People said that former prime minister Ehud Barak's penchant for taking apart watches was the underlying cause of his propensity to bind himself to schedules. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on the other hand, is infatuated with numbers, and his diplomatic proposals bear a certain similarity to the song: "Who Knows One?" in the Passover Haggadah.
First came the seven days of quiet that he demanded of the Palestinians. Then there were the six demands from Syria and the five fundamentals of the "100 percent effort" against terrorism, not to mention the four essentials for reform in the Palestinian Autonomy, the two conditions for beginning diplomatic negotiations and the one prime minister who wants to stay in power.
And when you add it all up, you arrive at a result of zero diplomatic progress.
Sharon has been fine-tuning this numerical doctrine for years. During a September 1993 Knesset discussion on the Oslo accords and Israel's recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization, he presented "seven conditions for a settlement" and "four ways to neutralize the risks of the accords." He called for placing the "war criminal Arafat" on trial, and stressed that responsibility for security in the territories should remain in Israeli hands.
This week, Sharon is celebrating his historic victory. In the wake of Operation Defensive Shield, the Israel Defense Forces resumed full security control over the West Bank, without the need to restore the civil administration and provide services to the Palestinian residents. A similar operation in Gaza "is only a matter of time," as future chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon has said.
Two architects of Oslo, Terje Larsen and Shimon Peres, now say that the chances of a reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians are nil. In a lecture delivered last week in the Norwegian capital, Larsen said: "The Oslo process has collapsed; the institutions it created have been destroyed; and its spirit has been smothered by the violence, the lack of trust and the mutual accusations."
Larsen called for an about-face of the principles of Oslo. Instead of a bilateral settlement to be reached through direct negotiations, he proposed that the international community present the sides with a plan for ending the conflict and guaranteeing its implementation. Peres, the last Israeli statesman to cling to the idea of negotiations with Arafat, is now suggesting that talks be held with the international community, as an alternate partner to the Palestinians.
After 15 months in office, Sharon has reached a personal high: The terrorist attacks have been thwarted; Arafat is struggling to survive; the United States is not applying pressure; he has a high public-approval rating; and the media is pampering him with adulatory coverage - even if Israelis are still subject to security fears, armed guards are to be found at every corner and the economy is in a shambles.
Sharon has proved that it is possible to survive without giving up a single millimeter of the territories. His demonstration of force with Shas was met with a round of applause. The Labor party is shattered.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's Office is weighing a scenario in which the world grows accustomed to Israel's presence in Area A, the public enjoys the relative calm, Arafat vanishes from the stage within the year, and Sharon stands for re-election as a shoo-in incumbent. And then, after being voted in for a second term, "it will be possible to move ahead boldly," as a Sharon aide put it.
It may be assumed that Sharon will stick to his policy of diplomatic stalemate; as is his wont, he will hint at painful concessions after the elections, without committing himself to anything concrete. He has already warned the U.S. administration that any pressure for diplomatic progress will lead to early elections, bringing everything to a halt for six months or more.
However, the tower that Sharon has built along his way to the summit is extremely rickety. The political system has begun to descend the slippery slope toward elections; the coalition is in a tumult; and the Palestinian suicide bombers are active again. And the prime minister has had to raise the ante each time.
So far, Sharon's calculations have been successful; but as Barak showed, when it comes to politics, courage is not always enough. Accounts are always settled in the end, at which time you have to show genuine accomplishments. And as yet, Sharon doesn't have anything of that sort to show. He has yet to broker a cease-fire; he has not restored Israel's status in the international community; and he has not extricated the country from its economic crisis.
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