According to reports reaching Jerusalem from Israeli embassies in dozens of capitals, the entire world is cheering the prime minister for his painful concessions. The fact that he mentioned Beit El and Shilo in that context raised the hopes of many Israelis that the penny has also dropped for Ariel Sharon. Some of his political rivals on the left hurried to find a launching pad into the government due to Sharon's words. On the other side, his partners on the extreme right are in no hurry to hang up their ministerial suites. They wink and nudge, promising that all of Sharon's talk is bullshit.
Instead of playing with crossword puzzles over the holiday weekend, politicians and commentators were immersed in the intellectual exercise of deciphering Sharon's riddle. Is it possible the war in Iraq opened his eyes and he recognizes an opportunity to become part of the American effort to consolidate the moderate force of sin in the area? Has the fear of an open dispute with an extraordinarily friendly American president pushed Sharon into a corner? Is it possible the economic crisis has persuaded him that the occupation will lead to a disaster for the economy and society? Has Sharon begun paying attention to the forecasts that say he could end up being the last prime minister of a Jewish majority in the country?
It's a shame to waste time on assessments and guesses. A series of simple tests can prove whether this is a new Sharon or just a more sophisticated version of Yitzhak Shamir's "the sea is the same sea, and the Arabs are the same Arabs."
Thus, for example, to determine whether Sharon is indeed ready to evacuate Beit El, there's no need to wait for the road map's third stage, meaning the permanent status stage. The road map says "the government of Israel immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001." Among those outposts is a place that appears on a list of 24 "illegal outposts" as Beit El N.G. 857. This isn't from a Peace Now list, it's from a document that a team of Defense Ministry experts submitted last October 6 to the former defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.
Ever since the Mitchell Report demanded a freeze on settlement construction, the political echelon and IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon have been claiming that such a step would be translated by the Palestinians into a "prize for terror." It is difficult to believe that law-abiding people who make that argument mean that the proper way to respond to Arab outlaws is to legitimize (and protect and finance) Jewish outlaws. As long as Sharon doesn't take the risk of even tickling an evacuation of the gangs of criminals (who have been given the affectionate nickname "hilltop youths") from the Mt. Hebron area, he doesn't deserve any trust.
The second test is hidden in the security section of the road map, which demands Israel cease attacks on "Palestinian civilians." That's a euphemism for the assassination of suspected terrorists. It turns out the American administration has reached the conclusion that it's time to put an end to the vicious cycle of terror attack-assassination-terror attack-assassination-terror attack. According to the road map, that cycle will be replaced by security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with participation by "American security representatives." More than one cease-fire was broken before it could take hold as a result of civilians being killed during an Israeli attack on the latest wanted man. Therefore, haron's readiness to relinquish the "assassinations" and to give supervision over to an external agency will win him a high score on the peace test.
The third test waiting for U.S. President George W. Bush's plan can be found in Sharon's own words during his "Herzliya speech," another document that won the prime minister some credit in Israel and around the world. "The Bush framework will be brought to the government I intend to form, for discussion and approval," he promised on the eve of the elections. Since then, the Bush framework has been turned into the Quartet road map. The day Sharon brings the map to the cabinet for government approval, he'll have to choose between PA Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas or National Union MK Benny Elon. With his luck, PA Chairman Yasser Arafat will free him once again of the need to take the test.
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