What do the occupation of Orient House, the invasion of Lebanon and the creeping annexation of the occupied territories all have in common? Ariel Sharon was involved in each one of these events. He knew how to get in, but had no idea how to get out. Each of them extracted, or is extracting still, their cost in Israeli blood.
Twice it was Shimon Peres who initiated the rescue from Sharon's quagmire. Over 15 years ago, he started bringing the IDF back home from the vale of death in Lebanon. Eight years ago, Peres conceived the Oslo Accords, which were designed to correct the brutal political, defense and demographic facts set down by Sharon in the heart of the territories. This past Friday, the foreign minister was not strong enough to salvage the agreement, and wrest it from the prime minister's hands.
The Israeli flag waving over Orient House was the funeral of the Oslo Accords. Yes, Palestinian violence and the Israeli settlement policy had sucked the lifeblood out of it many months ago. Nevertheless, even the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu were careful not to declare the clinical death of the Oslo process. The takeover of the building relieves Israel and the PLO of whatever slight commitment they still had to the Oslo Accords. This had remained so, even if in the formal legal sense Arafat's breach of his commitment to Yitzhak Rabin to abstain from violence in turn released Peres from his vow to Norwegian foreign minister Johan Jorgen Holst to maintain the political status quo in East Jerusalem.
Government spokesmen are saying that the closure of Orient House was a measured and sophisticated response. They stress that the government turned down much more lethal alternatives. Strange as it may sound, in the range of possible responses to Thursday's bombing attack in Jerusalem, the repercussions of the occupation of Orient House represent a quantum leap beyond the destruction of one or the other Tanzim or Hamas headquarters in the territories.
Let us assume that Yasser Arafat reins in the violence to Sharon's complete satisfaction, putting all of the wanted terrorists back in prison and collecting all the illegal weapons - how then would the prime minister be able to explain his withdrawal from "the symbol of the Palestinian takeover of Jerusalem?"
The organs of propaganda on the government's radio stations and the newspaper headlines, forced him into issuing an unequivocal declaration yesterday that, "we will never leave Orient House." In doing so, has he not fallen into the trap of those watchdogs of the city walls on the right? Can you imagine the joyous political capital to be made by Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert from the images of PLO leaders returning to the compound, which had become, so Israel claimed, the headquarters for the debasement of its own sovereignty in the capital?
All at once, the prime minister has diverted the public debate from controversial settlements to the warm bosom of consensus over "the unity of Jerusalem." And in terms of the other side: Will Arafat be able to ask the Palestinian public to add Al Quds onto the list of assets it has lost in the past 10 months? All of the observers in the world cannot compensate it for this scathing insult. The chance that Sharon will have to deal in the foreseeable future with the Mitchell Report's section on the settlements is about the same as the chance that Arafat will be handing Ahmed Yassin over to Israeli authorities.
It's hard to decide what is more disconcerting: whether the thought ever passed through the prime minister's mind that the Israeli flag waving from the roof of the building was the funeral shroud of the peace agreement, or that this possibility never even occurred to the "leader toward peace?"
Perhaps the sophistication to which his spokesmen are referring is concealed behind a move that innocently looks as moderate as can be, but is in fact the death sentence of the Oslo accords.
The occupation of Orient House now deprives Peres of his excuse that by remaining in the government, he is blocking Netanyahu's way back into the arena. Even Netanyahu, considered an unstoppable freight train of a leader, may have talked a good game, but when it came to irrevocable deeds, he proved to be careful.
Sharon has proved more than once that there is no one better than he at climbing up sheer precipices. As with Lebanon and the settlements, Sharon has not stopped to consider how to work his way back to the terra firma of reality. This time, after having buried his prot�g�, Peres won't be there. Perhaps.
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