Ariel Sharon’s victory in the Israeli elections has stirred fears throughout the world of a new general Arab-Israeli war with devastating consequences for Israelis, Palestinians and the entire region. These fears are certainly legitimate, given Sharon’s record as an Israeli general and politician. If history is any guide, though, Sharon, the newly elected Israeli prime minister, may surprise us and join the ranks of unexpected peace makers.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, for example, joined with Egyptian Prime Minister Anwar Sadat to respond to U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s peace initiatives, signing the Camp David Accords, even though he had been the intensely chauvinistic leader of Israel’s right-wing opposition for nearly 30 years when he became prime minister in 1977. The accords led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that none of Begin’s opponents, previous Labor Party prime ministers, had seriously attempted. Had they done so, Begin no doubt would have vilified them for betraying the principles of Zionism.
Similarly, a Republican president, Richard Nixon, whose political career from 1946 to 1968 had as its central theme the denunciation of Democrats as being soft on communism, opened up relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1971. Although Nixon had once said that Harry Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, ran a “College of Cowardly Communist Containment,” it was Nixon who radically improved relations with the Soviet Union.
At an earlier stage in the Cold War, President Eisenhower was able at Geneva in 1955 to revive summit meetings with the Soviets, which had lapsed after Potsdam in 1945. In the last years of his administration, Eisenhower articulated a strong desire to end the Cold War through negotiation, a position that, had it been offered by a liberal, would have been condemned by both Democrats and Republicans as either the dream of a “tender-minded” idealist or a Communist dupe.
The common thread that connects all these cases is that when objective conditions called for changes in policy, those in power, either in Israel or the United States, were politically situated to carry forward changes. Eisenhower opened negotiations with the Soviets in a way that Adlai Stevenson, had he been elected in 1956, never could have contemplated. Any such moves from Stevenson would have divided his party and provoked conservative Republicans to condemn him as undermining U.S. national security.
Fifteen years later, Soviet-Chinese conflict and changes in the world economy permitted Richard Nixon to open up relations with China and improve relations with the Soviet Union, if only to play each against the other and profit from commercial relations with both, as the U.S. allies in NATO and Japan were already doing.
Similarly, Menachem Begin was able to gain greater U.S. aid for Israel and forge a strategically valuable peace with Egypt, the largest Arab country, by making concessions he would have resisted ferociously from any of his Labor predecessors.
To peace advocates, Ariel Sharon’s record as a general, from his military actions in the 1950s through his involvement in the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982, is at least as unpromising as Nixon’s and Begin’s were when they came to power. Yet he has the possibility of working out a peace settlement for the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem by doing what he, like Nixon and Begin before him, has attacked others for doing and getting away with it. Begin is under great pressure from all of the major powers to make a peace settlement. Finally, as a general, he may realize that such concessions could create a Palestinian state that would be more of a buffer than a threat to Israel.
Far-fetched? One only has to go back to 1970 and think about predicting that Richard Nixon would be visiting China and Russia, tripling trade with both nations, and signing the first Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty with the Soviets to realize that warriors, both hot and cold, can sometimes become peacemakers.
Norman Markowitz is a member of the history faculty at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and a writer for the History News Service.