To Optimism and Back

When you see good signs here, watch out. Like the panic seasons, the moments of good cheer pop up and pass much too fast. A sort of calm suddenly spreads through the body of the nation. The chorus of the new Middle East is playing again after the American victory.

When you see good signs here, watch out. Like the panic seasons, the moments of good cheer pop up and pass much too fast. A sort of calm suddenly spreads through the body of the nation. The chorus of the new Middle East is playing again after the American victory. The Israelis have thrown away the plastic and are filling Ben-Gurion Airport and the hiking trails of the north. The wonderful weather is tidings of spring, in more than one way. The stock market rose by nearly a third in the last two months. Huge business deals - the FIBI acquisition and the impending IDB deal - are hints that the economic curves are bottoming out.

Warning: Nothing has really changed. Today's general strike shows that Netanyahu's daring move could have worked better in his ideological homeland - America - than here. Even the stubborn strengthening of the shekel is not very good news; it doesn't help exports and growth. And the East is the same East.

But what mostly hasn't changed is national politics. How many times does the Israeli head have to be hammered to understand that, without a real political change, all these sprouting signs will be nothing more than dried grounds in a coffee readers' cup. The real reason for the recent optimism is not what is happening here, but the changes taking place over the Green Line. The Palestinian Authority, under international pressure - and with a little help from the Israel Defense Forces - has started to change. The right-wing government in Israel greeted it sourly. As if nothing happened. A government with sincere intentions for a peace agreement would have behaved in an entirely different way.

That's the root of skepticism about those considerable signs of improved climate. The confirmation of a Palestinian prime minister, after a difficult compromise with the sphinx Arafat, was a move that presumably should have made the Sharon government happy. It wasn't exactly fulfillment of the Israeli government's decision that Arafat had ceased being relevant, but the appointment definitely weakened him and placed new, relatively independent forces in the center of the PA's political map. Among the good signs, one could count the number of ministers in Abu Mazen's government: with 24 members (and apparently one more to be pushed into the cabinet by the northern branch of the West Bank Fatah), after a long recess, the Palestinians really do look like our cousins. This was the proper time for a series of gestures by a government seeking compromise. This is the time to get rid of the outposts, in an operation that would echo from Ramallah and Riyadh to Washington and London.

But no. Sharon's circle emanates hostility. The prime minister is worried by what he'll be committed to concede and risk his coalition. His ministers drip poison. Behind the already transparent camouflage of random words about readiness for those painful concessions, Sharon's bureau is now waiting for "real steps" by Abu Mazen before any gestures are offered. And the defense minister warns of an even more dangerous security situation, if heaven forbid we agree to any premature abatements. In a farce about removing settlements, on Monday the IDF cleared an empty outpost from a bald hill south of Hebron. A modest count shows there are at least 70 such outposts, let alone settlements whose expansion is meant to be frozen. Sharon doesn't dream of touching them of his own free will. The road map, for which he has submitted a dozen reservations, is of course demanding the "immediate" dismantling of outposts put up since March 2001 and a settlement freeze in the first stage of implementation of the Quartet's plan. Israel, while praising the theoretical Bush vision, is making a mockery of the practical demands that accompany it. It is trying to kill the vision while it is still small.

The old Israeli paradox is that improving the basic condition of the state through a peace agreement is only possible when that contribution to the national interest is imposed on it from outside. But even from that aspect, one should not expect too much. Colin Powell has postponed his visit here till next month. His explanation is odd: He is taking care not to embarrass the new prime minister, even though a visit by an American foreign minister after Abu Mazen's confirmation would have only consolidated the stature of the tortured leader. And there aren't any convincing signs that, down the road, President Bush will demonstrate for the sake of peacemaking even a smidgen of the passion he showed for going to war. He is surrounded by his own neoconservative-wall-to-conservative-wall coalition, which is in no hurry to pressure the Israeli government.

For his part, Sharon has only begun to use the arrows of obstruction in his quiver. Even if he takes down a dozen outposts - a huge step in terms of his romance with the settlers - about 60 others will still prosper, and we haven't even begun to deal with the veteran settlements.

Optimism? Don't get carried away. We'll see a lot of trouble before we'll get a taste of any of that.