With the opening of the winter session of the Knesset this coming Monday, a new Ariel Sharon will take the podium, a Sharon who made the ideological transformation from a man of war to a man of peace. Above all, the man at the podium will be the person who foiled the plot by extremists in his party to topple him from power for the sin of the disengagement. He will deliver his state of the state speech with the new status of King of Israel. Or at least he is in the eyes of the majority of the public that believes that maybe, just maybe, he will be elected the leader of his party and its candidate for prime minister in the primaries, and will continue leading the country to an agreement with the Palestinians.
Disengagement opponents are convinced that they have been proven right. Look, they say, only 10 weeks have passed since Gaza was evacuated and the intifada is back. Terror attacks, alerts, targeted assassinations and retaliations, it's all as if nothing happened. If 10 weeks after the gesture that Sharon granted to the Palestinian Authority by leaving Gaza the terror is slowly creeping back, what will things be like in another few months? Will they shell our cities and settlements in the territories; will the mass suicide bombings resume, like the one in Hadera this week?
In his speech to the opening of the Knesset's winter session, Sharon will have the opportunity to lay out the basis for his policies until the 2006 elections - and perhaps after them. Will he be tempted to respond with force against force, or will he continue on the path of dialogue, understandings and painful concessions?
I don't know in advance what notes he's made in his little orange notebook. But I do know what I would expect him to say in the Knesset plenum: that the disengagement was a move that contributed both in value and practice toward a breakthrough in the direction of an agreement. It's no accident that President George Bush and the heads of the Quartet welcomed it, regarding it as a positive step toward lowering the flames of worldwide Islamic terror.
Regrettably, Sharon can say that the other side has not met the expectations for ceasing terror and disarming the organizations. I would expect him to say here that we must not fall into the trap laid by the extremist organizations and be dragged into escalatory reactions. After all, they want to prove that just as terror got us out of Gaza, it will drive us back to the `67 lines.1 It's not easy to preach restraint during this week of terror. But in the era of moving toward negotiations, the political echelon must stand up to the pressures from a military establishment that demands escalating our forceful reactions, and instead use a pair of tweezers on the Palestinians. "With military sensitivity and an ongoing political initiative."
The experience of a generation of blood-soaked battling against terror may have made the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians miserable, but it has not brought us victory. It's no accident that the general with a reputation of decades of fighting Palestinian terror, is the one who reached the conclusion that an agreement will be reached only by giving up the dream of the Greater Land of Israel and the continued rule over another nation.
Our expectation that immediately after the Gaza withdrawal, the terror would stop was naive. Terror is part of the domestic struggle between Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the PA's leadership, which will sooner or later be decided by both internal and international pressure.
In this transition period between the disengagement and the implementation of the road map, the government must display more empathy toward the Palestinians. The return to limits on their transportation, checkpoints and passages is less effective than generosity. I would expect Sharon to say that Israel must not fall into the trap of the extremists on the other side, provoking us into an escalatory response.
Israel needs patience and a view to the further horizon. Palestinian society, due to its poverty and distress, will eventually be forced to impose its authority over its extremists. Although in the immediate calculation there are winds of disappointment among us, Sharon can sum up his political speech by saying that the future will prove that Israel's disengagement initiative was justified and eventually will lead to a far-reaching historic change.
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