Repeat Performance

The festive spectacle of the Sharm el-Sheikh and Aqaba summit meetings this week evoked the ceremony on the White House lawn in which the Oslo agreement was signed on September 13, 1993.

1. The Oslo syndrome

The festive spectacle of the Sharm el-Sheikh and Aqaba summit meetings this week evoked the ceremony on the White House lawn in which the Oslo agreement was signed on September 13, 1993. Again, platforms were erected against a spectacular backdrop, again the leader of the world's greatest power made an effort to knock together the heads of the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians, again promising declarations were made (this time an effort was also made to obtain the patronage of important Arab leaders for the process), again an operative plan was placed on the table, this time known as the road map, and again there is no certainty that the two sides intend to carry out the commitments they ostensibly assumed in their decision to approve the plan.

Anyone with eyes in his head understands that the recipe for ending the conflict is a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (or an agreement to exchange territories) in exchange for Palestinian acceptance of Israel's existence as a state that fulfills the Zionist idea (including the Palestinians' forgoing of the right of return).

Even if progress was made at the Aqaba summit that will lead to a downturn in violence, it seems doubtful that the leaders of the two nations have in fact internalized the price of the compromises that they will have to make in order to bring peace to this land.

According to Israeli intelligence reports, Abu Mazen continues to believe that only a total withdrawal, the dismantlement of all the Israeli settlements, giving every Palestinian the possibility to decide whether to realize the right of return within the borders of Israel and handing over East Jerusalem to the sovereignty of the Palestinian state will make it possible for a permanent settlement to be achieved. As such, he is no different from Yasser Arafat. Ariel Sharon has absolutely no intention of accepting these demands. When he talks about readiness for "painful concessions" he is thinking about something else entirely.

At most, Sharon wants to get safely through the implementation of phase one of the road map and reach the negotiations on phase two. "Getting safely through" means to continue maintaining good relations with the United States, avoid a crisis with President George Bush and keep his government whole.

The conditions Israel has to fulfill in phase one include: withdraw to the Israel Defense Forces' lines of deployment as they existed before the outbreak of the intifada at the end of September, 2000; freeze construction in the settlements, including construction to meet the needs of natural growth; evacuate all the settlement outposts erected since March, 2001; issue a declaration recognizing the two-state vision of President Bush; cease incitement against the Palestinians; and avoid military activity that adversely affects trust, such as deportations, confiscation of property, demolition of houses and more.

There are already problems in the realization of these articles of the document, but Sharon looks and sounds as though he intends to carry out his part of the agreement. For the moment, this does not entail a high political price. He has already declared his readiness to recognize a Palestinian state, and his election as leader of the Likud and prime minister of Israel would appear to validate his decision to pursue this course of action. President Bush is demanding for now that he dismantle "illegal" outposts - a flexible term that makes it possible for both the National Union and the National Religious Party to remain in the government - and is inviting negotiations with the administration on the number of such sites that have to be evacuated.

Sharon has no ideological problem in terms of removing the IDF from the center of Palestinian cities if terrorism in fact stops. Sharon is giving the impression that he has a short-term goal: to get safely to the end of 2003 - when the presidential election campaign in the United States will begin - without having to make the country, and the government, experience the brutal shock that will occur when the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are reached.

2. Obstacles on the road

Anyone who wants to cross the waters of phase one of the road map without getting wet will deliberately sidestep the critical elements of the conflict between the two nations. This is tantamount to a declaration that there is no intention of resolving the conflict and making the concessions that are necessary to achieve this; it is to make do with temporarily and superficially reducing the flames. Thus the Oslo syndrome repeats itself: at this time, Israel and the Palestinians are not demonstrating a willingness to abandon their basic positions. Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) this week seemed to be marionettes in the hands of the American presidential puppeteer, not two adversaries who reached the conclusion that it would be best if they made peace.

Sharon came to Aqaba after being pressured by Bush. The scale of the pressure can be judged, perhaps, by what senior American representatives said to official Israeli guests and from the reasons that were put forward last week by Sharon's aides in the effort to obtain the support of cabinet ministers for the road map. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was told by Secretary of State Colin Powell that approval of the road map is at the top of President Bush's agenda. Cabinet ministers were informed that if the road map was not approved, Washington would forbid Israel to make use of American weapons in the territories.

The persuasive means were effective, as shown by Sharon's immediate positive response and his agreement to accept all the American terms regarding the character of the Aqaba summit and declarations to be made there. Sharon undertook to declare his recognition of a Palestinian state, he accepted the United States' refusal to include in President Bush's speech at the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting a statement defining Israel as a Jewish state (that idea was raised by Foreign Minister Shalom), and he acquiesced in the demand that he announce his intention to evacuate the illegal settlements.

