Ariel Sharon's smashing 60-40 victory over incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak is a tribute to Israeli democracy--and a clear Israeli judgment about the "Barak Experiment" with Israel's security. It is, moreover, a judgment about Ariel Sharon from the people who know him best, and Americans who question their choice before Sharon has even been sworn in should pipe down.

Many accounts on the U.S. television networks have overlooked the fact that Israel is the region's only true democracy, as if that were too boring to mention. But Israel's achievement should never be forgotten: In a region where thuggery reigns, where war threatens year after year, this small country maintains a free press and free elections, and her Arab citizens have freer access to the ballot box than they do in every Arab land. Nowhere else in the region can citizens criticize their government openly and without danger, as they can in Israel, and call for the fall of the people in power. Even those who think the people of Israel decided wrongly this election day must begin with this acknowledgment, and remember that U.S. support for Israel is largely based on our support for democracy and human rights.

But did the people of Israel decide wrongly? Poll after poll has made it crystal clear that security was the key to this election. It was not "the economy, stupid" in Israel this year. Two contrasting theories of security were before the voters. The approach taken by Prime Minister Barak was to get Israeli troops out of Lebanon and then offer concession after concession to Yasser Arafat, culminating last year in offers to divide Jerusalem, give up the Temple Mount, and leave the Jordan Valley. The idea was that, once Arafat's demands were satisfied--or sufficiently satisfied, for in a negotiation everyone must compromise--Arafat would sign a real peace agreement. While the concessions Barak offered were controversial in Israel and would have required a referendum, a positive response from Arafat would have been a great leap toward peace.

Everyone knows what the response from Arafat was: war instead of peace. The new "intifada" has cost lives on both sides and has shown that concessions only whet Arafat's appetite. His insistence on the "right of return"--allowing Palestinians to return to their pre-1948 homes--has made it clear that the Israel he wants cannot be a Jewish State at all. Meanwhile, Palestinian officials and religious figures have denied that Israel has any religious or historical claim to the Western Wall, and too many have slandered Judaism and called for violence against Jews. Israel's concessions apparently made the country look weak and desperate for a deal.

That at least was what Israel's voters decided in rejecting Barak by so large a margin. They have seen their security situation decline precipitously under him. They have decided that security isn't won by concessions to Arafat, but by firmness and resistance to violence or the threat of violence. They have elected someone who represents, indeed embodies, this alternative approach.

Ariel Sharon is now being demonized by most of the Arab world and by Palestinian spokesmen, but it is shameful for Americans to join the chorus. In his first moves, Sharon is showing his desire for a broad-based government with strong participation by the Labor Party (including Ehud Barak himself) and consensus figures such as Natan Sharansky. It is obvious that he wants peace, not war, and believes that his approach is more likely to preserve peace than Barak's endless concessions.

The strategy of the "Peace Now" faction was tried, and it was Yasser Arafat who killed it--not Ariel Sharon. Those who suggest that Sharon committed a great crime last year when he set foot on the Temple Mount must explain why they think a Jew cannot ever go there. Are Jews to be forbidden from the center of Jerusalem once again, as they were for the 19 years when Jordan ruled much of the city?

As for Sharon's role in the Lebanon war, some comments are necessary. First, the killing at the Palestinian refugee camps was conducted by Lebanese Christian (Maronite) militiamen, not by Israeli soldiers under Sharon's command. Yes, comes the reply, but Sharon's conduct was heavily criticized. Fair enough; it was criticized, and he resigned as defense minister.

But one is reminded of what happened to Winston Churchill in World War I. He designed and championed the British campaign in Gallipoli in 1915, and it proved to be a huge disaster: 43,000 British troops were killed, and Churchill was forced to resign as First Lord of the Admiralty. Yet 24 years later, when his nation found itself in a crisis threatening its survival, Great Britain turned to Churchill again.

Israel continues to face mortal peril, surrounded by enemies who wish its destruction. When Ehud Barak reached out for peace through concessions and compromises so great they threatened the nation's security, they were rejected out of hand by the Palestinian Authority. It has become clear to the great majority of Israelis that their Arab neighbors--today, as in 1948, 1967, and 1973, the years of Israel's major wars--continue to want not peace but victory, not compromise but surrender, not a Jewish State but another Arab state in Israel.

So Israelis have chosen a leader who all along knew, and said, that the road to peace lies through strength instead of weakness, and firmness rather than unilateral concessions. Ariel Sharon gauged Israel's security situation far better than the Labor Party's leaders, and for this he has been rewarded with a landslide electoral victory. Americans who regret--who even denounce--this outcome should stop a moment and wonder what Israeli voters now know that they themselves still do not.

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