The interview that Ariel Sharon granted to Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit is like a matza sandwich with gooey chocolate spread. You take a bite and wonder what the point is - to make it easier to swallow the dry matza or help the sweet, sticky chocolate go down?
On the day Sharon gave this interview, starring in the role of peacemaker, Yedioth Ahronoth reported that the prime minister "will not accept any dictate in the road map that he believes will endanger the security of Israel, even at the risk of clashing with President Bush."
A few days before the Haaretz interview, Yedioth Ahronoth published two militant quotes emanating from Sharon's inner circle: "Israel will not compromise the safety of its citizens just to compensate Tony Blair" and "The prime minister will not hesitate to challenge the Bush administration if he is asked to freeze the settlements or lay a single finger on them."
So who is the real Sharon? The tough cookie from Yedioth Ahronoth or the sweet chocolate spread from Haaretz, prepared to make painful concessions to bring peace and security?
Peace, security and painful concessions were Sharon's three main promises during his two election campaigns. He talks like a leader, walks like a leader and promises like a leader; but as he begins his third year in office, a leader he's not. Not only has he failed to keep any of these pledges, but the situation is worse than ever - both in terms of defense and in terms of our international standing.
Even now, as Sharon tells Haaretz how willing he is to make compromises for the sake of genuine peace, he chokes every time he should be saying the word "evacuation." Asked why he won't give up Netzarim, for example, he launches into a lengthy reply to the effect that he has never and will never back down on any issue related to Israeli security. I personally heard him say the same thing two years ago.
In response to Shavit's question about why he refuses to dismantle isolated settlements, Sharon gives a long drawn-out reply from which the word "evacuation" is conspicuously absent. Is he willing to halt construction in the settlements or remove illegal outposts as a first stage? There he goes again, with his answers that are more like non-answers: "This is a sensitive issue. Why don't we leave it alone for now?"
There are words Sharon just cannot bring himself to utter when he talks about peace. It reminds me of that skit on the satirical television show, Hartzufim, in which the Sharon puppet can't say the name "Netanyahu."
Sharon keeps repeating the mantra about how, at his age, he has no ambitions aside from bringing peace and security to the people of Israel. Of late, it seems the prime minister is starting to realize that there might be a link between the security situation and the economic slump. It's not a normal thing for people to be happy with their leader, but not with his performance. Now that Israel is being likened to Argentina, it has begun to sink in that Sharon ought to be making some noises in favor of dialogue, before the public discovers the emperor has no clothes.
Sharon doesn't have to read the latest comments of Richard Perle - the spiritual father of the war on Iraq who says America doesn't owe the Arabs anything - to see that he has nothing to fear from a president who is running for a second term on the "National Hero" ticket. So it's easy for him to start a dialogue spin without intending to reach a permanent accord with the Palestinians.
The major change Sharon wants to make to the road map is to organize everything in "stages" and insure that the parties don't go on to the next stage before completing the one before it. Sharon demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and give up the right of return as a prerequisite to ending the conflict. He wants Arafat neutralized and Abu Mazen to be as strong as Popeye the Sailorman, so he can clobber terror instead of being forced to reach an agreement with Hamas.
For Sharon, the important things are intentions, effort and outcome - not simultaneously, but one after another. So we're looking at a long story with every step of the way taking forever - just what Sharon loves.
Through Haaretz, the prime minister sent a message to the president of the United States: "I'll be a good boy." His partners on the right will be satisfied with a wink.
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