Before becoming prime minister, Ariel Sharon acted like the shepherd boy who cried "Wolf!" so often that everyone finally stopped taking him seriously. For decades, he climbed every jabla, from the banks of the Suez Canal to the rocky terraces of Nablus and all the way to Tyre and Sidon, and warned of the existential danger of withdrawing from each of them. Since becoming prime minister, Sharon has replaced his cry of "Wolf, wolf!" with the false promise of "Lamb, lamb!" - which is greeted with the same rising mistrust.
Indeed, almost every week, and especially when he anticipates some form of personal embarrassment, Sharon lets fly with a new diversionary spin, which stays aloft for three days, promising both moderation, good faith and something the public can sink its teeth into - a prisoner exchange deal, some sort of "plan," a ground breaking trip, a festive speech, a new assurance. He has suddenly found the way to fight terrorism; the political breakthrough is just around the corner; the great conceptual revolution is here. But how many times have we counted to ten without anything happening?
How long will he go on deceiving the naive? Why should we believe his declaration this week about the evacuation of the Gaza Strip settlements, or put out trust in it? He has been wrong and led us astray so often, for so many years and on such a grandiose scale, that even now, as he changes direction, we have no guarantee that this isn't the same old behavior, based on the same distorted reading of reality, with the same shortsighted manipulation.
The thing is, though, that Sharon has taken suspension of disbelief to such a high level of frequency that it has become little short of an addiction. To refuel it, he needs ever larger doses of the stimulus and reaction drug, in terms of both the scale of the diversion and the holy rage in the light of the doubts and disbelief. Really, it is conceivable that there "is a connection" between the sum total of the political, economic and security failure of his government, and the diversionary tactic known as the "prisoner exchange deal"?
Is it imaginable that there "is a connection" between his bureau's orchestrated offensive against the state prosecutor, Edna Arbel - on the grounds that "the state prosecution is left-wing" - and the sudden enlightenment of outflanking Yossi Beilin from the left and unilaterally conceding all the settlements in the Gaza Strip. And this happens exactly in the week of the interrogation, of all weeks, of all wasted years?
Is it believable that Sharon should suddenly jettison his entire heritage, strengthen Hezbollah with a dubious deal and encourage Hamas with a declaration of withdrawal, merely to gain another week of survival? Is such a transparent, clumsy, crass spin possible? Well, the experience of the past three years shows that when it comes to Sharon, everything is possible. At least until the opposite hasn't been proved - in practice, in deeds. And it hasn't been proved.
There are some who take consolation in the notion that even if Sharon is continuing to throw sand in our eyes, "from not for its own sake, he will arrive at the stage of doing the deed for its sake" - in other words, he will bring about a solution irrespective of his motives. Yet even now, as the media pounces on the "withdrawal" simulation as though it were the real thing, it's enough to glance at the "Gaza evacuation package" that Sharon has thrown our way in order to suspect that, like all its predecessors, it contains "bird seed."
Like the "fence project," like the "road map," like the "operations" against the Palestinian Authority, this time, too, everything is bundled together hastily, without cooperation or consultation. It blocks options more than creates them, lacks comprehensive thought and is fraught with the same old brutal alienation - demonstratively devoid of dialogue - in regard to the Palestinians themselves.
Very quickly, as in a dubious epilogue, the small print is discovered - "no one is talking about one day to the next"; in the meantime all I have done is "instruct" officials "that planning begin," that "a draft be drawn up." And it's all contingent on "agreement with the settlers" and the agreement of the Americans and the agreement of Gila Gamliel.
And, if not, then in a unity government; or elections; or a referendum - whichever takes the longest. And in the meantime, the only movement on the ground is the injection of more budgets into the settlements, as compensation for the mere notion of a withdrawal.
Thrilled as we may be that Sharon has at last (again) seen the light, it's worth remembering what became of previous enlightenments. Joyful as we may be that he has seemingly made the longed-for "Israeli decision" - the one that relates to our actual lives and not to some rhetoric he calls "Jewish" - we would do well to remember all his pretty speeches and solemn promises, which evaporated and were neutralized even before dawn broke over them.
Even if Sharon's remarks this week - "we must see to the future, to reducing the number of casualties, to economic rehabilitation, to creating conditions for existence and productive work here, and I will do it" - may make us want to get up and shake his hand with feeling. Just make sure you count your fingers afterward.
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