In response, President Bush issued a statement welcoming Arafat into the anti-terror coalition. After Bush did so, no one understood better the implications of Arafat’s uncharacteristic decisiveness—and its likely consequences for Sharon’s efforts to isolate Arafat—than Sharon himself. He abandoned the newly acquired moderation and restraint that had marked his premiership until that point, and wildly accused President Bush of a sellout of Israel that was reminiscent of Chamberlain’s sellout of Czechoslovakia in Munich in 1938. It was an accusation that shocked the White House and drew an uncharacteristically angry reproach from the President’s office, only underscoring the potential for change in the American position created by Arafat’s initiative.
Sadly for the Palestinians, it did not take long for the Americans to realize that there had been no change in Arafat. US intelligence confirmed that America’s new ally in the global war against terror continued to acquiesce in or approve of terrorist assaults on Israeli civilians, despite his public condemnation of these acts. Not only did Arafat’s deception destroy the potential benefits for the Palestinian cause held out by his initial response to the President, but it deepened President Bush’s hostility to Arafat and reinforced the forces in the White House that never had much sympathy for Arafat and the Palestinian cause to begin with. The devastation of every aspect of Palestinian life that has occurred over this past year is the measure of the price paid by the Palestinian people for Arafat’s chronic inability to grasp opportunities that come his way.
None of this is to suggest that Prime Minister Sharon’s credentials as a partner in a peace process are any better than Arafat’s. It is true that since assuming the premiership a year and a half ago, Sharon has cultivated, with considerable success, an image of moderation, in sharp contrast to his previous lifelong image as impulsive and reckless, a reputation that earned him the nickname “bulldozer.” But it is only image, not reality.
Sharon has declared a war on Palestinian terror in which he is determined to resort to any means that may help him win that war—except one. He has ruled out measures of a political nature, despite the fact that Israel’s intelligence agencies have told him for some time now that the war on terror cannot be won if it does not hold out the prospect of new political arrangements. His own national security adviser, Uzi Dayan, told him the same thing, at which point he became Sharon’s former national security adviser. (Ironically, the national security adviser who replaced Dayan, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, believes the day will come when it will be necessary for Israel to negotiate with Hamas.)
Sharon has ignored this universally accepted truth about the indispensability of a political process as part of the war against terror, because the war to which he assigns far greater priority than the war against terror is his war to prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. Behind the cover provided by his war on terrorism (which remains a failure), Sharon has been highly successful in destroying virtually all of the essential supporting institutions of Palestinian national life. Brutally administered military curfews, border closings, and other restrictions have turned Palestinian cities and towns into huge detention centers. Much of the infrastructure built with international donor support since the 1993 Oslo accords has been reduced to rubble, along with the Palestinian economy and most of the Palestinian Authority’s civil institutions. Sharon has been able to do this without much international criticism by making it appear that the devastation of Palestinian national life caused by the Israeli Defense Forces was forced on him by Palestinian terrorism.
Those who see Sharon as a moderate point to his support for the Mitchell Report; for “painful compromises” in an eventual peace process; for the “eventual” establishment of a Palestinian state; and for the “road map” for an Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement put forward by the United States, which called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in three phases by 2005. (They also argue that, following the departure of the Labor Party from his coalition on October 30, Sharon chose a risky course by calling for new Israeli elections. He chose not to continue a narrow right-wing government by rejecting the demands of the National Union Party, whose condition for joining the government was that Sharon reject Washington’s road map and oppose a Palestinian state.)
But that Sharon is not the moderate he pretends to be is attested to by his evasion of every opening for resuming diplomatic activity toward a peace agreement during the year and a half that his government was in power; by the targeted assassinations of Palestinians that to many in Israel seem timed to undermine Palestinian initiatives to end the violence; and by his demand for a total Palestinian surrender before he permits a political process to begin.
True, Sharon no longer seems to many Israelis the “bulldozer” and reckless adventurist that he was during his military and political career before assuming the premiership. But what has changed is not his lifelong commitment to preventing the emergence of a viable Palestinian state—at least one that is not under total Israeli control—a goal to be achieved by widening and deepening Jewish settlements and the extensive infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza that supports them. What has changed is the new sophistication and subtlety that he now brings to this task. Shimon Peres helped persuade Sharon shortly after joining his government as foreign minister to adopt a new tactic. He convinced him that he would do better to agree to such proposals “in principle,” and rely on Israeli conditions, Arafat’s ineptness, and Hamas’s terrorism to derail and prevent the implementation of these proposals.