Sharon now appears to be trying to reduce the damage that he believes was caused in the wake of the approval of the road map, but without giving the appearance that he is trying to undermine it. Visitors who have met with him came away with the impression that there has been a turnabout in his attitude toward the Palestinians, but that seems unlikely. It's more likely that he is continuing to think in retail terms: to conclude the implementation of phase one of the road map without paying an excessive price and deploying as well as he can ahead of the phase two discussions.

The second stage lays down guidelines for normalizing the situation in the territories and for constitutional and organizational changes in the operation of the Palestinian Authority, with Israel having to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state in provisional borders, carry out a further withdrawal and dismantle settlements. These are political obstacles that at this time appear insurmountable, though their potential destructive power is not identical.

Sharon's vision in regard to the Palestinian state is well known. He is thinking about a state that is coextensive with Areas A and B and will be demilitarized, with Israel in control of its airspace and gates of entry. Upon hearing a report at this week's cabinet meeting concerning possible meetings of Israeli ministers with their Palestinian counterparts, Tourism Minister Benny Elon was outraged: "Why do we call them `ministers'?" he demanded. The prime minister responded with a patient laugh, "In the eyes of the entire world a Palestinian government exists whose members are ministers."

What he was saying, in effect, is that the Palestinian state is already a fact; placing the Israeli seal on it will be a declarative acceptance of reality. Sharon thus seeks to neutralize the anticipated opposition from those to his right to his agreement concerning the establishment of a Palestinian state.

He will also point to the series of restrictions that he intends to impose on the sovereignty of the neighboring state. The concession he will make to the Palestinians will be confined to his readiness to promise consecutive passage between all parts of the state, with this also applying to the provisional borders. On this point he will explain to his colleagues to the right that he is guaranteeing Israel against negative developments as a result of the establishment of a Palestinian state through his conception of the function of the security zones. Abu Mazen was made aware of this point of view five years ago.

The security zones

On July 2, 1997, Ariel Sharon, then the minister of national infrastructure, explained from the Knesset rostrum the security elements in a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians, as he described them to Abu Mazen in a meeting the two had held a few days earlier: a security zone about 20 kilometers wide extending westward from the Jordan River (along the Jordan Rift Valley) to the Allon Road, and a security zone from the 1967 Green Line eastward of between 15 and 20 kilometers. On other occasions, Sharon elaborated on the character of the security zone that will abut the Green Line: it will include a strip that will encompass the hills and ridges that overlook the population centers in Israel, as well as strips of a few kilometers on both sides of the lateral roads that connect the coastal plain to the Rift Valley, and a security strip that surrounds Jerusalem and its satellites as far as the hills that overlook the Dead Sea and on both sides of the Jerusalem-Dead Sea road.

Sharon is so far not deviating from this conception - not in the implementation of the first stage of the road map or even the second stage. The question is whether Bush will let him retain this approach. Bush's declaration at Sharm el-Sheikh indicates that his expectation is that even before the establishment of the Palestinian state in provisional borders, Israel will ensure that it has territorial continuity (and not only the possibility of consecutive transition, as Sharon thought, envisaging tunnels and bypass roads) and will also "deal with the settlements." That is an obstacle that Sharon will not succeed in overcoming with the current composition of the government. Even if the ministers to his right accept the dismantlement of "illegal outposts," they will not be able to accept the removal of established settlements, as the road map stipulates.

There is already disagreement with the United States over the number of settlements that are to be dismantled in the first phase: Are there between 100 and 120, as the United States maintains, or 20, according to the Israeli count? In consultations held this week in Jerusalem ahead of Aqaba, attorney Dov Weisglass, the director of the Prime Minister's Bureau, stood out as the leader of a line that seeks to avoid any form of confrontation with the administration.

Sharon was said to have accepted this view, and ministers Ehud Olmert and Yosef Lapid also recommended caution with respect to unnecessary quarrels with Washington. Three other ministers - Benjmanin Netanyahu, Silvan Shalom and Shaul Mofaz - espoused a more aggressive line, but in the end the approach favored by Sharon was accepted. The overall picture that emerged from these internal discussions was one of complete obedience to the American dictates.

Nevertheless, it is extremely doubtful that the government in its current composition intends to implement the road map. Even if it can muster the necessary flexibility to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state, it will not remain whole if it has to remove dozens of settlements. The Palestinians, too, are evading the implementation of important articles in the document (the replacement of their leadership, the consolidation of all their armed organizations "into three services reporting to an empowered interior minister").

The conclusion is that the Oslo syndrome is hovering over the process that was launched yesterday in Aqaba. Initially there will be positive results, but it's doubtful whether the administration will have the forbearance to keep up the pressure on the sides to implement the blueprint in its entirety and abandon their hidden intentions. With the Shavuot holiday in mind, it is possible to cling to one hope: Often processes of this kind are stronger than their fomenters.