Daniel Abraham is a Jewish-American businessman, founder of Slim- Fast, who for years was one of the most important supporters of the Oslo process. He made the rounds between Yasser Arafat's office and those of left-wing Israeli leaders. Last week Abraham paid Prime Minister Sharon a visit, and expressed his contrition. "You were right about Arafat all along," he said. "We have to have no more dealings with him. So long as he's here, there's no chance for peace."
The Prime Minister's bandwagon is filled with new supporters. In politics, nothing succeeds like success, and Sharon is now at his political peak. The terror attacks have abated; Arafat is grounded in the twilight hour of his rule; President Bush is preoccupied with Wall Street scandals.
The Knesset's summer session ends on July 24th when it adjourns for its summer recess, and it is guaranteed that Sharon's government will serve at least until spring. The Prime Minister is soaring high in the polls, unlike the large parties which are starting at a low, as they organize themselves for balloting. Labor politicians are vying in primaries set for November 19, and Likud members are preparing for an autumn conference.
Threats about dismantling the unity government have dissipated, for now. The right has received a reoccupation of the territories; Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has his separation fence; and, after issuing resignation threats, Shimon Peres bought new talks with Palestinians.
During 16 months in office, Sharon has emerged as a master craftsman in political management who has made a joke out of the various theories about "leadership in the television age." Here we have an elderly head of state who dodges interviews and public appearances, who finds it hard to look a camera in the eye, whose speeches are a weary recitation of repetitious messages - and who enjoys a public and media support that recalls Ben-Gurion's Mapai party at its zenith. All this is happening at a time when the state is mired in war and economic crisis.
Even Yitzhak Rabin, (not to mention the Netanyahu-Barak duo) suffered media attacks, coalition crises, and disputes between his aides. Sharon simply isn't touched by any such disease. His strategy of lowering the bar of expectations has paid off and nobody bothers to remind him of promises like "we won't return to Nablus."
His government unanimously passed controversial decisions, such as the reoccupation of the West Bank and the construction of the separation fence. Shas ministers were fired, and returned disciplined to the cabinet. Problematic laws that were bogged down for years in the Knesset - such as the Shin Bet security service and "Diran and Obeid" laws, passed without fuss.
Sharon has avoided the squabbles with the security system, the police, the courts and the Finance Ministry that embittered his predecessors' terms. The result - officials don't issue leaks, the High Court doesn't bother his government, and army officers say Sharon is aloof and suspicious, but they are always prepared to listen. The Prime Minister's Office has seen massive turnover, but the ex-aides went quietly into obscurity with nary a word of criticism spoken against the boss.
But what is Sharon going to do now? At first glance, it would appear he could capitalize on his political strength and his understanding with Bush to bring about major changes. But that would go against Sharon's conservative cast - he prefers stability and quiet. People close to the prime minister predict that no "serious" diplomatic process will emerge before the middle or end of 2003.
First, November elections will be held in the U.S., then Israel will begin its own election season, and then Bush will attack Iraq. There is no Palestinian partner today, nor is there domestic or international pressure calling for concessions, apart from steps to alleviate distress in the territories.
Yet, by the same token, Sharon cannot afford to idle. The IDF warns that he cannot keep a permanent lid on the terrorist pressure cooker, and wants him to take diplomatic initiatives.
The economy is tottering on the brink of collapse, even if the devaluation of the shekel slowed. Talk of a 14 percent unemployment rate is frightening, not far removed from talk of a "mega" terror strike. To try to allay tensions emanating from the security and economic fears, Sharon will attempt to consolidate a model of selective occupation in which Israel would take security responsibility on the West Bank, while civil control would rest with the Palestinians.
It appears a facade of a diplomatic peace process might be erected in the coming weeks to strengthen this model.
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