The phone call from President Bush on Monday night brought the tidings to Ariel Sharon that the lengthy "waiting period" leading up to the war in Iraq was over and a new chapter was beginning in the history of the Middle East. Two events showed there is a tight connection between the two regional crises, in Iraq and in the territories: the appointment of Abu Mazen as the Palestinian prime minister, in the shadow of the American ultimatum to Saddam Hussein; and Bush's declaration that he is committed to the implementation of the road map that will lead, after the war, to a Palestinian state.
For Sharon, the waiting period began in July, after the Bush speech and its call for a change in the Palestinian leadership. At the time, the prime minister adopted the IDF's recommendations to conduct a policy of "risk management," which would reduce Palestinian terrorism to a tolerable level, while avoiding escalation in the territories and the north, and preserving the tight coordination with Washington.
The officers described three processes that would help Israel, if it kept its cool: the expected war in Iraq, the weakening of Arafat and the rise of an alternative leadership on the Palestinian side, and the construction of the separation fence. The prime minister found it difficult to recognize the political importance of the fence, and wondered why the obstacles in the West Bank are more important than the fence in northern Galilee and Gaza. But he eventually was convinced. Ministers who toured the seam area with him this week came away with the impression Sharon had "internalized" the fence, which will be the central project of his term.
The waiting policy suited Sharon's nature, which prefers stability and self-control. In the eight months since, the prime minister has stayed on track and imposed his will on the political and security system, even when he ran into a government crisis, hasty elections and suspicions of corruption. The army kept its word and lowered the level of violence, and the isolation of Arafat led to the rise of Abu Mazen, who is perceived as a moderate. Sharon preserved his channels to the White House and enjoyed freedom of action in the territories, while reducing international intervention in the conflict. When he ran into a dispute with the U.S., as in the case of the Muqata, he knew when to fold.
Sharon's great achievement was in distancing Israel from the war in Iraq. He restrained the natural Israeli tendency to push itself into crises, and even if the defense establishment exaggerated here and there with its fear-mongering in the public, the political echelon maintained appropriate distance. Sharon conducted a delicate dialogue with the American administration. His veiled threats to retaliate for a missile attack, backed up by his image as a bully, was exploited to win a defensive umbrella and promises of economic aid from the U.S.
Sharon's critics regard the waiting period as a sign of lack of leadership. The economy continued its descent into the abyss. The dismantling of the unity coalition may have won the Likud a victory in the elections, but shackled Sharon to a right-wing government that will burden the peace process.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians scored two victories: The road map has been established as the formula for an imposed settlement, which will remove Israel from the territories at the end of three years. Abu Mazen might be preferable to Arafat, but he is no less a hardliner. And with his appointment, Sharon missed an opportunity to deal with a weakened Arafat and also lost the chance to expel him in the future.
Sharon preferred to postpone the political campaign for the future of the territories to the period after the war in Iraq, which his advisers believe will be a lot more convenient for Israel. Bush will need the Jews and the Christian right to be reelected, the Europeans will be punished by their removal from the region, and the UN will revert to being irrelevant. Under those conditions, the beaten Palestinians will be forced to accept the temporary state Sharon is offering them, between the separation fences. Thus Sharon will finish his career with Israel controlling the security zones in the Jordan Valley and western Samaria, and the settlements safe and sound in place.
Whether this scenario will come true now depends on the results of the war, and the new world order that crystallizes following it. This week it turned out that Bush might be friendly and supportive, but he is not omnipotent, and sometimes has to take into consideration friends like Tony Blair, who has taken over the patronage of the Palestinian cause.
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