It would be interesting to know what George Bush senior said to his son upon reading the teaser that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon published yesterday in The New York Times on the eve of his visit to the White House. Did he try to translate for him the term "hoopster" (hishuka'i), that Hebrew coinage from the Likud meaning someone who politically hog-ties a rival to keep him from taking moderate measures? Did he advise him to try to clarify with his guest what has changed since he threw himself beneath the wheels of former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir's airplane on the way to the Madrid conference in 1991? Then, minister Sharon warned of a "trap" that Bush senior's administration was laying for Israel by mentioning Resolution 242 in the conference invitation. And now, in an article in an important newspaper, Sharon is brandishing that same resolution.
The answer to all of these questions is hidden in each of the peace plans that have pursued Sharon all the way to Washington. It lies at the basis of the Saudi proposal, the Egyptian paradigm and the document prepared by the U.S. State Department. The common denominator of all of them is their interpretation of Resolution 242: all of the territories (minus minor border adjustments) in return for peace (plus a certain amount of normalization).
Sharon has discovered that the best attack on this interpretation is paradoxically the defense of Resolution 242. He has already reminded Bush and other leaders that the resolution does not obligate Israel to withdraw from all the territories, but rather from "territories." It also does not demand a return to the 1967 borders, but to "secure and recognized borders." Sharon, in fact, is following in the footsteps of Shamir, who realized that haggling over the term "secure borders" had the rare potential for endless negotiations. And in the meantime, until the Palestinians stop shooting, they will be lured into talking about a "long-term interim agreement" - and the government will encourage the Jewish settlers in the territories to grab more land and will pave more roads for them.
Ever since the intifada broke out, the secular Israeli right has cast aside the Zionist-ideological arguments in favor of using Palestinian terror and the personality of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. The Jewish settlers have also learned that since September 11, declarations about "the fight against terror" win far higher ratings in the West than Biblical verses. Blurring the borders by human bombs, between Yizhar and Meggido, helps them recycle the argument that the Palestinians are not content with the 1967 borders.
Ostensibly, after Jews are slaughtered in the heart of Israel, any sensible person would oppose a return to the 1967 lines and would demand that the Palestinians first stand the test and prove over a number of years that they really do mean that this border would put an end to the conflict. Then, if God wills, he will reveal to us what he means by "painful concessions." Seventeen dead on one bus wipe out in one fell swoop the memory of the prime minister's three declarations that - with or without terror - as far as he is concerned, the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip is the same as Tel Aviv. That is, the painful concessions do not include the elimination of Israeli colonialism in the territories.
However, the Americans, the Egyptians and the Saudis are not idiots. They have understood that Sharon is aiming to remain in power, through the same system of thou hast murdered and thou hast inherited that brought him there in the first place. They remember that before the ink was dry on the signatures of the Oslo Accords, which set up a long series of tests on the way to a final-status agreement, Sharon contributed all he could to ensure that the sides would never get to the end of the road. Incidentally, that was before Arafat decided to allow Hamas to "accelerate" the pace of negotiations.
The moral that the shapers of the peace initiatives and the regional conference have learned is that with Sharon, you have to go from the end to the beginning. That is, you have to set the border and the timetable for withdrawal in advance. The inhabitants of Yakir and the 100,000 Jewish settlers that have been added since Papa Bush's Madrid conference are living proof that Resolution 242, Sharon's new darling, and the definition of "agreed-upon and secure borders" are a sure formula for extending the occupation, not for getting rid of it. Most regrettably, it appears that Bush junior's decision is linked more to the political lesson his dad learned in Madrid than to the strategic lesson.