Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had a reputation in his youth as someone who could read maps from the day he was born and who earned military accolades largely because of his exceptional ability to read the map of a battle while it was in progress, is now busy searching for stratagems with which to foil the American "road map" for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sharon and his advisers are currently drafting a formulation designed effectively to torpedo the American plan without making it appear as if that was their intention.
The first indications of the prime minister's intentions emerged last week, after he held a round of consultations: The media were full of reports and analyses that attacked the American document and found numerous flaws in it. The main message emanating from the prime minister's direction is that the "road map" is an illegitimate State Department version of U.S. President George Bush's speech: While the president insisted that a complete cessation of Palestinian terror must precede any diplomatic movement, the "road map" charts a course for Israeli-Palestinian talks that essentially boils down to conducting negotiations under fire.
The Prime Minister's Office also complains that the American paper includes the Saudi peace initiative, which was adopted by the Arab League summit in Beirut, in the basket of international documents (such as UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338) that are meant to form the basis of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The prime minister and his advisers argue that the Saudi initiative never received any international standing whatsoever, and in any case it represents the positions of only one party to the conflict and includes a demand for implementation of the right of return - a demand that Israel can never accept.
These objections are meant to create the background for the Israeli positions that will ultimately be presented to Washington, whether during the current visit to the region by Assistant Secretary of State William Burns or in subsequent talks.
The prime minister's associates did not make do with mere criticism of the American plan; they did not even hesitate - a week after Sharon's return from a congenial meeting with Bush, at which the American administration was asked to give Israel $10 billion in loan guarantees - to paint it in a scornful light and apply insulting adjectives to it ("amateurish," "negligent," "testimony to the confusion within the administration").
There is no doubt that since Sharon made his first public response to the "road map" ("I haven't had time to read it yet"), he has succeeded in studying it in-depth and in developing a strategy for how to deal with it: He is working to get it removed from the agenda and sent to wherever the Mitchell, Tenet and Zinni documents now reside.
From Sharon's point of view, his efforts to dissolve the American plan are completely justified. Ever since he took office, he has not lifted a finger to rescue the violent conflict from the bloody circle in which it is endlessly revolving and divert it instead to the path of diplomatic dialogue. Sharon has made do with a military response to vicious Palestinian terror and has avoided seizing any of the diplomatic opportunities that have periodically arisen (European, American, UN and even Arab initiatives) in order to transfer the conflict to the negotiating table. In so doing, the prime minister has taken full advantage of the destructive behavior of Yasser Arafat, who provided him with a plethora of excuses for reducing a conflict between two nations to the size of a target seen through the sights of a rifle. To satisfy public opinion, Sharon occasionally speaks in the voice of Jacob, but his hands are the hands of Esau: His actions prove that he does not want reconciliation between the two peoples, but rather the Palestinians' defeat.
The "road map" represents a worldview diametrically opposed to that of the prime minister: It is based on the assumption that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must end in compromise. The proposal therefore outlines a three-stage plan of action in which each side must take steps to meet the other's expectations. The spirit of the document calls for Israel and the Palestinians to abandon the violent conflict, agree to concessions whose goal is to rebuild mutual trust, and reach a peace agreement within three years based on the establishment of a Palestinian state and Palestinian recognition of Israel's right to exist. Sharon does not believe in the validity of this vision, and therefore he will work to bury the road map.
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