Ariel Sharon's political future is currently hanging between two types of quiet: calm on the security front that has prevailed as a result of the hudna; and the silence maintained by his son Gilad when questioned by the police - a silence that conforms to a policy of keeping mum adopted by the prime minister and his office in connection with the land investigation.
The cease-fire declared by the Palestinians suits Sharon's purposes, despite warnings from Israel Defense Forces officers and the Shin Bet security services that the terror groups are currently regrouping. The Israeli public is pleased by the quiet, the country's economy is reviving, and the government is not really being pressured to make tough decisions.
It is possible that, just as he declared, Sharon really wants to forge a political agreement, and is genuinely willing to accept painful concessions in the "cradle of the Jewish people's birth." However, he has yet to find a Palestinian partner willing to move ahead with such an agreement and, as has been the case for the past two and a half years, his activity is crafted mainly to kill time and preserve as much maneuvering space as possible. His moment of decision has yet to arrive.
U.S. President George Bush is also moving with caution. Following the burst of activity that led to the adoption of the road map and to the summit in Aqaba, the short-term gain of the hudna apparently suffices for the American president. Bush appears wary of taking any drastic steps that could go awry and entangle him. He has no dreams of a Nobel Peace Prize; his goal has been, and remains, to remove the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the roster of urgent problems, and to rebuff criticism about his inability to stop the bloodshed.
To this end, he declared that the Palestinians must first fight terror in order to satisfy their goals of Israeli concessions on settlements and other issues. For the same reasons, Bush quickly signaled that the timetable for the implementation of the road map is not pressing.
The calm also suits the Palestinian Authority, which is reluctant to engage in a conflict with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. In a conversation on Sunday, foreign ministers Silvan Shalom and Nabil Sha'ath spoke openly about political difficulties faced by both sides and about their distaste for internal conflicts - in the Palestinian case, internal fighting against terror organizations, and in Israel's case, conflict with the settlers.
Under these circumstances, both Israel and the PA have a positive stake in maintaining the hudna, while simultaneously blaming the other side for the impasse in the implementation of the road map beyond its initial steps. Both sides hastily took responsibility for the cancellation of the Sharon-Abu Mazen meeting, which was scheduled for yesterday.
Foreign Ministry officials have discerned an intersting turnabout in the diplomatic jousting. Israel, which, just a few months ago tried to block the road map, now demands that the Palestinians implement it as written. In contrast, Abu Mazen and his government, which upheld the road map at a time when Israel rejected it, are currently making demands that do not appear in the plan: a cease-fire rather than a war on terror, mass release of prisoners and a freeze on the building of the separation fence.
Although Abu Mazen may not be a forceful, charismatic leader and his premiership in the PA may be clouded in doubt, he does have polished diplomatic skills. With the help of his finance minister, Salam Fayyad, he has managed to break Sharon's diplomatic monopoly in the White House and turn the security fence issue into a thorn in the relations between Jerusalem and Washington.
With elections on the horizon, and in a month when 60 members of both houses of Congress are making visits to Jerusalem, Bush is not in a hurry to lock horns with Sharon and his Jewish supporters. Yet, the threat that the sums spent on the fence could be cut from loan guarantees to Israel remains on the table. So too does Sharon's threat to build the fence at Ariel, should the intifada resume.
In the Prime Minister's Office, officials describe Sharon's discussion with Bush last week as his most successful meeting to date. This satisfaction derives mostly from the president's declaration about the necessity of fighting Palestinian terror, and also from the understanding that the next stage of the road map's implementation is not close.
The relative quiet in the diplomatic arena will allow Bush and Sharon to concentrate on life-or-death domestic battles: Bush faces a stagnant economy and charges that he lied to the people en route to the war in Iraq; and, Sharon faces a stand-off with the police and the State Prosecutor.
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