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In the life of every prime minister, there comes a time when the needs of political survival overcome personal preferences. That's when he has to turn his back on election promises and become a practical statesman, one who examines his actions in terms of profit and loss. Ariel Sharon is no different than any of his predecessors.

In the face of zero achievements and growing public criticism, Sharon went to the only person who can lend him a hand - Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Sharon and his associates can describe their meeting with Abu Mazen, Abu Ala and Mohammed Rashid in a thousand evasive ways: "The discussion was not political," "It's a different leadership, not Arafat, who is irrelevant," "There was no progress." Nu, really?

The prime minister met with the senior political leadership of the other side, presented his political program, and agreed to formalize this channel for talks. It's true that there was no breakthrough, but why should there be such a thing at a first meeting following a year of no political negotiations?

The fundamental principle of the coalition government - no negotiations under fire, has long since been violated. Everyone talks, and everyone has his own Palestinian. Sharon, who favors secret diplomacy and personal emissaries, talks to Mohammed Rashid, Arafat's prompter. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres talks with his partner from the Oslo days, parliament speaker Abu Ala (Ahmed Qurei), Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer with the head of preventive security, Mohammed Dahlan. Avi Gil, director-general of the Foreign Ministry, meets with senior negotiator Saeb Erekat, and Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet security service, with his Palestinian counterparts. And as usual, the irreplaceable Yossi Ginosar, for whom Arafat's door is always open, is involved in all the channels.

A Likud politician explained yesterday that Sharon had no choice. Had he stuck to his refusal, he would have become irrelevant, while everyone else is talking or "seeking contact" with the other side, like President Katsav. The zig-zagging of the prime minister, who in an interview expresses regret for not killing Arafat in Beirut, and an hour later invites Arafat's close associates to dinner, is common in the Middle East. Egyptian President Mubarak also defamed Sharon, and then invited his political adviser to Cairo and met with his defense minister, the ostensible "alternative leadership" on the Israeli side.

So far as one can determine, the turning point for the prime minister was the discussion held in the White House about relations with the PA. Sharon expected President George W. Bush to sever the connection with Arafat and give Israel a green light to crush him. But Bush disappointed him. He gave Arafat one more last chance to mend his ways. The two sides involved were invited to Washington to present ideas for extricating themselves from the swamp. Sharon knew he had to present a dramatic turnabout, or else he would be pressured to give the Palestinians something without getting anything in exchange. He saw how the political horizon is darkening, and how Europe is awakening to action.

Sharon has shown little initiative until now, but he has demonstrated sharp political instincts, and an impressive ability to exploit situations for his own benefit. Tomorrow he will go to Washington as a winner. His relations with the U.S. administration are better than ever. His meeting with the Palestinians passed with virtually no criticism from the right, and he shot down the initiatives of Peres and Ben-Eliezer.

Everyone is talking to him - the Palestinians, the Egyptians and the Jordanians. He carries with him a clear plan for a long-term interim agreement. This week, it turned out that even Sharon knows how to be flexible. But the tactical change does not presage a profound strategic change in the fundamental positions of the prime minister, and anyone who expects Sharon to suddenly fall in love with Arafat, or to announce the evacuation of dozens of settlements, will be disappointed.

In the final analysis, it is hard for leaders to cut themselves off from what they have said. Even the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin turned his back on his election speeches, and conducted negotiations to return the Golan Heights to Syria, up to the line of Lake Kinneret, and at the moment of decision, he stepped on the brakes.