Hitching a Ride on Success

Ariel Sharon does not always tell the truth. But as a tactician, there is no one who understands better than he that now is the time to hitch a ride on the historic victory of the United States.

It doesn't really matter if the new views of the prime minister, which have made waves around the world, are the honest truth or uttered with a wink. The very fact that he has articulated them is an act of bravery considering the problematic home crowd sitting in the bleachers.

Whether he meant what he said is not important. Anyone who publicly accepts Bush's vision, accepts, in principle, withdrawal to Israel's 1967 borders, with some adjustments, plus the establishment of a Palestinian state. He meant it; he didn't mean it - it makes no difference. The moment he said it, it's a fact.

And the Likud didn't even fall down. Silvan Shalom may have informed Colin Powell that we don't have the kind of government that can give America what it wants. But he happens to be wrong. Recently, Mitzna gave an interview to Sima Kadmon in which he declared that "only Sharon can do it."

He even volunteered to join a government that implements Sharon's new policies. And for good reason. Sharon's "Bush speech" is a black-on-white death certificate for right-wing ideology.

What has changed is not Sharon, but the situation. If we had asked ourselves, a year or two ago, what the optimal conditions would be for boosting the economy, improving the quality of life and making Israel safer, this would be our wish list: the end of the strategic threat looming over Israel; an Arab world convinced that Israel will never be driven out by terror; an Arab world united in the desire for peace; an irrelevant Arafat; both sides declaring themselves sick and tired of mutual bloodshed; an America interested in and capable of steering the sides toward an agreement; and last but not least, international willingness to come up with the big bucks to implement all of the above.

And there you are: One morning it's all sitting on our doorstep. The phrase "window of opportunity" has become so old hat, I don't even want to repeat it. But the American victory in Iraq has created a chain of events that can change the situation - if we want it to change, and we are brave enough.

The big story is that America is sitting in the capital of an Arab country that terrorized the whole region, yet none of the Arabs have severed their ties with the United States. The absolute dominance of America has become a dramatic and uncontestable fact. The leaders of Europe are now standing in line to beg Bush's forgiveness.

That the Saddam regime collapsed like a house of cards within three weeks is not just an episode. It's a historical event. And I wouldn't be too impressed by the protests against America's presence. The United States is not about to leave until there is an organized administration in place, that will not pose a danger to Iraq's neighbors.

The superiority of America's military might has been proven without a doubt, and terror has been declared the target, with no right to exist. From our standpoint, this is all very positive. The Arab countries now know that Israel is an ally of America, and we're here for good.

In that respect, this is a new era for Israel: All the Arab countries around it have been weakened, especially those regarded as a strategic threat. After Iraq, Syria has been whacked across the knuckles with a ruler and shown a yellow card. Iran, branded the third leg of the axis of evil, is bound to be more cautious now. In the Palestinian Authority, a campaign is under way to neutralize Arafat altogether, now that the Palestinians have realized that their salvation will not come from terror and America represents their last hope.

We have entered a new era that will allow for a change of priorities in this country. It will be possible to slash the defense budget, to call off projects meant to fight dangers that no longer exist, to channel these resources into developing the country and getting the economy back on its feet.

From now on, the test will be one of leadership. America will not exert pressure on Israel. But we must accept the assistance and mediation services it offers. Turning America down is to risk being thrown into the European lions' den, which is not a very good place to be.

Sharon has said the right things at the right time. But he will be tested by his actions: bringing the Labor party into the government to head off a situation in which the National Religious Party and National Union walk out; accepting and complying with the demands to dismantle settlements in order to prove that Israel means business; helping Abu Mazen crack down on the terror which has distanced the Palestinians from their dream of a state and turned Israel into a country of extremists skeptical of the idea that the two peoples can ever live in peace.

Sharon does not always tell the truth. But as a tactician, there is no one who understands better than he that now is the time to hitch a ride on the historic victory of the United States.