The Middle East's Bismarck

W Scott Thompson

Modified 29 Jan 2008, 10:21 am

It takes a liberal to implement a conservative policy-and a conservative to implement a liberal policy. That is a truism of statecraft on the largest scale. Nixon could end the Vietnam war and open relations with China, while keeping the right wing down.

On the opposite front, Bill Clinton imposed wicked cuts in welfare that no conservative could have got away with.The grandest example is the great Prussian chancellor, who brought Germany together late in the 19th century, and while at it created the first comprehensive welfare scheme in history. Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, kept a huge dog in his office to terrify visitors, but when it came down to making the state work, at a time of rapid industrialisation, he knew what statecraft consisted of.

Now we are seeing a most extraordinary transformation in the Middle East. The right wing Israeli leader par excellence, Ariel Sharon, is forcing the pace on withdrawals of illegal settlements in the Gaza strip, against pressures so intense that most politicians in the Jewish state are taking precautions for their personal safety.

He is matching Palestinian concessions aimed at getting real negotiations going toward a meaningful peace treaty-this after years of laughing at the very notion of a Palestinian state, letting his own spokespersons let slip that talk of such was just chaff. His police and army, to the horror of at least European TV viewers, ransacked most PLO schools and police and administrative headquarters, destroying their computer capabilities and trashing any capability they might have had to constrain groups like Hamas.

So are we witnessing a bluff?

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