If I were a Palestinian leader, I would glance at my watch, take a good look around me and say to myself: Wow, it's a quarter to Bibi. If we miss the window of opportunity now staring us in the face, with Bush and Sharon in cahoots, another chance to get ourselves a state will go down the drain.
If I were a Palestinian leader, I would gawk in amazement at the political map in Israel and conclude that in comparison to the past leaders of Labor and Likud, and in view of the danger that Netanyahu could end up in the prime minister's seat again, Sharon may be the only person we'll ever be able to do business with. Why? Because he has more political power in his pocket than anyone since Ben-Gurion.
Whether you believe Sharon or think he's bluffing, his extraordinary remarks about it being time to put an end to occupation and quit thinking we can push around 3.5 million Palestinians, which he repeated several times in different variations, are like toothpaste. Once it's out of the tube, you can't push it back in.
A weak leader, unsure of his strength, would not say such things. Sharon, elected twice by an unprecedented majority, is at the pinnacle of his political power. First and foremost because his two predecessors, Netanyahu and Barak, were duds, but also because of the feebleness of the entire political system.
The Labor party is such a disappointment, it's hard to believe. Is this the party that dreamed about, fought for, founded and built the state? Is this the party that groomed the leaders of the future, that was born to lead? Now look at it: a party without an alternative plan in any sphere, without a single candidate worthy of running for prime minister.
Social affairs were dumped into Peretz's hands. Because of Fuad, the party walked out of the unity government at the wrong time and over the wrong issue. On the appearance and disappearance of Mitzna, a UFO par excellence, one could ask what ever made a man who couldn't take the heat go into the kitchen.
Wherever you look, things seem to have fallen apart. Where is Beilin's social-democratic party? Where did Ben-Ami, Ramon and Burg disappear to? How come Meretz is off the map? From Sharon's perspective, this is ideal. There's no danger from a lifeless opposition. He could even accept an invitation to the dedication of a Palestinian state. Labor may not have a leader, but it does have hands, which it will raise in the Knesset in favor of any move toward peace.
Sharon has also clipped the wings of Likud extremists. Either his messianic coalition partners still believe in the old Sharon, or they aren't eager to give up the transportation and housing portfolios - two ministries that are bottomless pits with respect to the political appointments they offer. No matter where you look, inside or out, support for Sharon is guaranteed. And that's without even mentioning the option of a partnership with Labor any time he likes.
With full control over the Likud and wide public support, both for the road map and dismantling settlements, plus a friendly squeeze from Bush, Sharon has begun the inevitable showdown with the settlers. In his last meeting with the heads of Yesha, he didn't blink. He didn't even tell them they had nothing to worry about. What he did say was that he wanted to give the road map a chance, and he was going into it without any monkey business. The time for tricks is over, he said.
The Americans are taking pictures, and they know exactly what we're building and what we're knocking down. Sharon, of course, would like to drag the process out, with rest periods between one stage and the next. But meanwhile, he even walks around the Knesset building surrounded by an army of bodyguards, and it's not Arab assailants he's afraid of.
What's really going on with Sharon, only he knows. Maybe it finally dawned on him that force has done as much as it can. Maybe Bush's chummy but firm squeeze has had an effect. And maybe there's still a chance he's bluffing. Whatever the case, with his political strength, Sharon is the only one who won't have trouble moving forward at least the easy part of the painful concessions. Evacuating settlements in Gaza, for example.
If I were a Palestinian leader, I would say to myself that this cocktail - Bush pushing and Sharon at the peak of his powers - is an opportunity that would literally be a crime to miss.
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