A year and two months ago, when the Bush and Blair governments pinned their hopes on a frontal war to the death against "world terror," we were told that the possibility of anything less than unequivocal victory had such terrifying implications that it was best not to even think about it.
Today, in the light of the tremendous erosion in international support for the Iraq war, and with the growing entanglement in Iraq, that possibility is now in fact imaginable.
And in the spirit of the proverb, "When America coughs, Israel comes down with pneumonia," there's cause for concern: What will happen in the absence of a crushing American victory, or if Bush doesn't win the election in November - the two things on which Sharon is betting the whole shebang?
From this point of view, Sharon resembles the British gambler who made the news this week when he sold all his property and placed everything he had on one spin of the roulette wheel in Las Vegas.
It stopped on seven-red, and the man celebrated a fantastic win, doubling his assets. But what about the roulette of America, Bush and the "war against terror"? Even if that wheel is still spinning, it's far from clear that it will stop on a winning number.
After all, beyond all the zigzags and deceptions, Sharon's entire pattern of behavior in the past few years has been nothing but one huge gamble: a gamble on one president, one administration, one policy. For this one chip nearly all the assets that Israel accumulated over the years have been sacrificed: the moderate Palestinians, the Palestinians' secular governmental structure (and the understandings that were, when all is said and done, obtained with the Palestinian Authority), the support of the world's intellectuals, proper diplomatic relations with numerous countries, closeness to the European Community, global public opinion, alternative political initiatives, and so on and so forth.
Thus, when America bombed the caves of Tora Bora and mounted an assault on Baghdad, Israel - ostensibly for the "unity of the cause" of the "war on terror" - blew to smithereens the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority, did some serious pecking at the walls of the Muqata, initiated or was dragged into escalation and carried out a series of monumentally consequential targeted assassinations. As long as the fury of battle raged, Israel just melted with a sense of partnership, and it seemed that solidarity of this kind with the government of a superpower - an old dream of Ben-Gurion himself - had never before been attained.
However, has anyone prepared a refuge for a rainy day, the day on which it's liable to become apparent that this policy - which at bottom is no more than military brute force - is, after all, wrong, or worse, is unsuccessful? Isn't it irresponsible to gamble on one number only? To burn every bridge to an alternative road?
Whereas both the United States and Britain are now undergoing a painful process of sobering up and are reexamining their policy since September 11, 2001, in these parts we are seeing the continued obtuse acceptance of the policy pursued by the Sharon government since the start of the intifada, as though there were no other policy available. For example, even the disclosure by the former head of the Mossad espionage agency, Ephraim Halevy, to the effect that Hamas and Sheikh Yassin proposed a 30-year hudna was greeted with apathy.
Other cease-fire proposals were also made from time to time, even at the height of the intifada, such as the Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi plans - and were rejected one after the other. At every such juncture, Sharon's Israel appeared to prefer force and the concept of "the decisive victory": perhaps from the inspiration of the Bush policy, perhaps as its source of inspiration; but in either case, without reflection and without contrition.
Because of the investment in one immense gamble, and in the absence of an effective parliamentary opposition, Israel didn't even try to seize on every such opportunity, if only to exploit the one resource it has always utilized so effectively - quiet, truce, cease-fire, a period devoid of war - in order to build the society and promote culture and the economy. Yet, in the face of existential threats that have never really stopped, this has always been the "appropriate Zionist response," the true response.
Now Sharon has thrown the "unilateral disengagement" idea into the arena. Like its predecessors, and in fact like every big Sharon move ever, this one, too, carries all the hallmarks of a gamble: a crass, staggering, heavy-handed, go-for-broke gamble. Once again it's all or nothing: without shades of color, without nuances, without fallback plans, without flexible alternatives and, above all, without a dialogue.
On the face of it, with the unprecedented support of President Bush, Sharon this week succeeded in his totally unilateral gamble, on total non-dialogue, on the continuation of the decisive victory by consciousness burning, and this time by means of a sharp "disengagement."
Sharon appeared to be beaming as he left the White House, and rightly so, as though he had just won his bet on "seven-red."
The only trouble is that the gamble succeeded, but the peace died. Unlike that British gambler, we won't be able to convert this chip into concrete winnings without passing by the cashier where the Palestinians are ensconced.
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