The atmosphere was pastoral, the speeches sweet as honey. From his appearance, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) could easily be an Israeli prime minister. He looks less Middle Eastern than some of our ministers. Sharon put on a splendid performance of speaking from the heart, without the unease or awkward body language of Yitzhak Rabin in such situations.
At the ministers' table, Mofaz, the great road map skeptic, fingered the tie of his Palestinian Authority counterpart Mohammed Dahlan. "You like it?" asked Dahlan. "I'll send you one." If Mofaz were a bigger fashion expert, he'd have gone for Olmert's tie, a pink silk. Hermes, of course. 150 dollars a pop.
Even Silvan Shalom was wearing a grin, although they sat him at the end of the table, which he was grabbing onto for dear life to keep from falling off his chair. TV cameras at the ceremony, at the intersections, in the city streets, captured the smiles and expressions of hope. Our chief of staff was already boasting of "Israel's victory." Taking Henry Kissinger's advice on Vietnam, the instigators of the intifada could do the same. When both sides claim victory, it's a sign the time is ripe for dialogue.
Are we starting to see the beginning of the end? Could be. But at this point in time, we are still dangling between two possibilities.
Possibility No. 1: The Palestinians will stick to their commitments during the three-month cease-fire, leading to its extension, and negotiations will begin on the Bush road map. In that case, Abu Mazen will put Sharon's public declarations to the test: How serious is he about following through on the road map clauses adopted by his government, dismantling outposts, goodwill gestures like prisoner release, and most importantly, ending the occupation and allowing a Palestinian state with temporary borders to be established within a year?
Possibility No. 2: The new government under Abu Mazen will not succeed in disarming the terrorist organizations. In that case, the Palestinian Authority will face the dilemma of whether to resume the terror attacks, lose the promised financial support from America and be put on the Bush administration's blacklist of targeted terror organizations.
One thing that's clear no matter which way the ball bounces is that there won't be a return to the status quo. Israel has to prepare for both scenarios. But even if the Palestinian Authority re-embraces violence, the intifada will not come back in its current form. The defense establishment, with Mofaz at its head, will not allow a resumption of the bloody cycle of terrorist attack-retaliation-terrorist attack-retaliation. It will wage a war to the finish - one that will make mincemeat of the terrorists and get rid of Arafat once and for all.
But if Israel is serious about embarking on the beginning of the end of occupation, the whole country - government, institutions, citizens - will need to install a new set of mental disks. Sharon and his potential heirs, Mofaz and Netanyahu, will have to retrain their brains and adjust to the fact that peace comes with a painful price tag, which we will have no choice but to pay.
Sharon will need an emotional overhaul to prepare himself for knocking down settlements he built with his own hands and standing up to 200,000 settlers, most of whom will have to pack their bags by the end of 2005. Tens of thousands of them are fanatics who will put up physical resistance, among them Yesha rabbis who reject the principle that "the law of the land is binding" and call on their followers to man the ramparts and openly defy the government. Sharon will have to confront the extremists in his administration and his party. But because the bulk of the people are in favor of a peace agreement, he will always be able to push through an accord that involves evacuating settlements - by vote or referendum.
There are still some who dream of a military victory and a Greater Israel stretching from the Jordan to the sea, but the countdown for the end of occupation has begun. Who knows? Maybe some day the history textbooks of the Palestinian state will write that Bush had the vision but Sharon was the man who made it come true.
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