There is a saying: Man proposes but God disposes. We know that Daniel 4:17 says, “The most High ruleth in the kingdom of men.” We know that God controls the affairs of this world. We know that the angels are active in bringing about His plan and purpose (eg Daniel 10:12–13). We know that apparently natural occurrences are manipulated by God in accordance with His will (See Psalm 148:8). We know all this, but our familiarity with these first principles sometimes dulls us to the staggering reality that they embody.

From time to time, however, we are jolted by events that remind us of the truth of this doctrine. Such an event occurred early on 4 January 2006 when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke. About two weeks before this severe stroke, Mr Sharon had suffered a relatively mild stroke. He was able to resume work within a week. Although seventy-seven years old and grossly over-weight, Mr Sharon appeared to be made of cast iron—so indomitable that not even a stroke could stop him!

The second stroke, however, was much more severe. At the time of writing, nearly four weeks afterwards, he remains in a coma. It seems inevitable that Mr Sharon will have suffered some level of brain damage. Even if he recovers enough to come home, it is extremely unlikely that he could continue as Prime Minister.

Mr Sharon is a remarkable man. A warrior who was directly involved in every war in Israel from 1948 to the 1980s, Ariel Sharon developed a reputation as a hard-nosed ultra-nationalist. Nobody has been more committed to Israel’s survival than this man. In his military career he developed a reputation as a brilliant tactician; he applied those brilliant tactical skills in his life as a politician. Last year Mr Sharon shocked many by announcing that he had grown tired of waiting for the Palestinians to make progress towards peace and that he had developed his own plan to expedite matters. Without consulting Israel’s allies and without even the support of his own party, he decided that Israel would withdraw from all settlements in the Gaza Strip and a few of the more controversial ones on the West Bank. This policy was a political and diplomatic earthquake, yet he pulled it off with his usual determination and success. The prophetic significance of this policy was discussed in an article entitled “Conflict, Shame and Disengagement” in The Lampstand, July–August 2004.

After Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, Sharon’s relationship with his own Likud Party became more and more difficult. In November he stunned the world again by leaving Likud and starting up a completely new party called Kadima. Several leading Israeli politicians joined him, including the former Labour Party leader Shimon Peres. An election was called for March this year and early opinion polls suggested that Ariel Sharon’s new party might even win office, allowing him to continue with his plans. It is widely believed that those plans would have included Israel withdrawing from vast portions of the West Bank.

On 24 January 2006 Israel’s Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a speech at the Herzliya Conference. He was standing in for Ariel Sharon and his opening words linked his remarks with the policies of Mr Sharon:

“Unfortunate circumstances have led to my appearance before you here this evening in place of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Two years ago, at this Conference, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon delivered his speech, later known as the ‘Herzliya Speech’, the speech in which he announced the Disengagement Plan. From this place, one of our greatest commanders embarked on the most dramatic and significant campaign of his life, the diplomatic, public and political campaign of the Disengagement Plan. That speech, and the Disengagement Plan which followed, are milestones in the history of the State of Israel.”

Mr Olmert went on to signal that the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank was only the beginning, not the end, of a process:

“The existence of a Jewish majority in the State of Israel cannot be maintained with the continued control over the Palestinian population in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. We firmly stand by the historic right of the people of Israel to the entire Land of Israel. Every hill in Samaria and every valley in Judea is part of our historic homeland. We do not forget this, not even for one moment. However, the choice between the desire to allow every Jew to live anywhere in the Land of Israel and the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish country—obligates relinquishing parts of the Land of Israel. This is not a relinquishing of the Zionist idea, rather the essential realisation of the Zionist goal—ensuring the existence of a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel.

In order to ensure the existence of a Jewish national homeland, we will not be able to continue ruling over the territories in which the majority of the Palestinian population lives. We must create a clear boundary as soon as possible, one which will reflect the demographic reality on the ground. Israel will maintain control over the security zones, the Jewish settlement blocs, and those places which have supreme national importance to the Jewish people, first and foremost a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. There can be no Jewish state without the capital of Jerusalem at its centre.”

Mr Olmert’s speech went on to speak of dismantling Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where appropriate, and of the need for compromise with the Palestinians. The Israeli electorate might strengthen its support for these policies as a mark of respect for Mr Sharon. Alternatively, having dallied with unilateral disengagement and found it an imperfect answer, it might lurch to the right and the more belligerent policies of leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu. We will have to wait until March to see whether Israelis will support the new Kadima Party and its policy of compromise from a position of strength in spite of the loss of Mr Sharon’s charismatic leadership, or whether it will return to a more hard-line position.

Palestinian Democracy?

More by providence than coincidence, these dramatic developments in Israel occurred just as the Palestinians were gearing up for their first election in a decade. Palestinian politics was created by Yasser Arafat and his Fatah Party has dominated the political scene since the 1960s. Since Arafat’s death, however, Fatah’s dominance has been under threat. Mr Abbas, the leader who replaced Arafat, appears to be too weak to control the more radical elements in Palestinian society, even those in his own party. It is clear that, since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the rule of law has broken down in parts of the West Bank and practically in all of the Gaza Strip. Rival Palestinian factions routinely kidnap and murder their opponents and anyone else who gets in their way. Israel must have hoped that a more stable and disciplined regime would emerge from the Palestinian elections held on 25 January 2006. It is possible that the new regime will be more disciplined, but whether this will prove helpful to Israel is doubtful.

