties with the French President, Jacques Chirac, as "quite good", but he then talks of frustration with Europe as a region: "I told them many times that I would like to see Europe more involved. I don’t expect that they will be fully supporting us, but what I do expect is a balanced approach. I should say regretfully that there is no balanced approach."

He means that, Britain aside, most countries on the continent are, for him, far too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. On the bloody war with the Palestinians, the central issue of his Prime Ministership, he offers alternately promise and threat, flexibility and rigidity, optimism and gloom. He offers general support for the principles of President Bush’s road map toward peace — the White House blueprint for a provisional Palestinian state by 2003 and a full state by 2005. However, recent leaks from Sharon’s senior aides have cast serious doubt on the prospects for progress on key issues — notably calls for a freeze on Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza.

Settlements are an issue with which Sharon is strongly identified, and when he talks of them he becomes emotional and passionate. He sidesteps a challenge on whether he still hopes to see one million Jews living on the West Bank — an ambition reportedly expressed to President Carter in 1979 — aware of the explosive implications such a quadrupling of the current number would have internationally: "I don’t remember exactly what I said."

Of the settlers themselves, regarded by much of the world and a sizeable chunk of the Israeli population as a serious obstacle to hopes of peace or a viable Palestinian state, he is proudly defensive, even fatherly, describing them as "the frontline of our defence against terror."

He is prepared, he says, to make compromises for a "permanent agreement" but is vague on the vision for such a plan, murmuring only that the settlements’ future "will be decided."

The kernel of his plan — the little of it he is prepared to reveal — is that the traditional international proposal for a return to the 1967 Green Line boundaries will not happen.

Of the other "painful concessions" he professes himself prepared to make, the rest is silence. "I will tell you why I am not going to say what they are. Once I say them that will be the start line of the negotiation and I don’t think that should be done. Will it be painful? It will be painful . . . we are talking about the cradle of the Jewish people."

On Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian chairman and the man many believe Sharon would prefer dead, he appears to have softened his line somewhat, with no mention of the recent White House and Israeli pronouncements that he is "irrelevant". While his wording may not appear particularly sympathetic to Arafat, the Israeli leader’s comments represent a significant change.

"I don’t want to deal with what will be the function of Mr Arafat but he must be disconnected completely from the security/terror organisation and of course he should be fully disconnected from the control of the financial side because as long as he controls the financial side and the security organisation controlling terror it’s very hard to expect that there will be reforms."

Such reforms, he explains, are an absolute prerequisite for any form of Palestinian autonomy, which would be introduced in phases, with statehood the final destination. In order to reach the political process, there should be full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement.

"You ask me if we are going to hold the sword all our lives. If we have to do it we will do it, but I hope that it won’t be necessary. There are those among the Palestinians who understand that they will not be able to achieve anything by force. Those that are ready to speak peace, I am ready to talk and negotiate with, as a matter of fact I am in contact with them now."

The one flicker of annoyance during the interview came when he was asked whether he would shake hands with Arafat, something he has always refused to do, having disapproved of the symbolic handshake when Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin were brought together on the White House lawn: "Let’s leave whether I am not going to shake his hand. It’s not important. It’s not a matter of shaking hands. This man is responsible for the murder of thousands of people. I was a soldier for many years — I know that in war civilians suffer or are even killed, but their targets are civilians. That is the problem. Their targets are civilians."

Sharon, too, stands accused of being responsible for civilian deaths, and is acutely aware that this reputation will survive his political passing. But he makes clear that he is not about to leave the scene anytime soon, as has been expected by even some of the canniest political analysts in Israel. As he has aged, he has become more certain that he, and he alone, can bring peace to Israel, if not the region: "I believe I will have to lead this nation still for several years to give answers and solutions to the issue of security, to the issue of the political process, the economy . . . I am going to run for the next elections."

Yet, if he loses the leadership of Likud or, even less likely, his party loses the next election to the centre-left Labour Party, he has his exit strategy in place.

It is a romanticised vision of life as a rustic retiree. "I am 74 years old. I don’t have any further political ambitions. What can one have more than to be the Prime Minister of the Jewish people?

"It’s not an easy thing. I have decided to dedicate those several years (leading the nation) to try and accomplish the goals that I have elaborated, before I go back to the farm to take care of the cattle, to ride the horses, to milk the sheep, to work on a tractor in the fields."




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