What the eyes saw and the ears heard last Wednesday morning was hard to believe. U.S. President George W. Bush didn't have a word to say about relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Nary a word about the road map, or the "Bush initiative," or Palestinian terror or the separation fence. Less than a year ago, whenever the term "diplomatic process" was used, it referred to the same one thing. "Middle East peace" meant just one sort of peace. But nowadays Mars is more interesting to officials in Washington than street battles between Israelis and Palestinians; and, more often than not, the diplomatic process refers to post-war reconstruction in Iraq.
A new concept has taken root in the Bush administration's lexicon: "The Greater Middle East." This huge bloc appears to include Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran - in short, the redefined region encompasses all Arabs and Muslims, all "enemies of reform" (as Bush has put it), "and anyone who threatens U.S. security." Under this definition, there's little room left for the long-lived, little dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, or for Israel and the Arab world at large. That dispute is no more important than a conflict in (for instance) the two parts of Sudan. There wasn't enough room for everyone in Bush's state of the union speech.
From this point on, not only the current Palestinian leadership has become irrelevant to the diplomatic process: Bush, too, has stopped playing a relevant role in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In this peace process triangle, the third irrelevant factor is Ariel Sharon. There would appear to be no other dispute in the world in which the leaders of the rival countries, and also the main mediator (the world's superpower) have been declared to be incompetent to forge a solution. This is one of the few disputes in which the UN has no staying power, Europe has no right of entry, and the U.S. has no exit strategy. Each of the various leaders is trapped in his own besieged Muqata compound. One is in Ramallah, the second is in the White House, and the other is locked up within the State Prosecutor's Office.
Sharon started out with a promising idea for killing the diplomatic process: first of all the Palestinian leadership has to be replaced, he declared, and then they'll be something to talk about. That idea failed. The Palestinians came up with a new prime minister, and almost implemented reform. In parallel, Sharon declared all-out war on the terror infrastructure. Then came the hudna cease-fire; this was another failure. Finally, Sharon formulated the unilateral separation plan, only to find himself facing Jewish settlers who separated themselves from him.
Now, the ultimate solution has dropped down, as though from the heavens: suspicion of corruption, and perhaps an indictment. In terms of stifling process on a peace track, there's nothing like a legal case against a prime minister. The best thing is that it offers something to blame for the peace process impasse. There's State Prosecutor Edna Arbel, David Spector, David Appel - these are the folks who are obstructing a process which was, as it were, just about to be consummated. Were it not for the preoccupation with corruption (accusations which, of course, are unproven), deals could be worked out with Syria and Lebanon, with Hezbollah and Hamas.
Prime Minister Sharon has now received a writ of immunity from the State Prosecutor's Office. The note says: "My client is under investigation, and so he can reach no decisions regarding the location of the fence/ withdrawal from the Gaza Strip/ the dismantling of settlement outposts/ the separation plan."
Since Bush has to deal with elections, Iraq, the Greater Middle East, world democracy, freedom of expression and reforms - as befits an intellectual president who prefers one big
ideological dispute to a number of local conflicts - this is a period when the prime tenant of the Muqata in Ramallah can relax, and kick his feet up after a tough three years in his besieged compound. Apart from the fact that he could be about to see yet another Israeli prime minister leave the stage while he continues to hold the reins in the PA, Arafat is the only player at this point who can propose radical solutions without jeopardizing himself. Let's suppose that he'll decide to propose the annulment of the right of refugee return, or a concession about the holy places of Jerusalem, or the liquidation of Hamas. He can put any such idea of the new attorney general Menachem Mazuz, or of the interim chairman of Iraq's ruling council - these are the folks who will for some time ahead claim the attention of decision makers in Jerusalem and Washington.
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