Thus, after first rejecting the Mitchell Report, Sharon reversed himself and accepted it “in principle.” (The Mitchell Report calls for a series of reciprocal Israeli and Palestinian measures, including a settlement freeze, that would lead to a resumption of political talks.) But Sharon never presented the Mitchell plan for approval by his cabinet. He reassures his inner circle that he never accepted the Mitchell proposals, even while he tells the United States and the international community that he has accepted them. And he relies on Palestinian violence and political blunders to ensure that he will not be brought to account for this duplicity.
Yes, Sharon opposed the recent decision by the Likud Central Committee to reject Palestinian statehood. But he did so only because he understood that such a formal rejection would compel the US administration (which itself has been largely accommodating of his tactics to avoid a political process as long as possible) to change its position and to publicly oppose his government’s policies.
Only recently, Omri Sharon, the prime minister’s highly influential son, told a meeting of Likud faithful, as reported in Ha’aretz on December 13, that his father’s promise of an eventual Palestinian state is “a long-distance declaration.” He told them that
we have to understand we are not living in a vacuum: there is an international reality. But when you speak softly, you can wield a big stick. Today, after all, we are located in the Palestinian areas, we are violating international agreements, but no one is saying anything. The United States is with us. So we talk Palestinian state, Palestinian state, but in the meantime, not even Area A exists. And there is no Orient House, there is no Palestinian representation in Jerusalem, and the Palestinians are afraid to wander around with weapons even in their own cities. Obviously we all want peace, who doesn’t want peace. But the statement about a Palestinian state is a very remote statement.
Sharon’s support “in principle” of the ideas put forward by President Bush in his speech of June 24, 2002, committing the United States to the creation of a Palestinian state within three years, has not precluded his continued enlargement of the settlements, or a continuation by the IDF of its destruction of the central institutions of Palestinian national life, or his rejection of the possibility of dismantling any of the Jewish settlements that are now implanted throughout the West Bank. (He recently said that it is as unthinkable for him to remove even far-flung Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip as it is to turn over Tel Aviv to the Palestinians.) Instead, he reiterated his insistence on a lengthy transitional period before negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on permanent status can even begin. And in an important policy speech on December 4 in Hertzliya, he withdrew his earlier support of the “road map” for a two-state solution put forward by the “Quartet” of Russia, the US, the UN, and the European Union in favor of the much vaguer “vision” described by President Bush in his speech of June 24.
There is no prospect for a resumption of a peace process if Sharon returns as head of Israel’s next government and Arafat remains as the principal leader of the Palestinian Authority. A breakthrough in the stalemate will come only from a revived Israeli peace camp that succeeds in bringing to power a government committed to an immediate resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians and to the removal of most of the settlements.
Such a development on the Israeli side is likely to help bring to power a Palestinian leadership opposed to violence and prepared to make the compromises (primarily on the issues of the return of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem) that are essential for a peace agreement. As several recent polls have shown, a large Palestinian majority now supports an end to Palestinian terror attacks, even if it means taking on Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Both developments would become more likely if there were persuasive evidence of a new US determination to produce a road map for a peace process leading to Palestinian statehood, a map that would be clear about what constitutes a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. President Bush’s vague commitment to a two-state “vision” in his speech of June 24 failed to provide such clarification.
As I write, the road map is to be discussed by members of the Quartet when they meet in Washington on December 20. On the agenda are a number of amendments that would have provided this necessary clarification. Unfortunately, not only has the White House reportedly rejected these proposed amendments, it also has decided to put the entire effort to produce a road map on hold, at least until after January 28, the date of the Israeli elections. The White House also announced the appointment of Eliot Abrams as President Bush’s new National Security Council adviser for the Middle East. A prominent neoconservative, Abrams has long seen Palestinian national aspirations as essentially an anti-Jewish and terrorist enterprise. Such moves by the White House are inevitably seen by both Israel and the Palestinians as accommodations to Sharon’s electoral needs by President Bush, and diminish even further the chances of Amram Mitzna, the Labor Party’s candidate for prime minister, while discouraging Palestinians who seek to change the Palestinian leadership. That is why prospects for an end to Palestinian violence and Israeli counterviolence and for a renewal of a peace process in the foreseeable future remain as dim as they have ever been.
—December 18, 2002