Ariel Sharon's most successful appearances were those in the Likud faction, during the height of the diplomatic contacts this summer and the acceptance of the "road map" by the government. Sharon called for an end to the occupation, and enjoyed the disputes with the Knesset members, especially with the "shocked" Gila Gamliel. The prime minister demonstrated leadership in front of the cameras, and the media emphasized his military and political experience as opposed to the young MK.
Five months have passed, and it looks as though Gamliel has won the argument. The "road map" has been tossed aside, and the occupation remains in place. The U.S. administration has ceased to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, and has left the political process in a "coma preceding death," as a senior official in Jerusalem put it. Washington is still committed to Bush's vision, but its involvement will be renewed, if at all, only after the elections and the formation of the new administration in early 2005. If a Democrat is elected president, the "time out" will last longer.
Sharon's policy today relies on a microbe in the stomach of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, and on his gallstones. In Jerusalem they hope that the microbe will succeed where Israel failed, and will bring down the Palestinian leader. The chief of Military Intelligence promises the public that Arafat's illness is indeed serious, perhaps in order to sweeten his frightening news about nuclear armament in the region.
In his speech in the Knesset this week, Sharon stuck to the "road map with the addition of the Israeli reservations," mainly in order to reject the left's Geneva initiative and to justify his continuing refusal to embark on any political initiative. Sharon knows that the road map will not be implemented in the near future. From his point of view, the decline of American intervention is an opportunity to relax and to return to a waiting period.
But a freeze is not policy, and in the Likud there have been stirrings regarding a change in direction. Faction chair Gideon Saar said at the Likud Convention in June that it's better to initiate an Israeli political plan than to risk international dictates. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert talks of a unilateral move to determine the border, which will be based on demographic considerations. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned against a political vacuum, "which gives rise to military and other initiatives." Minister of Immigrant Absorption Tzipi Livni said in a cabinet discussion about the separation fence that the significance of the decision cannot be ignored: the division of the land of Israel. Sharon wasn't enthusiastic, and made do with criticism of "a previous prime minister who accepted Oslo" (Benjamin Netanyahu).
Very quietly, senior Likud members are talking about evacuating settlements: "Itamar is a problem," "In the debate about the fence we have to emphasize the settlements that will remain outside." A cautious assessment says that despite the natural tendency in the Likud to leave the settlements in place, Sharon would be able to pass a limited step that would include the evacuation of isolated settlements in the West Bank and settlements in the Gaza Strip. There will be harsh objectors, but there will be a moderate camp that will give support, just as they accepted the fence and the road map calling for a Palestinian state. An essential condition for success will be to change the coalition, bringing in Labor instead of the right-wing factions.
Two problems cloud the implementation of such a plan. First, even its supporters aren't enthusiastic about a unilateral withdrawal, and they want something from the Palestinians in exchange for the evacuation of the settlements, so they won't look like suckers and demonstrate weakness. But the Palestinians are not generous, and are not willing to change their behavior, so that Israel will remain stuck in Yitzhar and in Kadim.
The second problem, which is more serious, relates to the motivation of the prime minister. Despite his decline in the polls and the rumors of his retirement, Sharon is still the uncontested leader of the government and of the Likud, and he has significant political-diplomatic room to maneuver. But Sharon, as is his wont, is avoiding taking the initiative and making decisions, and prefers to keep on waiting until the other side gives in, and in the meantime to waste leadership credit on the prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah.
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