Questions for Ariel Sharon

So, Mr. Sharon, does this mean Israel is returning to its old self, knocking out two grisly child-murderers in the space of three weeks, with promises of more to come? The Israel that used to be admired as tough and proactive, declaring that Jewish blood was no longer cheap and those who shed it would be pursued and punished?

P. David Hornik

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So, Mr. Sharon, does this mean Israel is returning to its old self, knocking out two grisly child-murderers in the space of three weeks, with promises of more to come? The Israel that used to be admired as tough and proactive, declaring that Jewish blood was no longer cheap and those who shed it would be pursued and punished?

I wish I could join in all the accolades; but I have some questions that trouble me.

My first question involves timing. We are in April 2004, three years, Mr. Sharon, since you took over as prime minister from Ehud Barak in February 2001. Why only now did it become imperative to wage war on Hamas and eliminate its political leaders, like Ahmed Yassin and Abd Al-Aziz Rantisi? Why only now, when you're moving heaven and earth to make sure Israel retreats unilaterally from Gaza? We are to understand that this time, unlike in the Ehud Barak-engineered debacle in Southern Lebanon, Israel won't be perceived as withdrawing out of weakness, that we will go out in a blaze of assertiveness.

What is really the message here, Mr. Sharon? Is it that when Israel is on the run, when you, the father of the settlement movement, proclaim your intention to destroy whole Jewish communities in Gaza, gaining American approval and warm European applause, only then can we get a little tougher and go after the real masterminds of murder like Yassin and Rantisi? And what about all the bombings and massacres that have happened from February 2001 to April 2004 - none of this constituted an emergency, none of this was enough reason, Mr. Sharon, to aim for the head of the snake? Smoothing the path to unilateral withdrawal necessitates some fireworks in Gaza, but saving hundreds of Israeli lives wasn't urgent enough?

And what, after all, does it mean to withdraw out of strength, or whatever weird phrase is the opposite of withdraw out of weakness? You are cajoling us to flee from Gaza, Mr. Sharon, to flee because of terrorism. If things had been quiet there, you wouldn't have raised the idea, and the Jewish communities there could have gone on flourishing. Even if the withdrawal, if we do go through with it, won't be as ignominious as the nighttime flight from Lebanon and abandonment of our allies there, don't you think the message, Mr. Sharon, is the same, and don't you think our enemies will get that message: hit Israel hard enough and persistently enough, and it gives up, it folds?

My second question, Mr. Sharon, involves something you said about Yasser Arafat last April 5. It was quoted in the English media as: Whoever kills Jews or orders Jews and Israeli citizens to be killed... is a marked man; but it was closer, in the Hebrew original, to: sentenced to death. Did you mean what you said, Mr. Sharon, or was it more like the cabinet's statement in September last year about removing Arafat - clearly, by now, a political sop to the right-wing, not words to be taken seriously? Some more time has gone by since April 5, Mr. Sharon, and still nothing has happened to Arafat. Not much time, you say? No, but enough time for the security forces to do arduous work tracking down Rantisi - a difficult, moving target, compared to the stationary Arafat sitting confined in Ramallah.

Is the fate of Arafat a serious matter for you, Mr. Sharon, as it is for many Israelis? Many of us feel that this man's continuing to go scot-free is a moral stain on our history that may never go away unless something is done about it soon. This butcher, this founder of modern terrorism, who dwarfs the likes of Yassin or Rantisi, murdering Jews and others for decades in a sententious world of Holocaust ceremonies and proclamations about human rights - is he going to get away with it, Mr. Sharon, and is he going to get away with it on your watch, while you are prime minister?

It would be nice to think you meant it this time, or were you again playing politics by dangling the possibility of bringing justice to Arafat, without really intending to go through with it? Just a way of buttering up the Likud waverers to go along with your Gaza withdrawal, playing on the deepest anguish and despair of many of your supporters to persuade them that you're still the gritty, realistic Arik we used to know? I'm still hoping you'll surprise me on this one, Mr. Sharon, but I have to be very skeptical.

Which brings me to my third, closely related question. Everybody knows, Mr. Sharon, you better than anyone, that withdrawal from Gaza would mean the end of the current coalition, the replacement of the right-of-Likud parties by the Shimon Peres-led Labor faction. Indeed, no surprise in that, since you've wanted Peres and Labor by your side all along. Back in 2001, when you warmly embraced him as your foreign minister, I tried to make sense of it, thinking: Sharon is going to fight terror, and Peres, who inwardly must have changed even though outwardly he keeps speaking the same twaddle, is going to give him diplomatic cover. But of course, nothing of the sort happened; we kept being slaughtered up to the Park Hotel massacre on Passover 2002, and only then did the vaunted Sharon-Peres team allow the IDF to fight terror more extensively, though still far from adequately.

As late as last year, when you were reelected, you were working hard to get Labor into the coalition; and now, if your plans go through, you'll finally get your wish. So the likes of Shimon Peres, Amram Mitzna, Yuli Tamir, and Avraham Burg will once again, despite being trounced in two consecutive elections, be part of the government of Israel. What's the idea, Mr. Sharon? What's the point of knocking out some top terrorists only to form a government with a party like Labor, many of whose members are virtually pacifists who no longer have a concept of "enemy" or "aggression" and see Palestinian mass murder as a form of social protest? This is a party that spoke out unanimously against the cabinet's supposed plans to remove Arafat last September.

And what was it that Shimon Peres said after the Yassin assassination three weeks ago? He said: "We must look terrible... for killing an old religious leader in a wheelchair coming out of a mosque.... I never thought they would dare to go through with it.... Had I been a member of the government I would have voted against this.... Only by assassinating the reasons for terrorism can we assassinate terrorism."

This is going to be your government, Mr. Sharon? What happened to fighting terror? And what about Arafat? It looks to me like he's going to enjoy a ripe old age, Mr. Sharon.

It tends to bolster ones darkest suspicions about you, Ariel Sharon, this eagerness to embrace Labor. Did you change your mind and become a dove? That's allowed, but you, Mr. Sharon, are not a private citizen; you have certain responsibilities and certain commitments. You were elected on a Likud platform, not a Peres-Beilin-Barak appeasement-and-unilateral-flight platform. I know, you say you're abandoning Gaza as a way of salvaging our hold on parts of Judea and Samaria, of rescuing us from an even worse fate of having Yossi Beilin's Geneva Accord shoved down our throats. Then why bring Yossi Beilin's colleagues, compatriots and ideological twins into your government? And what more negative, more desperate, more discouraging message could you possibly convey, Mr. Sharon, than that we have to flee Gaza under a hail of terrorist fire because otherwise outside powers will take the whole country, territorially and demographically, away from us? Are you saying Israel has ceased to be a sovereign state, that it has no capacity to reject even a blatantly suicidal, externally imposed plan?

Troubling questions, Mr. Sharon.

No doubt, the elimination of Yassin and Rantisi is long-overdue justice and a blow to Hamas. I just wish I could believe it signaled a real turn in the direction of fighting for Israel.