Ariel Sharon's glib response that he had not had time to study the draft American peace plan shows the prime minister is in no hurry to put the new "road map" on his desk.
A few hours before President Bush spoke with him about the plan, Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, spent more than two hours going over every detail of it with Sharon and his aides. Some points, like the timing of an international conference, took into account Sharon's own comments.
This is the third time that Bush has brought Sharon to the political trough. Sharon managed to neither spit up nor swallow the two previous, more digestible, initiatives - the Mitchell Plan of June 2001 and the Bush speech of June 2002. Will he manage to chew forever on the first political initiative to ever be jointly prepared by the U.S., Europe, Russia and the UN? Will he manage once again to keep all three of his favorite juggling balls in the air - close ties with the U.S., a political alliance with the extreme right, and national consensus?
America's partners in the Quartet have reached the conclusion that an attack on Iraq gives them the opportunity to influence the trajectory of one of those three balls. They know that the day after the war, Bush will be totally focused on his reelection in November 2004.
The Jewish vote will interest him far more than European cries, let alone Arab protests. So there's an unspoken understanding that the Quartet's support for the war in the Gulf will be in direct proportion to Bush's support for ending the war in the territories. They aren't counting on hollow American promises that once Saddam is out of the way, he'll deal with Arafat and Sharon. The partners are demanding he immediately translate the road map into actual activity on the ground. Perhaps most importantly, they are demanding that the prime minister of Israel cease being both an active player and a referee.
The easy part of the road map test is already on Sharon's doorstep: releasing the Palestinian Authority monies withheld by Israel and allowing Quartet inspectors into the territories. There's no apparent reason that these steps, as well as easing conditions for the Palestinian residents of the territories and imposing law and order on the settlers, must wait for the end of the war in Iraq. But the Quartet won't make do only with that. The officials-level meeting of the Quartet last Thursday in Paris instructed U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William Burns that he must make clear to Sharon that he has days, at most a few weeks, to respond to the road map.
The key question is how the first ball, held by Burns' big boss, will behave when it turns out that Sharon intends to make sure this initiative goes away, just like the others have. Will political reality and Bush Sr.'s "Jewish past" (he took 35 percent of the Jewish vote in 1988 but only 12 percent in 1992 after he angered Yitzhak Shamir) supersede his ambitions to change the face of the Middle East?
The ravings of the right-wing ministers of the Likud and the settlers' representatives outside of Likud are a hint to Sharon about which way the second ball will fall if he deviates from his standard treatment of political initiatives. It's not difficult to guess how Benjamin Netanyahu will exploit any Sharon attempt to push a government decision that agrees to a Palestinian state within 14 months.
This, therefore, is the great opportunity for the third ball - the Labor Party - to finally jump out of Sharon's hands and start heading in the direction in which it promised to lead this unhappy country. Shimon Peres and company can either lead Sharon down the routes of the new road map or leave him with the lawbreakers on the hilltops of Samaria. If "Yitzhak Rabin's heirs" delay putting this important map on the table, they won't have anywhere left to hide in their disgrace.
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