Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is conducting his half of the Palestine-Israel war with a frenzy that could be described as characteristic of a Liebermanic-depressive: saber-rattling bragging alternating with depressed sober-mindedness.
Sharon's retreat from his demand for a week of calm as a precondition for implementation of a truce reflects a recognition of the thinness of the shell covering the boiling lava of the Israeli public, which is ready, if it can only be shown the tip of a sprig in a dove's beak, to nurture the hope that the deluge can be ended. The fall of the Sharon line indicates that a new Arab edition of the Anwar Sadat initiative, supported by the American administration, could produce an Israeli majority that would support a major compromise and which would thus oppose a fanatic regime controlled by the rightist parties that perpetuates war.
A fear of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Trojan horse in the government is National Infrastructures Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is fueling Sharon's moves. However, the moment the prospect of progress along the diplomatic track and an end to the killing on both sides bubbles to the surface, the weight of that fear diminishes in the face of the opposing forces. Sharon's office is already preparing a public-relations response to Netanyahu: under Netanyahu, there were fewer terrorist attacks, but only because he capitulated to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and let him build up the reservoir of terror that has been activated since September 2000; the rifle firing shots at Israelis in the Sharon era was mounted on the wall during Netanyahu's regime. This argument has a solid factual basis; however, Sharon has no right to use it - because he was Netanyahu's foreign minister and his full-fledged partner, even in Netanyahu's concessions at the Wye conference.
A prominent Labor politician estimated, a short while before U.S. President George W. Bush's decision to renew the mission of Middle East peace envoy Anthony Zinni, that a combination of diplomatic and political factors would force Sharon to moderate his stance. According to that politician's assessment, Sharon would partially respond to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's request and allow Arafat to travel to participate in a tripartite - Egyptian-Palestinian-Israeli - meeting. Sharon himself would refrain from attending, but would meet separately with Mubarak, while Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer would represent Israel at the tripartite gathering. Sharon does not want Labor to leave his cabinet, and the party's decision to quit no longer depends on Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Together with Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh, Labor chief Ben-Eliezer controls some 60 percent of the votes in the party's central committee, and thus has the ability to determine when the national unity government should fall apart.
A certain degree of diplomatic progress would placate Ben-Eliezer, who has become the civilian arm of the moderate school of thought in both the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet internal security service, and is thus a counterbalance to Sharon and IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz. A certain degree of diplomatic progress would also signal that, in the next elections, Labor, together with leftist and centrist parties, could create a majority that could thwart the progress of a Netanyahu-led Likud allied with the radical right and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.
To fuel that progress and these considerations, what is needed is an Arab - not a Palestinian - initiative, until the emergence of a moderate Palestinian leadership that would force internal opponents to accept a peace treaty with Israel. Israel's responses to the Saudi peace plan prove how little is needed to rekindle hopes.
The Palestinian-Israeli equation is insoluble if the components are left to their own devices. What is needed is a more complex series of Arab-Israeli-world-power equations. A third party would absorb the refugees, a fourth would provide the funding, a fifth would offer military support. This is how Bush's father in 1991 created his broad alliance against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein: an American fighting force, a Saudi base of support, Egyptian-Syrian representation, Kuwaiti and Japanese funding and Soviet consent. Bush Sr. was also proven right in his setting in motion a multi-party channel for the Madrid talks: the detour from Madrid to Oslo failed because of the bilateral nature of the Israel-Palestinian contacts.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah two weeks ago instructed the Islamic Development Bank to transfer $50 million to the Palestinian Authority. This is small change. If Abdullah really wants his plan - which has yet to be born - to succeed, Saudi Arabia should provide Egypt with billions of dollars to settle Palestinians in Sinai (only one of many examples). Faced with Arab willingness for a true, lasting peace, the Israelis would throw out of office anyone who would dare oppose that initiative.
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