Ariel Sharon has wisely decided to bring his plan to ease pressure on the Palestinian Authority in areas where quiet reigns to the cabinet for approval today. He thus joins the game of pretend of which Yasser Arafat and the U.S. Administration are already a part.
Under the current circumstances joining in this masquerade is a necessary evil - although this does not exempt Israeli leaders or the public from examining the difficult alternatives, as the time to decide between them is drawing ever closer. Reality necessitates this interim move because of the conditions that have arisen after last month's terror attacks on the U.S., Israel has no choice but to meet American expectations and to sit on the sidelines while the U.S. bombs Afghanistan. In the pressure, Washington has cultivated an agreed lie - Arafat makes all the right noises of someone who is battling terrorism, President Bush and his men say that his efforts are bearing fruit, and the government in Jerusalem has no choice but to pick up the ball.
The let's pretend that has been created covers an ugly reality - nothing really ever changes. Arafat is not taking any real measures to disband the terror infrastructure; the U.S. is turning a blind eye to the continuing violence by the Palestinians, though quick to reward Arafat with rave reviews; Israel continues with its own targetted retaliatory attacks, some rather severe, while mentioning that it is prepared to ease restrictions on the Palestinians.
This game of shadows will continue, most probably, for some time until a local event - such as a large-scale terror attack or a disproportionate Israeli response - will break its rules, or until the current stage of the American military operation in Afghanistan ends. In either case, that day when Israel will have to define its goal in the conflict with the Palestinians is not far off. There are apparently four main alternatives:
1. An agreement based on a full withdrawal from the territories and the division of Jerusalem, in the spirit of proposals made by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak last year and in coordination with the plan currently coming together in the Bush Administration. The latent dangers of this solution are in Israel lending a hand to the establishment of a hostile state right next to it, one that will not hide its desire to control all of Israel. In addition, experience shows this alternative will not manage to secure a Palestinian renunciation of a right to return and of areas in East Jerusalem where Israeli neighborhoods were set up after the Six Day War. The latest intifada has also proved that the security arrangements discussed during the Barak reign of government are irrelevant.
2. Hold onto the territories, claiming that the PA is not a partner for dialogue at the moment and that its strategy continues to concentrate on terrorism to pressure Israel into accepting its position. It is almost pointless to discuss the dangers and failures of this option, these are valid sevenfold in the scenario that aims to reconquer those territories that Israel withdrew from under the Oslo Agreements.
3. Unilateral separation. Its drawbacks: it will not end the conflict, and even creates the conditions for an significant increase in the military might of the Palestinian state, which will probably see some action against Israel. This option does not increase Israel's ability to respond militarily to Palestinian attacks (which will continue because this option leaves a number of sensitive issues unsolved).
4. An interim agreement that will turn the lessons of the failure of Oslo into practical language and will lead to a withdrawal in stages in exchange for changes in Palestinian perception and behavior in a manner that will create trust on both sides. The landmine that emerges from this solution: it is based on wishful-thinking and does not take the expectations on both sides into account, their commitment to their basic positions and the political situation of their leaders.
An interim conclusion - the more the situation seems hopeless, the more a change of leaders on both sides is the key to any change of hearts. This would lead to a solution based on the end of the occupation in return for Palestinian acceptance of Israel's existence within secure and recognized borders.
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