Text size

True, it's difficult to relate seriously to a peace plan proposed by a defense minister who serves in a government whose prime minister has declared that the same law applies both to Netzarim and to Tel Aviv. It is, nonetheless, interesting to note that the wrath of heaven did not come down on Benjamin Ben-Eliezer after he repackaged former prime minister Ehud Barak's proposal to include the Muslim states and the United Nations in the control of Jerusalem's "holy basin."

Positive responses to the Saudi peace initiative and the consistent support for a Palestinian state in most areas of the West Bank (as indicated in poll results) point to a deep-rooted trend. A survey conducted in the territories by Dr. Halil Shkaki at the end of Operation Defensive Shield indicates that hatred and lust for revenge have not blinded residents: Two-thirds of the Palestinians support the Saudi initiative, while some 70 percent favor reconciliation with Israel, after they attain a state of their own.

A U.S. official who has been involved with the peace process for several years aptly described this odd situation in which there is a willingness to compromise despite the violence: "All of us know what the light at the end of the tunnel looks like. Our problem is how to put [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon into the tunnel with [PA Chairman Yasser] Arafat."

Those who know Palestinian society well feel that it has no figure more amenable than Arafat who could be accepted by it. They warn about the anarchy that will reign after it becomes clear that the "reform" demanded by Sharon turns out to be nothing other than a plan to get rid of Arafat. This anarchy, they predict, will make people long for Arafat.

In his book, "Oslo: A Formula for Peace," Dr. Yair Hirschfeld, who conducted early contacts in the Oslo process, rejects the assumption that a different Palestinian leadership would embrace a tactic other than the one Arafat has chosen. Two years ago, Hirschfeld warned: "Developments such as the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas grabbing power are liable to lead to a change in the persons who hold the steering wheel, but not to a change in the system."

And yet in Washington, as well as in Cairo and Riyadh, officials have concluded that there is no force or compelling argument that will persuade Sharon to get into the same tunnel with Arafat. On the other hand, abandoning the stage and giving free play to terror and reprisals to terror strikes might turn out the light in the tunnel.

Once the dismal state of the Labor party - the alternative to Sharon - is added to the equation, there is no option left other than to build the prime minister a tunnel that bypasses Arafat. In fact, this is the approach that is

currently guiding a plan in the works at the U.S. National Security Council in Washington. Under this plan, Sharon will not have to exchange a single word about a permanent status accord with Arafat.

The plan's main principle has been relayed to the Palestinians via U.S. President George W. Bush's remarks about a Palestinian state, and decisions reached by the National Security Council as a result of Bush's vision. The current Sharon government will only be asked to honor agreements that Israel has signed - from the Wye accord, which stipulated a timetable for the carrying out of "phased" withdrawals, and up to the Mitchell Report, which entails the redeployment of Israel Defense Forces troops to positions they held before the outbreak of the intifada.

American, Egyptian and Saudi officials concur that the vision of a Palestinian state and of normalization between Israel and its neighbors can materialize only after the Sharon government is replaced by a leadership that draws a distinction between Tel Aviv and Netzarim, and acts on the basis of this difference. It is also clear to all these officials that changes must be made in the Palestinian security apparatus, if Israel's public is to believe that it has a credible Palestinian partner.

European officials agree that funds that their countries funnel into the territories in order to prove that peace reaps dividends should reach every home, and not just residents of villas in Ramallah. According to the Sharon-Arafat bypass plan, supervision of the implementation of reforms will be handled by outside parties.

There is nothing to do now but to wait for Bush's decision, and to see whether the U.S. president is prepared to risk taking a peek or two into the tunnel, before progress is made toward the light.