The Bulldozer's Last Chance

After nearly a year in office, Sharon has not made headway on any issue whatsoever, much less peace and security, where he has trapped us in a cycle of bloodshed from which there is no exit.

All of Israel's prime ministers, with the exception of Yitzhak Shamir, who turned inaction into an art, came to a bad end. The great Ben-Gurion was driven out of power and out of his political party by his friends, in a maneuver that was very close to chopping off his head. Sharett was pushed out because his views were too dovish. Eshkol, the prime minister of the Six-Day War, died of a broken heart when they took the defense portfolio away from him. Golda got the boot because of the Yom Kippur War fiasco. Rabin was sent packing during his first term, officially for having an overseas dollar account; in practice, because the public was sick of Mapai corruption. Begin, who brought peace but is remembered more for his failure in Lebanon, ended his political life as a depressed recluse, holed up in his house. Rabin was assassinated. Peres, his heir, lost the elections.

After that, the story is well-known: Netanyahu and Barak, salt of the earth, young and bright, were expelled for their poor performance and unwarranted arrogance. And now there's Sharon, henceforth the Bulldozer, winner of an unprecedented landslide victory but now lumbering like a rusty machine toward his last stop, a medal of failure pinned to his chest.

It is enough to listen to what the heads of the defense establishment are saying publicly to grasp the enormity of that failure. Just this week, the new military intelligence chief enumerated, one by one, all the plagues Sharon has brought upon us: The worst terrorist attacks we have ever known. A grave escalation in the armed struggle. An intifada that is not about to end. And finally, no agreement with Arafat even if we withdraw to the 1967 borders, throw in Jerusalem and agree to the right of return. It sounds like a list of all the issues on which people had the most confidence in him. Indeed, after nearly a year in office, Sharon has not made headway on any issue whatsoever, much less peace and security, where he has trapped us in a cycle of bloodshed from which there is no exit.

The slogan "Let the IDF win," adopted by Sharon, makes a fine sticker, but in practice, the IDF is not winning. Since Sharon came to power, as the pundits have pointed out, there have been more Israeli victims and more violence than under any other prime minister. Sharon's military menu is shrinking. Reoccupying the territories is not a practical option, and neither is assassinating Arafat, due to American opposition. Pre-emptive strikes have reached the point where more is lost than gained because the other side seeks revenge by sending suicide bombers into crowded population centers. Arafat is holding the box of matches.

The commander of the British forces in Mandatory Palestine once said that the way to hit the Jews is through their pocket. Sharon has chosen to impose a personal siege on Arafat - and who understands better than our leader what a terrible punishment it is to keep a politician from the good life of flying around the world? But Arafat is not alone in this siege. All of Israel is with him. No tourists are coming, the economy has taken a mighty blow and people go out less for fear of terrorist attacks. The public is tired, worried and pessimistic, and many of us are preoccupied with a subject no one likes to talk about: looking for ways to get the hell out of here. Sheikh Yassin on one side, and Bibi on the other, are dictating the agenda. Both peoples have fallen into the hands of extremists.

In terms of power and military might, Israel's strength is waning. Israel may be a member of the Five Strongest Armies Club and the Eight Nuclear Nations Club, but it has reached the point where it has no military solution for the dispute with the Palestinians. In this reality, Sharon, as the head of a military power and the leader of the stronger side, can, and should, break the stalemate. It can be done by initiating a political compromise that will give the Palestinians hope and the motivation to begin a dialogue. There is no conflict in the world, from Algeria to Vietnam, that has been resolved without negotiating under fire. Sharon has enough credit, clout in the government and support of the people to work out agreements, even if the right wing quits the cabinet.

True, all our prime ministers have had miserable ends, but a few of them have gone down in history for the great things they have done for this country. This is the Bulldozer's last chance to wind up his career in the ranks of the bold and the brave.