by Kim Ghattas
(IPS) BEIRUT --
victory of Ariel Sharon
as Israel's new prime minister was met with dismay
in the Middle East, but initial alarmist reactions
that he would bring war to the region are somewhat
Newspapers in Lebanon and Syria lamented the coming to power of the man who is dubbed here as the "bulldozer" and "butcher of Beirut." The headline of one leftist Lebanese newspaper Al Safir, read "Israelis Elect Their New King, Complete with His War Program."
Lebanon's Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, said that considering Sharon's past, his "victory is an indicator that the Israelis have not opted for peace yet."
In Syria, state-run newspapers wrote that the voting for Sharon was a declaration of war, calling him a racist and terrorist.
In Jordan, the mood is even more pessimistic. Sharon has advocated that Jordan should be turned into a substitute land for the Palestinians, and there is fear that continued violence in the Palestinian territories might spill over into Jordan.
But some observers believe that electing Sharon might be the first step for the Israelis to understand the necessity of real peace. They believe Sharon's time in power will be the "darkest night before dawn."
"(With Sharon), there will be a deadlock and maybe that's not so bad," said Michael Young, a Lebanese political commentator and writer of weekly columns.
"It will show Israeli society that the Sharon line will not bring peace, and that peace will only come when they have someone even more to the left than Barak," he added.
is remembered in the Arab world for his
excesses and his responsibility for the Sabra and
Shatila massacre of some 2,000 Palestinians in 1982
in Lebanon, and the massacre of 69 villagers in
Qibya in the West Bank in 1953.
As minister of defense in 1982, Sharon masterminded and oversaw Israel's disastrous invasion of Lebanon, which was followed by the siege of Beirut and was meant to put an end to Palestinian guerilla activity against Israeli from south Lebanon. While the initial plan was for a partial invasion, it was Sharon's own idea to take the Israeli army further north.
At the time, he was referred to by the name of a local brand of laundry powder, "Ariel, the powder that wipes everything away." Two decades later, some are asking whether Sharon understands the new realities on the ground and that "wiping out" people or regimes is not a viable solution.
And Arabs sense the danger. In Lebanon, where the border with Israel remains volatile since the Israeli withdrawal last May, there is fear that incidents involving cross-border attacks by independent Palestinian groupings might trigger disproportionate retaliation from Sharon.
"Lebanon will continue to exercise restraint and abstain from giving Israel any (war) alibis," said Prime Minister Hariri in a televised interview on Feb. 5.
Unlike the Palestinian territories, where a deadlock with Sharon might mean increased tension leading to a robust Israeli response, there is less fear that the deadlock might lead to war with Lebanon and Syria.
According to Lebanese political commentator Young, it is unlikely the situation at the border will go out of hand, because of neighboring Syria's control over the matter. Syria is the main power broker in Lebanon, and has used the war with Israel in south Lebanon as leverage to regain the Golan Heights, which Israeli occupied in 1967.
"The Syrians manipulate the Lebanese border when they fear they are going to be left out, but that happens when negotiations are taking place," he said.
"With Sharon this is unlikely because there will probably be no serious negotiations and the Palestinians will not be cutting a deal behind Syria's back," he added, pointing out that Syria's new President Bashar el Assad had other "more important domestic priorities that tend to reduce his willingness to provoke Israel."
But there is one positive aspect to Sharon's coming to power. He is an up-front, plain-spoken man, say the people here, whether his words are liked or not.
"At least with Sharon we know what we're dealing with. Barak is a hawk disguised as a dove, Sharon is a hawk and he doesn't hide it," said Abu Rushdi, leader of the secretive Syrian backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, in the Burj Brajneh camp in Lebanon.
Apart from Sharon's stained past, there is a feeling here that he is no better or worse than his predecessor. Barak also failed to deliver on peace and his pride as the most decorated soldier in Israel does not get him any admiration from Arabs. For them, it just means he has blood on his hands.
"Sharon says he wants peace, but he wants it under his terms, and no Arab country can accept them, so what peace is he talking about," said Michel Eddeh, a former Lebanese minister of culture and an expert on Israeli affairs.
Lebanon's main concern is the 350,000 Palestinian refugees who live in 12 squalid camps scattered around the country. Lebanon wants them to leave and Israel refuses the right of return for Palestinian refugees who fled their land in 1948. Sharon also made it clear that he would not allow a single refugee to return.
But few in Lebanon expect Sharon to last long, and they hope that Sharon's time in power will be the "darkest night before dawn," as one Palestinian put it.
February 12, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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