The fleeting headlines are deceptive. Those with historical memory, which is more prevalent among Arabs than Israelis, understand what made the change in recent weeks: the decisive Arab defeat by Western military power. By virtue of his unequivocal victory in Iraq, George Bush can force Ariel Sharon onto the political path.
Setting aside decades - and sometimes centuries - of old ephemeral frictions, like those between Egypt and Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and Syria and Lebanon, it's conventional to regard the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as "the heart of the Middle East conflict." Even so, no matter how critical, the heart is not the entire body. It might be the blood of the conflict, but the brain is the Israeli-Muslim conflict. Only an overall agreement between Israel and the Arab and Muslim states that refuse to accept it, can consolidate a solution to the dispute over the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River and thus heal the deeply rooted hostility between Israelis and Palestinians.
The chicken of conflict laid the egg of occupation. The hostility to Israel, which led to the 1967 war and its conquests, was perpetuated by the Arab illusion that the method is holier than the goal: "What was taken by force will be returned by force." The Israeli failure from 1970 to 1973 resulted from not understanding that what was not given to Anwar Sadat in negotiations would be returned through a combination of force and negotiations, a limited military achievement as a fulcrum for political negotiations. The Palestinian failure from 2000 to 2003 resulted from not understanding that they will not be able to take with force what they refused to accept in negotiations.
Formerly classified American documents reveal that coincidentally, on May 16, 1967, while the Egyptian army was moving into Sinai at the start of the crisis that changed the face of the region, a gloomy U.S. National Security Council document about the situation in the region was drawn up. The author, Harold Saunders, would become known as a supporting player in Henry Kissinger's cast after the Yom Kippur War. On the eve of the Six-Day War, summing up an official visit to the region, he reported that "among the Palestinians in the West Bank and Jordan there is no sign of acceptance of having lost their homes in Israel. `Don't make the mistake of thinking that time will solve the refugee problem,' I was told over and over again. `We were dealt an unjust blow. America must confirm that our rights were violated. President Johnson is a just man, he will help.' The most bitter of the refugees are joining the ranks of the PLO and sent on sabotage missions to Israel by the Fatah terror organization, but even the most prosperous of the Palestinians say they will never forget."
Then-prime minister Levi Eshkol and then-chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, like their predecessors and those who followed, told Saunders that "the limited use of force is perhaps the best way to rebuff the terror." He heard from the Syrians that "their strategy is to embitter life in Israel through terror, until the immigration to Israel ends and the emigration away begins. Officially, they deny responsibility for the terror. They regard us as responsible for every Israeli move, and with a certain degree of contradiction, believe `the Zionists have a veto power over presidential policy.'"
On Israel's needs map, the prime minister can lose a battle for a political hilltop but not the campaign for Washington. Obedience to dictates, resulting from the necessity of cooperation with the White House, is preferable to an open clash, which erodes Israeli power in terms of weapons, money and influence in the world.
In the army, Sharon strove to become chief of staff and failed. In politics, he finally succeeded in making it to the Prime Minister's Office. He always scorned those above him, those who held the seat he believed he deserved. There's only one person, whose role is denied Sharon by virtue of his birth, whom he learned to fear. In Iraq, Bush changed the Middle East. According to the most senior of his generals, Richard Meyers, the U.S. Army will remain in Iraq "between seven months and seven years."
For Israel, those could and should be seven good years to achieve peace and security. The Israeli public and the American president will combine forces to send into retirement any prime minister who doesn't understand that. Sharon appears to have understood it this week - in his own difficult way.
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