The Middle East: Snakes & Ladders

Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon; drawing by David Levine


As a boy I used to play the rather menacing game of Snakes and Ladders. The ladders, at least in the Israeli version, enabled you to skip rows on your way to heaven. Snakes brought you down to hell. At the top of the game board, just before you approached heaven, there were two successive snakes: a big snake that plunged you back to square one, and a small snake that tumbled you down a few rows but left open the possibility of going up a ladder to heaven.

In the complicated game of the Middle East, the ladders lead to peace and the snakes to violence and war. And it is just not clear whether the current Intifada is a big snake that brings us all back to the square one of relations that existed between Jews and Arabs in 1948, or a small snake that is a temporary setback with an optional ladder to peace up the road. We lack the historical perspective to judge. Yet it looks like a pretty big snake to me.

Clouding our perspective, among other things, is a combination of two quite different realities—on the one hand, the banal domestic politics in Israel, and, on the other, a confrontation of historical dimensions between Israel and the Palestinians. Before Ariel Sharon’s fatal visit to the Temple Mount, it was Benjamin Netanyahu who was on Ehud Barak’s and Sharon’s minds, not Arafat. This visit, on September 28, 2000, was the opening event of the current uprising known as Intifada II. And it was the prospect of Netanyahu’s return to Israeli politics rather than anything to do with the Palestinians that explains why Sharon went there and why Barak did not stop him.

When Barak arrived at Camp David last July to negotiate a peace agreement, he and his government had just lost their majority in parliament. He believed that if he could get an agreement with Arafat, he could call elections and win. But emerging from Camp David without an agreement made him politically vulnerable. All the indications at the time were that Netanyahu, not Sharon, at the head of a united right-wing coalition, would have a good chance of beating him. The polls gave Barak an edge over Sharon, Netanyahu’s successor as the “temporary” head of the Likud Party. Following his defeat by Barak in the 1999 elections, Netanyahu had resigned from the Knesset and become, so he said, a “worried citizen,” awaiting his chance for a comeback.

Sharon’s appeal to the party was limited. He looked old and tired, and had little appeal for the more moderate voters in the “center.” Netanyahu’s loyalists could barely wait for the glorious, vengeful second coming of their leader. Sharon had every reason to fear Netanyahu’s return, knowing that Netanyahu could regain his hold over the Likud Party quite easily, thereby robbing Sharon of his last chance,…

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