The prime minister doesn't understand why good Jews refuse to believe he really has changed and that if only Yasser Arafat were to stop the terror, he would discover an Ariel Sharon who is serious about offering painful concessions to the Palestinians. Since many Israelis, including senior ministers in Sharon's party, have never seen any new peace plan, it's no wonder that the Palestinians aren't ready to accept lip service. Just as we are no longer thrilled by an Arafat declaration about a cease-fire, so have the Palestinians lost their faith in Sharon's promises.
In the near or foreseeable future, there is no chance that the sides will agree with each other on anything. Israel will not get security without real steps on the ground indicating it means to end the occupation. And the Palestinians won't get any more land without real steps showing that they intend to end the violence.
The main obstacle in the way of Anthony Zinni's mission that neither member of the odd couple is ready to be the first to move from words to deeds, before his rival announces surrender. Neither leader can afford to admit that after thousands of casualties and billions of dollars, he took his people back to the same place they were 18 months ago. Sharon wants to prove to the Palestinians that violence doesn't pay - and to Israelis, that his determination paid off. Arafat wants to show the Palestinians that the violence was not a mistake - and that his determination paid off.
Their last refuge from the abyss is to mutually declare victory. Victors can afford to be generous to the vanquished. The key to victory is at the Beirut summit later this week. For his part, Arafat could declare to his people that the victims did not die in vain. He can claim credit that for the first time, all the Arab leaders moved from lip service to action for the Palestinians. In exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state and justice for the refugees, they are offering Israel the highest possible price - "normal peaceful relations."
Sharon could also justifiably turn the Beirut declarations into a declaration of victory. No Israeli leader ever managed to pry such a decision out of the Arab League. The prime minister will be able to claim that historic achievement was the result of his refusal to surrender to terror and negotiate under fire.
The day after the Beirut declaration, right after they declare their victories and shake off the last of their worries about prestige, Arafat and Sharon will have to start taking action. Arafat will take steps showing he is backing away from terrorism. At the same time, Sharon could start a process making credible his promises to offer "painful concessions." He could start by giving up the settlements in Gaza. The only pain would be the headache he'd have from the extreme right wing and Benjamin Netanyhu, but they already complain about him.
How many Israelis would feel pain if Sharon announced after the summit that as a gesture to the Arab world and in exchange for the arrest of wanted men considered "ticking bombs," Israel would evacuate Netzarim? Fifteen soldiers have died and 34 were wounded since the start of the intifada in the direct defense of the 40 families holed up in the lonely settlement. In a 1994 Knesset debate over the possibility of evacuating Netzarim, then foreign minister Shimon Peres said the cost of protecting the settlement in "normal" circumstances was NIS 15 million a year - NIS 20.5 million today. Then it was a company and a half. Now it's two and a half companies. With what the IDF would save over three years, each of the families that come home could be generously compensated to the tune of NIS 1.5 million a piece.
There is no peace plan that does not include a total withdrawal from Gaza. The settlements in the Strip long ago turned from being "bargaining chips" to a trap. It's time to declare victory and get out. It won't even hurt.
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