Ariel Sharon, peacenik.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Sept. 23 2002 5:48 PM

Ariel Sharon, Peacenik

Israel's hawkish prime minister achieves what the United Nations couldn't.

With smoke still rising from the rubble of Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound, this might seem a perverse moment to ponder whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a de facto dove. But the evidence is hard to ignore. Chatterbox refers not to Sharon's warlike stance toward the Palestinians, but rather to Sharon's warlike stance toward Iraq. On Sept. 22, Michael Gordon reported on Page One of the New York Times that Sharon had told U.S. officials that if Iraq attacks Israel in response to a U.S. invasion, Israel will not leave retaliation to the U.S. military, as occurred during the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq showered Israel with Scuds. Instead, Israel will itself strike back at Iraq. The immediate and obvious effect of the Times story was to make a U.S. invasion of Iraq look like World War III.

Such a nightmare scenario undermines the Bush administration's campaign to win public support for waging war against Saddam Hussein. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed last week in testimony before Congress that "it would be in Israel's overwhelming best interests not to get involved." What he meant was, "it would be in the United States' overwhelming best interests for Israel not to get involved." (Possibly he avoided putting it this way for fear of sounding multilateralist.) Either construction is plainly contradicted by a blunt threat from Sharon that Israel, if hit, will hit back. Sharon's comments, as reported in the Times, immediately inspired Sen. Joe Biden to state, on CBS's Face the Nation, that if Israel were to get involved, "you would find probably every embassy in the Middle East burned to the ground." Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican, said on the same program that if Israel attacked Iraq, it could prompt "a widespread war in the Middle East" in which the United States would be seen as "fighting side-by-side with the Israelis against all the Arab interests."

Sharon's ability to gum up U.S. war plans must turn Kofi Annan green with envy. Surely Sharon never intended to disrupt the prospective U.S. invasion of Iraq. Rather, Sharon probably failed to anticipate how his remarks would play if they leaked out. He surely understands their effect now, and that may be why Gil Hoffman reports in the Sept. 23 Jerusalem Post that Sharon maintains that the Times misquoted him—that he'd told U.S. officials that Israel might hit back if Iraq hit Israel, or it might not. This ambiguity reduces, though only somewhat, the anxiety that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would put the United States at war with the entire Arab world.

Possibly the Times really did misstate what Sharon had told U.S. policy-makers, either by innocent mistake, or because the Times got conned by the anti-war faction in the Pentagon, or because the Times is "crossing the line from journalism into activism in opposing such action." This last is how the Jerusalem Post put it, and what it seems inclined to believe. The distinction between the Times getting conned and the Times crossing the line into activism is blurrier than most people realize, so it might have been a bit of both. Under the Times-got-it-wrong scenario, it would be the Times, and not Sharon himself, who made Sharon a force for peace. Chatterbox expects to see this line adopted by war advocates. Even if they're right, though, they still have to explain what they think Israel would do if Iraq lobbed a missile its way.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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