The Realization of Sharon's Dream?

Twenty-seven years ago - on November 19, 1977 - a historic window of opportunity opened in Israel's history and prime minister Menachem Begin made the most of it. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat arrived in Jerusalem and held out his hand in peace - and Israel responded completely. The government decided at the time, contrary to the positions of all its predecessors, that peace was preferable to keeping Sharm el-Sheikh.

Now Israel faces a similar dilemma in its relations with the Palestinians - and its decision is being carried, like the locust swarms, by the wind blowing from the Likud Central Committee.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon knows that another historic window of opportunity has now opened for Israel. Yasser Arafat's death and the reelection of George Bush as president of the United States create conditions for a turning point in relations. Some of the prime minister's aides even describe the new circumstances as the realization of his dream. That is, he has an opportunity to implement his election slogans to bring peace and security, and he will not miss it.

The positions Sharon has assumed in public since Arafat's death show, on the face of it, that he intends to launch the dove from the hatch of opportunity that has opened. He made a moderate announcement on the demise of the Palestinian leader and displayed readiness to agree to the Palestinian Authority's requests but took pains not to appear as interfering with its leadership. He shelved a plan to launch a campaign presenting Arafat as an arch-murderer and international terror-monger and over the weekend he even issued a far-reaching statement appearing to omit the traditional Israeli demand that the Palestinians dismantle the terror organizations, instead demanding the cancellation of anti-Israel incitement in the media and education system.

However, the oral statement was accompanied by comments and interpretations, also issuing from Sharon's desk. He rejected proposals to effect an immediate change in Israel's approach toward the Palestinians, he told the ministers he would make no goodwill gesture to Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) before he dismantles the armed force of the extremist organizations. His bureau hastened to clarify that his demand to stop the incitement was not instead of the demand to dismantle the armed force of these organizations.

Sharon will be judged by his acts, not his statements. Perhaps the contradictory positions he has been expressing in the past two weeks are legitimate kangaroo leaps, intended to improve his status in his party's central committee, which is convening today. Perhaps they reflect the lost wandering of one searching for his way. One conclusion arises: The external developments, especially in the United States and Ramallah, have brought Sharon closer to the moment of truth. He will have to decide whither he wants to lead the state. Quite soon it will transpire whether the disengagement plan is, for him, a prescription for postponing a decision or a lever to achieve reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians, and whether his last moves are meant to advance a settlement or prove that even after Arafat there is no partner on the other side.

The battle that will be held today in the Likud Central Committee - on the positions of chairmen for the committee, the party secretariat and the executive committee - is a reflection of Sharon's deliberations and of the crossroads the Likud has reached as a whole. The struggle is more ideological than personal. Uzi Landau, Michael Ratzon and Gilad Erdan present an obtuse, conservative political line that refuses to open the window of opportunity that has been created. Their rivals, Tzachi Hanegbi, Yisrael Katz and Dan Naveh, are adjusting to reality to a larger degree but they, too, are showing signs of freneticism. Landau and his group have no answer to the existential problem Israel faces: How can it stay a Zionist, democratic state while continuing to occupy the territories? In Landau's school, the road map is a disaster but when the disengagement plan was presented, he attacked it for not being derivative of the road map. Those who do not want the disengagement plan will get negotiations on the permanent settlement.