One of the remarkable aspects of this Palestinian election was the role played by Hamas, an extremist terrorist group that had boycotted the last poll. This time, not only did it provide active opposition, it trounced the ruling Fatah Party and won a majority of seats. Hamas has clearly established itself as the leading force in Palestinian affairs. Many commentators have suggested that the influence of Hamas will make peace with Israel impossible. This seems reasonable given the declared aims of Hamas, whose charter calls for the slaughter of the Jews (article 7) and declares: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time” (article 13). There is little prospect of Israel working amicably with a neighbour which espouses such a policy!

In reality, however, the position of Hamas differs little from the official position of the PLO led by Fatah. The PLO is after all the “Palestine Liberation Organisation”, not the West Bank and Gaza Strip liberation organisation. The PLO charter which, in spite of promises to the contrary, has never been amended, calls for the “elimination of Zionism in Palestine” (article 15) and requires Palestine to have “the boundaries it had during the British mandate” (article 2).

The uncompromising sentiments implicit in the charters of both Hamas and the PLO are reflected in a recent interview with Mohammed Daoud, a leading PLO terrorist who was involved in planning the attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Accused of having attacked innocent civilians Mr Daoud made this point: “We did not target Israeli civilians. Some of the athletes had taken part in wars and killed many Palestinians. Whether a pianist or an athlete, any Israeli is a soldier” (The Australian, 29 December 2005). This statement embodies a vital truth: to the Palestinians there is no such thing as an Israeli civilian. They are all soldiers and therefore they are all fair game. The PLO and even Hamas might say that they oppose any terrorist act that targets “innocent civilians”, but when used in the context of terrorist attacks on Israel these are ‘weasel words’. In their eyes there are no “innocent civilians” in Israel. Even unborn Israelis are just soldiers in embryo.

It might seem clear that with attitudes like this so firmly entrenched peace is unattainable. The one strong Israeli who might have had the boldness and cunning needed to deliver peace has been removed by a stroke. A medical stroke for certain, but perhaps also a stroke of the Divine hand to further the Divine plan.

Persian Intrigue

Hamas, like Hezbollah, the terrorist organization entrenched to the north of Israel in southern Lebanon, has strong links to Iran. It is more than curious that the party that now dominates Palestinian affairs is closely aligned to Israel’s most implacable enemy.

The prophet Joel, when speaking of the time of the end, refers to weak nations engaged in mad schemes to arm themselves saying they are strong (Joel 3:10). This is in the context of tension over the control of “Judah and Jerusalem” (verse 1). In the last few months we have witnessed a classic example of the weak saying “I am strong”, and focusing this vain boast on Israel. Iranian President Ahmadinejad has made a series of arrogant statements about the need to wipe Israel off the map and to move all Jews out of the Middle East.

These disturbing statements have coincided with Iran’s declaration in January that it would resume its nuclear program, presumably with a view to developing nuclear weapons. Around the world this has generated concern and calls for action. Significantly it is Russia, almost alone, that is calling for a more conciliatory approach to Iran. Russia has even offered to provide Iran with enriched uranium as an incentive for the regime not to engage in its own enrichment program.

Europe and America wish to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons but are scared of the impact on oil prices. Israel also is gravely concerned about Iran’s moves, but Israel will not feel so constrained about taking action. Israel has openly said it will stop Iran developing nuclear weapons. It seems possible that this might be achieved by bombing the Iranian nuclear facilities, as Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear facilities some years ago. It is ironical that just about everyone in Israel who is at the heart of her response to the Iranian threat has direct links with Iran: Israel’s President and her Defence Minister were both born in Iran, while the Israeli military’s Chief of Staff General Dan Halutz is the son of Jews born in Iran. Chiefs of Staff generally are not known for their sense of humour, but when he was asked how far Israel would go to stop Iran General Halutz replied, “two thousand kilometres” (Reported in The Economist, 21-27 January 2006).

Joel 3:1 says that Judah and Jerusalem are at the heart of the conflict at the time of the end. Verse 2 says that the conflict is associated with attempts to divide the land. This is entirely consistent with the scenario before the world today. The future control of Jerusalem, in particular, is the ‘Achilles heel’ of any plan for peace in the Middle East. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are willing to compromise when it comes to Israel. Ariel Sharon was willing to hand over the Gaza Strip and he may well have been willing to give up most of the West Bank, but he repeatedly refused to compromise on Jerusalem, and Mr Olmert reiterated that attitude in his speech in Herzliya in January.

The next few months will prove intensely interesting as we watch the nascent Hamas-led Palestinian regime striving for legitimacy and acceptance, coinciding with the response of the Israeli electorate to the demise of Ariel Sharon. The situation in the Middle East has never looked more uncertain; it would be a bold man who would make detailed predictions as to how these events will unfold. What we may be certain about, however, is that we live in the days of the sixth vial, in the shadow of our Lord’s return and of Armageddon (Rev 16:12–16). Let us continue to watch events as they unfold, encouraged that God is in control and that He will bring them to a climax soon when He intervenes to establish His Kingdom.

“Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.”