Not in the Footsteps of His Predecessors

Sharon differs from his predecessors in two ways. He craves general acceptance, especially by his critics, yearns for his rival's embrace, and prefers a government with Labor over a government dependent on the religious right.

This week, the CIA released an updated edition of the annual World Factbook, which, among other things, provides Israel with a clear reminder as to how temporary the American administration considers Israel's status in the annexed and (i.e. East Jerusalem, Golan Heights) and occupied territories. The annual publication puts Israel's population at 6,030,000, one-fifth not Jewish, and the number of Palestinians at 3.4 million, of which nearly 2.2 million live in the West Bank. Based on this equation, the gap between the Jewish population of Israel and the total number of Palestinians and Arab Israelis is a mere 200,000.

Trends favoring an Arab majority in Greater Israel are rapidly accelerating. One of every two Gaza residents is aged 14 or younger; four of every nine West Bank residents are babies and children; whereas only slightly more than one-quarter of Israeli Jews are in this age bracket.

One of 10 Israelis is 65 or older, as opposed to one of 25 in the West Bank and one in 33 in Gaza (although this minority also includes Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and PA Chairman Yasser Arafat).

Life expectancy is much higher in Israel at 78.9 years (81 for women, 76.8 for men); in Gaza it is 71.2 years (72.5 for women, 70 for men) and in the West Bank it is 72.5 years (74.3 for women, 70.8 for men). Infant mortality is much lower in Israel (7.55 deaths per thousand births; 21.2 in the West Bank, 24.8 in Gaza). However, the percentage of population growth is 3.4 in the West Bank and 3.95 in Gaza, which contrasts with 1.5 percent in Israel. The fertility rate is 2.54 children per woman in Israel, 4.77 in the West Bank and 6.29 in Gaza.

Gaza's physical separation from the West Bank and its skewed GDP per capita ($1,000 per year in the West Bank, $625 in Gaza compared to $19,000 in Israel) may be likened to a ladder with Israeli Jews at the top followed by Israeli Arabs, East Jerusalemites, West Bank Palestinians, and - on the lowest rung - Gaza Palestinians. Melding the two parts of Palestine into a single entity would not be easy. West Bank residents, who look patronizingly upon Gazans, would have to contend with a decline in their subsistence level even before adding in the cost of absorbing more refugees.

This data relates to individuals currently subject to Israeli rule and the meaning is clear: as the years pass, there will be increasingly more Palestinians who are increasingly less happy, to whom it would be wise to send a signal of hope for a better future. Land-wise, this hope would be a freeze on settlements as a preface to their evacuation as part of an eventual peace agreement. Nation-wise, it would be good news that they would be getting some sort of state even before the determination of permanent borders.

This, in essence, is the diplomatic program of U.S. President George W. Bush that is acceptable to Sharon, on condition that Palestinian violence ends. Sharon is walking - or being led - along the same path as his three predecessors, all Likud prime ministers, who buckled under American pressure and backed away from their rejectionist positions. Under the weight of the Jimmy Carter steamroller, Menachem Begin's autonomy, which first began as an eternal solution, became an interim stepping stone to a diplomatic entity; Yitzhak Shamir was compelled to respond to Bush Sr.'s invitation to the Madrid Conference and talk with the internal PLO, under the control of the external PLO, as part of the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation; and Benjamin Netanyahu forged an agreement with Arafat at the Wye summit.

These precedents are not as straightforward as they might seem at first glance. All three men also tried to shirk off the responsibility of implementing the agreements they had signed, for days, or, at times, for hours. It will therefore come as no surprise that Bush will issue the order, Sharon will obey - for the sake of his survival in the internal politics arena - and then will try to finesse an evasion of his commitments.

But maybe not. Sharon differs from his predecessors in two ways. He craves general acceptance, especially by his critics, yearns for his rival's embrace (as an adviser to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, as eagerly wanting to join the governments of Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak) and prefers a government with Labor - despite its schizophrenic policy warp - over a government dependent on the religious and the right. Politically he is stronger than Begin of 1981, who avoided a loss to Peres by the skin of his teeth, as well as Shamir and Netanyahu, who lost to Rabin and Barak six months after Madrid/Wye.

Sharon - reinforced by Netanyahu as his deputy and heir apparent - now seems to be coasting toward easy victory in the 2003 elections. With Bush as king of the world, it will be easier for Sharon to give himself over, realize his desire for support of the majority in Israel, and agree to a peace in exchange for land.