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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

May 15, 2003

Sharon's Double Talk

Now you may be for or against this or that position when it comes to borders for the State of Israel, but this piece in The Washington Post makes the point that it is going to be difficult to take seriously what Sharon says--his position--if he does the same doublespeak as Arafat. That is, Sharon should make clear what his position is and stick to it.
In Oliver Stone's new HBO documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, Binyamin Netanyahu repeats what he has often said about Yasser Arafat: that he says one thing in English and another in Arabic. A different film might make a different point about Ariel Sharon: He says one thing in Hebrew and another thing in Hebrew.

Last month, for instance, Sharon explicitly showed that he understood that if Israelis and Palestinians are ever going to live in peace, some of the Jewish state's controversial West Bank and Gaza Strip settlements will have to be dismantled. Sharon characterized this as "painful concessions" that Israel would have to make under the "road map" toward the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. He referred specifically to two West Bank settlements.

"Our whole history is bound up with these places . . . Shiloh, Beit El," he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "And I know that we will have to part with some of these places. There will be a parting from places that are connected to the whole course of our history. As a Jew, this agonizes me."

The other day -- a different month, a different newspaper, the same language -- Sharon said something different to the Jerusalem Post. When asked whether Jews would continue to live in Shiloh and Beit El, he replied, "Do you see a possibility of Jews living under Arab sovereignty? I'm asking you, do you see that possibility?" A moment earlier he flat-out said about Beit El, "Jews will live there."

Was this an example of creeping Arafatism, or had Sharon merely misspoken the first time? The evidence is not clear -- he might have mentioned the two settlements only as offhand examples -- but his record on these matters is hardly ambiguous. Sharon is a builder of settlements, a proud Jewish nationalist and former soldier whose skepticism about Arab intentions has been amply vindicated by Arab actions -- or so it has always seemed to him.

I compare Sharon with Arafat for a reason -- not because they are in the least morally similar. But Arafat, too, has his constituency and his ideology and grandiose plans for a Greater Palestine that will somehow come true. Over the years, he has become the very personification of the Palestinian struggle -- a man with a single goal and at least nine lives.

Arafat must now share power with a newly created prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. Unlike Arafat, Abbas renounces terrorism in both English and Arabic. What's more, there's a new Palestinian finance minister, Salam Fayyad, and a new security chief, Mohammed Dahlan. None of them is Arafat's boy.

This power-sharing with Arafat came about because the United States, above all, insisted on it. Now the White House must do something similar with Sharon. It shouldn't treat him with anything near the contempt it did Arafat, but that does not mean that pressure cannot be applied or that President Bush could not go over Sharon's head to the Israeli people. A majority of Israelis, after all, have no love for the very settlements in question.

There are two reasons for Bush to act. The first is that the Arab world is looking for some sign that Washington is not merely Israel's proxy in the Middle East. The second reason -- more important than the first, to my mind -- is that Israel needs to be coaxed into doing what is best for Israel. The settlements, besides being a thorn in the side of the Palestinians and an insult to the Arab world, are also a burden to Israel. They have to be maintained. They have to be defended. In the long run this is untenable.

For Sharon, dismantling settlements would be painful. He needs some help. But so far Bush has mouthed nothing but mush about settlements or, for that matter, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general. Sharon acts as if he has the president in his pocket. Maybe he does.

Yet it's hard to imagine how Bush could be in a stronger position to influence Sharon. The president made one of Israel's implacable enemies, Saddam Hussein, disappear. He has shown his evident sympathy and admiration for the Jewish state. No one doubts where his heart is. It's his resolve that is now in question.

Bush has assured Colin Powell that he is serious about demanding concessions from Israel as well as the Palestinians. But so far there is no evidence of that. Instead, it seems the Middle East mumble -- the tendency to say one thing one day and quite another thing the next -- has now infected the Bush administration. Unless Bush weighs in, the road map will turn out to be a farce -- a sad process in which the end turns out to look tragically like the beginning.