In the early 1950s, soldiers in the 101 commando unit got themselves entangled in a fracas with the military police in Tiberias. One of the 101 soldiers was badly beaten by a few military policemen. The unit commander gathered his soldiers and they raided the military police compound; the 101 men punished the three military policemen who beat their comrade. The three were hospitalized. Together, the military police and the Jerusalem brigade, to which the 101 unit was attached, conducted an inquiry about the incident. Both sides demanded that all those involved in the melee be punished. Ariel Sharon, commander of the 101 unit, gave his soldiers a two-week holiday. When they returned, he lined them up for inspection, grinned, and said: "You have just completed your terms of suspension."
It could be that the 25-year-old Sharon who said one thing and did another is not the same as today's 74-year-old Sharon. It could be that the charismatic 101 unit commander, who made his soldiers his allies in a struggle against the security establishment, is not the same elderly statesman who sees things from his post in the Prime Minister's Office which he never noticed before. It could also be that the wile, the wink while you command style which characterized Sharon 50 years ago, has vanished and been replaced by seriousness and sincere behavior with colleagues. But, if this is the case, how is his decision to appoint Dan Meridor "head of the next government's policy planning team" to be interpreted?
Sharon has a policy plan, one which has been disclosed repeatedly in the past. Speaking just two weeks ago at the Herzliya conference, he sketched the plan again, and stressed its main element: adoption, in principle, of Bush's peace framework, as Israelis interpret it. He stated his demands: an absolute cessation of terror, violence and incitement on the Palestinian side, along with the implementation of fundamental reforms in the Palestinian Authority (including the eradication of Yasser Arafat's authority); the establishment of a new PA that will operate accountably, observe democratic norms and dismantle security organizations. At a later stage, once Palestinians have staged free elections, Israel will engage negotiations. In these talks, Israel will agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders that overlap "A" and "B" areas ("apart from essential security regions"); this state will be entirely demilitarized, and entry into it and its air space will be under Israeli control. As Sharon detailed it, passage from one stage to the other is not dictated by a timetable: Timing of the transition depends upon the extent to which the Palestinians comply with demands raised by the plan. As a final state, the sides will begin final-status talks.
The gullible could interpret Sharon's plan as a sign of measured progress, since it appears to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state. More careful commentators will note its numerous conditions and demands, and suspect the plan actually conceals a hidden design - to prolong Israel's occupation and derail the diplomatic process initiated by the U.S.
Dan Meridor has an entirely different political plan. He too has not kept his proposals a secret during the past year. Meridor believes an Israeli initiative bringing a rapid withdrawal from most of the territories would be a crucial step. He has concluded that the dream of a Greater Israel must be abandoned - if the Zionist dream is to be realized, Meridor believes, the state must focus its energy on the enhancement of security, economic well-being and good government norms within the 1967 borders (with some alteration incorporated in line with the settlement bloc idea which Ehud Barak developed at Camp David). If Meridor's plan cannot be advanced via negotiations, he favors its unilateral implementation.
How can Meridor's plan, whose details are well known to the prime minister, be squared with Sharon's proposals? This riddle can be solved by turning the interpretive key laden within his words to his 101 unit fighters 50 years ago: Sharon says one thing, and means something else. Meridor will serve as a useful trimming during the election campaign, and project an image of moderation, but in actual fact, Sharon (for the time being, at least) continues to think in terms destined to prolong the dispute with the Palestinians, not resolve it.
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