After the Holidays' Has Arrived

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seems to have no plan to end the conflict, but looks more like someone who wants to prolong the present stalemate and play for time.

On this first morning after the holidays, Israel's leaders should be looking at a very busy agenda. The country has languished for a few months in the quiet of a false interlude. Now it is waking up to a new day, and it is bound to wonder whether the prime minister and government intend to get their act together. Are they going to tackle the real burdens of life in Israel? Or will they sail off with their own order of priorities that has nothing to do with the needs of the citizens?

After the holidays, the prime minister and his ministers must determine the passage arrangements to and from the Gaza Strip. The red tape miring this issue is endangering that region's chances of rehabilitation and the international community's willingness to support it. Moreover, the delays are jeopardizing the chances for the positive turning point the disengagement was to have effected in the relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

After the holidays, it will be necessary to reexamine Israel's security policy in the West Bank. The events of the last few days - killing Luay Sa'adi, commander of Islamic Jihad in the northern West Bank, and shooting Qassam rockets at Sderot in retaliation - demonstrated that Israel's security routine in areas A and B needs freshening up.

With the holidays over, Israel now needs to identify its objective in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is acting like one who does not want to be bothered. He seems to have no plan to end the conflict, but looks more like someone who wants to prolong the present stalemate and play for time. Yet, it was only two months ago that he witnessed the huge dividend both he and the country could reap from a daring political initiative.

The tendency to sink yet again in the quicksand of the conflict's routine is not congruent with Israel's interests, and it contradicts the thrust of the permanent status settlement and its nature, as indicated by the disengagement plan. The conflict with the Palestinians will not be solved unless Israel withdraws from all the territories (except for minor border adjustments) and the land is divided into two states.

The Israeli public's yearning to end the conflict; its support in evacuating the settlements from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank; building the separation fence close to the Green Line; the American agreement to include the settlement blocs within the permanent borders - all these demarcate the outline of the agreement with the Palestinians. Sharon would betray his duty if he continued to "manage" and "maintain" the conflict, rather than strive to solve it.

After the holidays, Israel must change its approach to the relations between Jews and Israeli Arabs. On Monday, it was reported that two Arab doctors were suspected of helping Hamas. They were the latest of several Israeli Arabs to be charged, and usually convicted, with hostile activity tantamount to betraying the state. On the other hand, the government has recently demonstrated its discrimination against Israeli Arabs, both in the conclusions of the Police Internal Affairs inquiry into the police conduct in the October 2000 events and in its treatment of Arab terror victims.

The relations of Jews and Arabs in Israel are a ticking bomb that require deliberate, cautious and wise treatment. A government that merely observes the processes in the Arab community and the changes in its attitude toward the state is being lazy and irresponsible.

After the holidays, it is time to reexamine the threats to Israel and the region, and muster the required courage for a considerable slash in the defense budget. This move is required in view of the updated political and security circumstances on the one hand, and the need to direct resources to narrowing the social gaps and improving the welfare of the individual, on the other.

After the holidays, the government is expected to make good on its promissory note and loosen the grip of the large trade unions on the state's utilities.

After the holidays, the government is called on to effectively address other important issues screaming for momentum and innovation, like traffic accidents, violence in the streets, and protecting the individual from crime.

After the holidays, nothing is expected to change. The coming year, which will be an election year, will be devoted mainly to political survival battles and not to providing a creative answer to the state's needs.