A Study Course in Guesswork

It's time for universities to establish faculties for the study of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in which scholars will examine the guessing of his intentions.

It's time for universities to establish faculties for the study of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in which scholars will examine the guessing of his intentions. This would give an academic seal to the main activity of politicians, diplomats and reporters since the man was first elected.

Sharon's latest holiday interviews, in which he spoke about renewing negotiations with the Palestinians, and went so far as to mention the possibility of the future dismantling of settlements, provided a lot of work to the commentators.

Once again, the Sharon riddle was woken. What does he really want? Where is he going?

The curiosity was piqued further by the end of the war in Iraq, the power struggle in the Palestinian leadership, and the expectations of American intervention here to put things in order.

"Sharonologists" can be divided into four schools. There are those, like Shimon Peres, Amnon Mitzna and their pals who long for government, who believe "he wants to, but can't" reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Some, particularly on the left, where they are hoping for American pressure, think he "can, but doesn't want to." Then there are those, in Europe and the Arab world, who say "he doesn't want to and can't." And finally, there are those, like Sharon himself, who say he "wants to and can" - which is exactly what the right fears.

Political declarations tend, for the most part, to say something about the short memory of those who hear them. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has been promising for two years that he and the president are "involved" in calming things down. Once every few months, the administration sends out signals - and no more - that it can't sit on the sidelines any longer: Blood is being spilled; regional interests are threatened; the allies are pressing - and then nothing.

The same is true of Sharon. From the very beginning, he has been proposing local cease-fires, and talking about his good relations with Abu Mazen and Abu Ala, as opposed to those with Yasser Arafat, that lying terrorist. Who remembers Sharon's proposal for a train from Gaza to Tul Karm so that the Palestinians don't get caught in traffic jams, his promises to ease conditions for the population "that doesn't deal in terror," or his "Marshall Plan" for the territories?

To understand Sharon, one has to delve deeply into his creations, such as his fondness for numbers - "the seven days of quiet," "the six demands of Syria," "the five elements in the fight against terror" - and his renowned tendency to say "Yes, but ..." instead of refusing outright.

Digging deeper reveals two recurring motifs: One is "the seven-stage torpedo" of any political initiative; and the other is the "pressure radar," which signals to Sharon when the Americans are serious.

This is how the "seven-stage torpedo" works: First, we wait to hear the details, and then the initiative is accepted "as a basis for discussion." Sharon offers "comments and corrections." If the initiative survives this stage, "the implementation needs to be dealt with." At this point, enormous demands are made of the Palestinians; and if there's no choice, a positive word is tossed out. Never, but never, bring the initiative to the political test in the government, with its many right-wing ministers.

That's how the Jordanian-Egyptian initiative (remember that one?), the Mitchell Report, the Saudi initiative, and indeed the road map have all been handled.

The other mechanism, the "pressure radar," is always aimed at Washington. Before Sharon visits there, various "abatements" are announced for the Palestinians and Sharon even meets with a few of their "moderates." Everything is forgotten upon his return, just in the same way as Mubarak makes a gesture to Israel on his way to Washington and then attacks Israel on his way back.

If Israel needs help, Sharon agrees to release frozen PA taxes. If the Americans are really pressing, like in the case of the Muqata siege, Sharon caves in. It was no accident that the only initiative he accepted was the Bush speech, and only "in principle." Before Passover, the U.S. administration asked for a gesture with regard to the settlements, so Sharon hinted about future withdrawals.

So what does he really want? It's difficult to say and it's doubtful he even knows if he means only to break or freeze any political process, or to create the necessary security margins against a murderous, untrustworthy foe - the Palestinians. It's clear he wants to keep his freedom of maneuverability, and not make any decision in a hurry if he has an alternative.