Prime Minister Ariel Sharon likes to be seen as being scornful of the media. He rarely gives interviews, only holds press conferences when abroad, and, unlike his predecessors, does not appear on the morning news shows as a commentator.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that Sharon does not know how to deal with the media. He prefers quiet and focused activity compared to burning out through overexposure, and favors electronic media over the press. On Fridays, Sharon briefs TV commentators on the popular weekend news shows. On weekdays, he regularly speaks with a radio reporter. And his efforts pay off. The media rarely criticize Sharon and reinforce his stature as a "statesmanlike" leader who does not trouble himself with insignificant matters and petty denials.
This tactic is typical of Sharon. It is sophisticated, and as effective as his ability to stay in power and to get along with U.S. President George W. Bush. Sharon also has consistent policy goals that are translated into a map of the security zones and settlements that he wants to retain in any future arrangement. Sharon's problem is that the war with the Palestinians, which he does not know how to end, is blocking the route from his political talents to his statesmanlike vision.
This week, Sharon set forth Israel's war aim: the unconditional surrender of the Palestinian side. In messages to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his friends in the Mideast Quartet, Sharon demanded that the Palestinians lay down their arms and their leader be removed as conditions for any diplomatic progress. He made it clear that the Israel Defense Forces will remain in the territories for a long time, and asked that the international community take care of aiding their inhabitants. The new IDF Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya'alon, set out a similar goal of preventing any achievements on the Palestinian side.
Are these goals realistic? The continuing closure in West Bank towns makes normal life possible in Israeli towns, but the Palestinians have not lost their will to fight and the closure will not last forever. And if Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat resigns or is forced out, who will guarantee that he will be replaced by a member of the Likud?
A senior cabinet minister recalled this week that former U.S. president Jimmy Carter reached the conclusion that the Shah of Iran was corrupt and must be replaced, "and that worked out well."
Regime changes in neighboring states have only increased Israel's alienation rather than advance the peace process. The only thing remaining from the hopes that Bashar Assad, the Internet user, would turn Syria into a peace-loving, Western, high-tech center, are the Syrian president's long hours at his Sony Playstation and his admiration for Hezbollah head Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who will not leave the government because it is hard to have any influence from the outside ("winners don't leave, and leavers don't win," he tells his aides), continues Israel's hide-and-seek with Arafat in his talks with the leader's representatives. Peres still believes that the very act of talking with the Palestinians will lead to miracles, improve Israel's economic situation and give rise in the territories to hope that will reduce the motivation for terror. Foreign diplomats hope that Sharon's inflexible positions are just another political maneuver: he will drive in the right-hand lane until the Likud chooses him for another term, and then turn left in order to capture centrist voters. In the meantime, the pressure on Israel to withdraw from the territories will increase.
The drop in the number of attacks, Bush's recent speech and the summer vacation have given Sharon a couple of months of breathing space during which he will attempt to take control of the Likud and force former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the sidelines. But even if the prime minister wins the party candidacy and starts promising the public that only Sharon can make the painful concessions for peace, it is hard to see any fundamental change in his strategy. In his uncompromising rhetoric against Arafat and against any talk of evacuating settlements, Sharon has made it impossible to back down, and has committed the country to fighting until victory. The confrontation is sure to continue for a long time, with a concomitant high economic and social price.
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