Reality Bites

How long did Sharon think the public would be able to grit its teeth in a never-ending war of terrorism and escalation? Five years? Ten years? How many terrorism casualties can we tolerate? Two thousand? Ten thousand?

For more than a year the Israeli right watched with biting sarcasm from the opposition benches as the peace process expired, and cheered exultantly when it collapsed and died between the hands of Ehud Barak: How fortunate we are, despair has won the day. The main thing is that the settlements were saved. And in the three years of bereavement and failure since Ariel Sharon paid his famous visit to the Temple Mount, a bizarre political nirvana descended. True, the country was wallowing in its blood, but we could finally take a break from all the initiatives and the processes, and forget about making concessions. Quiet now, they're shooting.

It's been three years now, and you ain't seen nothin' yet. With glazed eyes, Israeli politics is watching the lazy swats of a prime minister who crushes and dismisses one political initiative after another as though he were shooing away a pesky fly.

After exhausting years of political creativity, accompanied by an internal rift, this might have seemed at first to bring about a certain calm, however wretched - like what a boxer who has been knocked to the floor feels. Contrary to the arguments of the settlers, no ideology won or lost. It was mainly the insane suicide terrorism of the Palestinians that made the public grab a uniform, rigid, domineering Israeli narrative with fear and anger.

It's as though a voice did rise forth and did say: I am the military narrative, your Lord. Thou shalt have no other narrative before me: Arafat decided to destroy Israel and torpedo any agreement, even though we conceded everything. The war is not about the settlements and the occupation, it's about Tel Aviv and Haifa. The war must be escalated until the Palestinians' hard disk of terrorism is formatted and every byte of the right of return is erased.

For three years this narrative became sanctified, exclusive and convenient. With blind enthusiasm, or weary plodding along, everyone accepted it: generals both active and retired, the invertebrates of the Labor Party, the despairing and terror-struck public and, from afar, the fundamentalist wings among Israel's friends in America and in the American administration.

This is not to say that the narrative expounded by Sharon, Mofaz and Co. about "not surrendering to terrorism" and "expectation of a different leadership" has no merit or logic of any kind. It's possible that it might even have proved itself if it were accompanied by some form of political flexibility, or a hint of readiness to exorcise the dybbuk known as the momentum of settlement building.

The trouble is that Sharon has always been bugged by a penchant for overkill and by a lack of any sense of proportion. He has always gone too far and bitten off more than he can chew: here an unnecessary battle, there another 10 fateful kilometers. How long did he think the public would be able to grit its teeth in a never-ending war of terrorism and escalation? Five years? Ten years? How many terrorism casualties can we tolerate? Two thousand? Ten thousand? How many peace initiatives can be rebuff? Five? Twenty? How many Palestinian leaderships can he dismiss and topple with empty phraseology?

It's not surprising that later, more than sooner, the cracks began to appear in the narrative that was cast in concrete. First it was the pilots, then demonstrations by the "peace camp," petitions by intellectuals and now, the most stunning and terrifying threat of all from Sharon's point of view: the return of Oslo in the form of the "Geneva Accord." It's nothing less than the resurrection of the dead, whose dust he trampled for three years and was about to cast to the four winds.

This is not to say that the peace process in our region was given to Yossi Beilin on Mount Sinai, or that he is registered as the sole owner. There is no obligation to rally to the support of this initiative, as on a day of reckoning. Especially when the "Oslo process" illustrated the dangers and illusions of excessive intellectualism, and more precisely the "formulation fetish," which believes that the correct structure of a well-phrased sentence can pacify the malignant maelstrom of generations.

Sharon, too, had the full right, if not the duty, to realize his promise that "Only Sharon will bring peace": if not in the form of a roundabout minuet, then with a few trained chops and blows; if not by subtle intelligence, then by a farmer's gut feelings. However, after three years it turns out that Sharon has not only failed to promote the peace process: It's doubtful that he has any interest in it.

This is where the major importance of the Beilin document lies, beyond any practical usefulness it may have: in the very fact that it calls Sharon's bluff. It's no wonder that Sharon's furious and embarrassed response recalls the joke about the guy in the theater audience who blocked everyone's view, but refused to remove his hat on the grounds that he had principles. Until one impatient guy went over and knocked the hat off his head, questioning his explanation: "Principles? All I see is lice."