Only a New Leader Can Save Israel Now; Could This Be a Turning Point in the Ferocious Cycle of Violence?

Article excerpt

Byline: BERNARD WASSERSTEIN

ARIEL Sharon's government in Israel is on its last legs. After a year in power, Sharon is generally reckoned to have been a disastrous failure. His promise of peace with security has been exposed as hollow. He offers no strategic guidance save endless struggle, no diplomatic vision beyond constant naysaying.

His only programme, according to the wags, is the evening news on television.

As the conflict with the Palestinians rises to a paroxysm of mutual bloodletting, the internal contradictions within Israel's governing coalition are pulling it asunder. The public response to the staccato of suicide bomb attacks is one of baffled outrage. Extreme-right ministers, such as Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon, are stoking up feeling with their calls for ever more extreme measures against the Palestinian civilian population in the West Bank and Gaza. The Labour Party, Sharon's reluctant coalition ally, is looking for an opportunity to jump ship. It lacks a leader and any alternative policy but internal unease is growing.

Labour ministers know that if the party is to survive at all as a force in Israeli politics, it will soon have to take the plunge.

Sharon's most likely successor is a member of his own Likud Party, Binyamin Netanyahu, 20 years younger, much fitter, and more in tune with the mood of the Israeli right. His re-emergence is the most remarkable return from the political grave since Richard Nixon's bounce back from defeat in the 1960s.

Just three years ago, Netanyahu was ousted from power in such total disgrace that he contemplated leaving politics altogether. Today he is poised to recoup the leadership of the Likud and perhaps of Israel.

NETANYAHU is winning support by posing as a more energetic and decisive leader than Sharon. By comparison with Sharon's painful mental incoherence and visible exhaustion, Netanyahu projects an aura of confidence and vigour.

Yet Netanyahu's policy prescriptions are essentially the same as Sharon's.

Both men fundamentally mistrust the good faith of the Palestinian leadership; both disbelieve in the possibility of peace; both think that Israel's only recourse now is to beat the Palestinians remorselessly into the dust.

Israel's politics today resemble those of France in early 1958 as the Algerian war approached its climax and brought about the collapse of the Fourth Republic.

Then as now, an increasingly demoralised army confronted an elusive enemy that would stop at nothing.

Then as now, terrorism provoked counter-terror, torture-and attacks on civilians that merely cemented the bond between the rebels and the occupied Arab population.

This is not a war in which Israel can be beaten militarily . But Israel has suffered serious military reverses in the past few days. The impunity with which Palestinian fighters destroyed an Israeli tank and shot up a line of Israeli soldiers like skittles at a checkpoint indicates a new vulnerability that Israel's conscript army can ill afford.

In the end France tired of fighting a squalid war on behalf of a million French colonists in Algeria. Today Israelis are despairing of a conflict that the leader of the opposition in the Knesset, Yossi Sarid, calls, with some justification, a "war for the settlements". …