The effort to get Ariel Sharon together with Mahmoud Abbas makes more evident than anything which side lost the five-year war. Even when they finally do meet, the situation will be reminiscent of a driver encountering a beggar at the red light, more than a working discussion between two leaders of equal stature.
The disengagement and the "end of the occupation of Gaza" changed nothing. Abbas and his people are once again appearing meekly before Sharon, with a list of requests that is already boring to report on. Prisoners, towns, checkpoints, wanted men. Give me, give me, the Palestinian Authority chairman pleads, and in Israel they're "checking" the matter, promising "measures" mostly to please the Americans. After months of examination, this week the defense establishment agreed that Egypt would provide some boxes of ammunition to the Palestinians, and that was only approved so Gen. William Ward would stop bothering Shaul Mofaz.
Sharon and his court were right in their assessment that the disengagement would be the kiss of death for the Palestinian Authority. That the old saying "Take Gaza and choke on it" would come true and Abbas would fail the test of responsibility for the liberated territory. Arafat's death denied them the symbol of their struggle. The Iraqi morass, the spiraling price of petroleum and the natural disasters have totally diverted American attention, and European leaders are sunk in their own political problems. Nobody has any patience right now for tiresome complaints against the occupation, fence and checkpoints.
Israel defeated the Palestinians and now, drunk with victory, is dictating the arrangements. But the Prime Minister's Office has forgotten one thing. They forgot that successful wars end with the generosity of victors, and that humiliating a defeated enemy only sows the seeds of the next war. At Rehov Kaplan 3 in Tel Aviv, they refer to the senior members of the Palestinian Authority as "aluvim," which means something between pathetic and les miserables. And they appear to be right, given the PA's problems in functioning. But is that really any reason to cheer? Is it in the Israeli interest that there be chaos beyond the fence, that kidnappings and assassinations be the law and order?
Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is sick. It is marked by a patronizing and particularly shortsighted view. Behind closed doors, Sharon backed down from the defense minister's public threats at the leaders of Hamas, but his public scorn for "Arabs" is no less flagrant. Let's say that Abbas and his admirers on the Israeli left are wrong in hanging the success of his regime on how many prisoners are released and how long they have been in Israeli prisons, or in how many Kalashnikov bullets the PA receives. That doesn't absolve Israel from offering an alternative, instead of making the Palestinian Authority die of starvation.
Sharon has to decide if Abbas is a partner or a nudnik, a leader or a doormat, and to behave accordingly. How does Israel gain from presenting him as a weakling, as a nothing? Sharon can no longer hide behind "problems in public opinion," "opposition from the defense establishment" or "President Moshe Katsav's refusal to issue clemencies." Those excuses fit the past. Someone who evacuates 25 settlements and defeats Benjamin Netanyahu, and whose courage is cheered by the leaders of the world, can and must show daring in his attitude toward the Palestinian Authority.
The disintegration of the PA might retroactively justify Sharon's opposition to the Oslo Accords and put off the threatening final arrangement. It might even minimize the international opposition to the building of the fence and the settlements inside the West Bank. But it will leave Israel with a huge and threatening black hole on the other side, and it is doubtful that is what the country needs. It is time for different thinking, daring and farsighted, with regard to the Palestinians.
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