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If we were to rely on the statements of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, we might assume their voyages to Washington were a big success story. Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin said yesterday on Israel Radio that Ariel Sharon briefed him about his talk with President Bush, and stressed that the two states are in perfect agreement.

Speaking into microphones, Ben-Eliezer declared that Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are more out-spoken and extreme than he on Yasser Arafat and how he should be handled. Pleased as can be, both return to a country which licks its wounds anew every day.

Whatever sympathy the Bush administration has toward Israel's agonies offers little consolation, since the administration is neither removing nor easing those woes. Just like the Sharon government, the United States appears confused by the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off, and is unable to define a goal which it wants to attain. Clearly, understandings between Israel and the U.S. are not to be belittled, but given the circumstances which Israel currently faces, such understandings constitute a diplomatic achievement which misses the mark. Israel needs leadership today which can extricate the country from its current situation, whereas Washington's shows of support are a stamp of approval for the policy adopted by Israel's current government.

A year ago, when Ariel Sharon took power, he hoped to vanquish the intifada quickly. His public statements reinforced this hope. Soon enough, however, he learned that this presumptuous goal was out of reach. The Israel Defense Forces didn't operate as he had hoped - it turned out he had to operate with great caution in the international arena, and the domestic political front also turned out to be full of land mines.

Sharon abandoned the goal of quelling Palestinian violence in one stroke, and adopted instead a tactic of enforcing a prolonged siege. This was not only an operational change, it was also a conceptual turnabout. Rather than trying to end the crisis (by force or a diplomatic agreement) Sharon chose to manage it, while recognizing that the current situation will last a long time. The public rhetoric reflected this private change of thought - Sharon stopped talking about "peace and security," and instead spoke about "determination and persistence."

That is the outlook he holds today. The Prime Minister runs the country with the expectation that bloodshed, malaise and economic stagnation of the last year and a half will last for some unlimited period. It does not appear he wants to change the situation. The same can be said of the Defense Minister - Ben-Eliezer accepts the armed conflict with the Palestinians as though it is decreed from on high.

Both appear arrogant - neither hesitates to scold anyone who dares to complain about the situation and criticize government policy. Sharon attacks anyone who claims that "everything is collapsing" and he warns about demoralizing the public. Ben-Eliezer believes the state is jumping for joy. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is the only one who appears to have a formula to change the situation, but he is perceived as a minister who is detached from reality and who lacks influence. Peres is deterred from explicitly proposing an antidote that might extricate the state from the muddle.

Neither a moderate change in the character of the Israeli conquest (as Shimon Peres proposes), nor a cunning formulation of the Palestinian position on the right of refugee return (as Arafat and Muhammad Dahlan now propose) will truly change the situation. If the two peoples are to saved from more bloodshed, they must reach two decisions - Israel needs a leader who recognizes the truth about the conquest, and has the ability to persuade the public that the best course is to abandon totally the dream of holding the lands of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians need a leader who will persuade them to relinquish entirely the dream of a right of return - not due to consideration for the state of Israel's demographic needs, but rather as a national decision reflecting willingness to pay the price needed to attain independence, and rid themselves of the Israeli conquest. It seems that Sharon's and Ben Eliezer's trips to the U.S. have not done anything to promote the change that is required.