soon and very soon

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

From today's Wall Street Journal:

Ariel Sharon has no peer as a symbol of Israel's 58-year struggle for survival. The 77-year-old warrior, now fighting for his life in a Jerusalem hospital, fought in the 1948 struggle for independence and played key roles in the long string of conflicts that followed. Last year, he conducted a daring maneuver -- perhaps his last -- by withdrawing Jewish settlements from Gaza, not long before a cerebral hemorrhage felled him.

His old antagonists are gone. Yasser Arafat, who spent his career futilely trying to drive Israel into the sea, died at age 75 on Nov. 11, 2004. Saddam Hussein is on trial in Iraq. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader who provoked the Six Day War in 1967, passed from the scene in 1970. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, financier of Arab causes, left us last August.

The world is left wondering what comes next in this saga. Ehud Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, has taken the reins as acting prime minister. The Palestinian Authority, which Arafat left in a shambles of corruption and ineptitude, is in total disarray. After parliamentary elections later this month, it may fall under the control of Hamas, one of the territory's most relentless terrorist groups.

Thanks in large part to the U.S. presence in Iraq, the peripheral Arab states are relatively docile. An exception is Syria, where dictator Bashar Assad seems as capable of bloody intrigues as his late father, Hafez. Then there is Muslim Iran, whose new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has vowed to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and is hell-bent on building nuclear weapons to carry out that threat.

If Mr. Olmert accedes to Israel's leadership -- a matter that will be subject to Knesset elections in March -- he is expected to further pursue the latest Sharon strategy, which is to separate Israelis from Palestinian Arabs. This would entail withdrawals of some settlements from the West Bank and completion of the fence that demarcates Jewish and Arab sectors.

While the withdrawals are widely advertised as a peace gesture -- and accepted as such in the West -- they could just as easily be described as a Sharon strategy for clearing the decks for a final defeat of Palestinian militants. By pulling Jews out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank, Mr. Sharon no doubt envisioned giving the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) greater freedom to use modern weapons against Palestinian militants.

This strategy evolved after Arafat ditched the Camp David peace talks in 2000 and launched the second intifada. In 2002, the IDF invaded the West Bank with heavy weapons and assaulted Arafat's base, targeting Hamas leaders as well. That retaliation, combined with the security fence, has sharply cut Israeli casualties from Arab attacks.

The new player on the Arab side is Mahmoud Abbas, who replaced Arafat as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Peace advocates regard it as a triumph that the Palestinians were persuaded to hold elections this month, but the violent struggles between Palestinian factions leading up that event raise doubts that whoever emerges as leader will be a reliable partner in negotiating an Arab-Israeli peace, or even a modus vivendi.

The Arab-Israeli struggle might be equated -- at least in duration -- to the Hundred Years' War between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries. One could say it began in the early 20th century when Zionists began arriving in significant numbers in the Holy Lands, fleeing oppression in Europe. They augmented the Jewish population of what would later be called Palestine.

Late in the 19th century, according to the most reliable studies, Jews were only about 10% of a population of about 700,000, with Christians a further 10% and Arabs most of the rest. But with the Zionist movement Jewish numbers began to grow. With their socialist ideology and commitment to soul-purifying physical labor the Zionists formed tightly knit, dedicated communities foreign to the natives of the region.

Great Britain encouraged the Zionists, issuing the Balfour Declaration in 1917 promising the Jews a homeland in the region even as the British army was driving out the Turks. After the World War I allies destroyed Ottoman rule, the British under a League of Nations mandate further encouraged Jewish settlement. The local Arabs mounted anti-Zionist riots. One of the leaders of these demonstrations was Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, who would later make common cause with Adolf Hitler, imploring the Germans to thwart any British effort to create a Jewish state.

Most of the Jews who migrated to Palestine in the '30s and '40s were not Zionists. They were fleeing the Holocaust and had nowhere else to go. But the Zionists formed the hard muscle that overthrew the British mandate in 1948 and defeated the Arabs who tried to block the establishment of Israel. Their kibbutzim collectives produced the tough native-born "sabras," among them Ariel Sharon, who formed the core of the Israeli military forces. With roots going back to the 19th century, the Zionists had an uncommon dedication to the defense of a Jewish state.

There would be plenty of fighting. In 1956, Israel, with British and French support, invaded the Sinai after Nasser seized the Suez Canal, but to little avail. In June 1967 came the Six Day War and the IDF's lightning victory over the combined forces of neighboring Arab states that gave Israel control of large territories formerly controlled by Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Then, in October 1973, there was the Yom Kippur War, which Israel might have lost had Gen. Sharon not conducted a bold tank maneuver to neutralize Egyptian surface-to-air missile batteries near the Suez Canal.

Now that is all history. Ariel Sharon is finally hors de combat and his long record will go into the history books. Israel will continue to fight. The barren land the Zionists settled so long ago has become a strong state of 6.5 million people, mostly Jews. It has gradually modified the socialism that hampered its economic development. The Hundred Years' War will continue, but casualties are fewer and the U.S. has established a military presence in the region, grounds for hope that the war is winding down.

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