What's the choice?
One can demonstrate integrity in Israeli politics when you are the head of the Likud rebels. But what would Uzi Landau do if he were in power? How would he respond to the vision of a new Middle East espoused by an American president who depicts an Israeli beside a democratic Palestinian state "with territorial contiguity in the West Bank" - in other words, without settlements?
Let's assume Uzi Landau were prime minister. The polls would be outstanding with regard to his personal integrity and would not describe him as corrupt as they describe Ariel Sharon. One can demonstrate integrity in Israeli politics when you are the head of the Likud rebels. But what would Landau do if he were in power? How would he respond to the vision of a new Middle East espoused by an American president who depicts an Israeli beside a democratic Palestinian state "with territorial contiguity in the West Bank" - in other words, without settlements? Would Landau or Yisrael Katz or Avigdor Lieberman respond to Bush's speech by setting up more settlements? By refusing to talk to Mahmoud Abbas? By giving up American aid and political support? Or would they, like Sharon, line up with the interests of the superpower, Israel's only friend in the world?
The Israeli right suffers from selective hearing. Its people cheer when Bush calls for democracy in the Arab world or a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. They ignore all the clauses about Israel, even when Bush declares a solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute as the most burning issue on the international agenda. They prefer not to hear that. They forget that Israel is part of the Middle East, and that it also has to do its part to reshape it.
The stone Bush threw into the swamp two years ago by going to war in Iraq raised waves that swept over all the states in the region. Except for Saddam Hussein, who chose conflict with the Americans and political suicide, all the other leaders realized that it was not a good idea to mess around with Bush. Kaddafi gave up nuclear weapons, Abbas condemns terror, Mubarak promises elections, Assad moves troops into the Bekaa. They're all looking for discounts, for ways to survive at a minimum cost.
Sharon is no different. Only the demands of him are different. Israel is being asked to quit the territories to neutralize the excuse used by the West's enemies in the region, as Tony Blair has said. Sharon listened to Bush, and like the neighboring leaders, looked for the easiest punishment: withdrawal from Gaza. He hoped that afterward they'd leave him alone the way Assad is trying to sell a partial withdrawal from Lebanon. Sharon did not wait for the pressure from Washington, the way stubborn Mubarak and rejectionist Assad did. He initiated the disengagement on his own, and by doing so he won praise for his historic courage instead of threats and pressure.
Sharon had good domestic reasons to initiate the disengagement: the investigations, the nadir in his popular standing, the debate over the continuing war in the territories. But the truth is that he did not have a choice. The disengagement is part of the process that Bush initiated to change the region.
The Americans rightfully accepted Sharon's position that there should be no dialogue with Arafat the terrorist. Now, with Abbas in the Muqata, Israel has lost its exclusive standing in Washington. Sharon tried to head off these developments and strike a deal with Bush to leave the settlement blocs in Israeli hands.
The price Israel is paying for the new regional order is not the dismantling of the settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank, but the domestic shock caused by the disengagement, with the clash between Sharon and the settlers at the heart of it. This is a transitional period that will not end with the departure of the last settler from Gaza.
If Bush sticks to his line, and the regimes around Israel line up with the Americans and go through changes, Israel will be required to leave the West Bank and Golan Heights.
The settlers understand this and presumably so does Sharon, even when he turns right, like he did last week, promising that Hebron, Beit El and Shiloh will remain in Israel's hands. After all, just three years ago he was saying the exact same thing about Netzarim.