"If my grandmother had wheels, she'd be a bus." In the 1970s, that was the profound theory that served the captains of state as their pseudo-witty response to the question that was beginning to be asked: If the PLO recognizes Israel, will Israel negotiate with it? Yigal Allon, founding father of the settlements in Judea, loved tossing around the grandmother aphorism. If the PLO recognizes Israel, he used to say, it won't be the PLO.
Even before that, in the earliest years of the occupation when Golda Meir was prime minister, the solemn incantation "without preconditions" became Israel's precondition for any negotiations with the Arabs. Later, Israeli governments hid behind the safe mantra of "only direct negotiations." It was all part of the effort to build obstacles in the path of a process that could lead to Israel's ouster from the territories.
These formulas were considered safe because, said conventional wisdom at the time, the Arabs would never agree to them - and if they ever did, it would be after years, during which the settlements would continue to proliferate and grow, ensuring that any Arab agreement would anyway be irrelevant.
Now, in the spirit of that imaginative political tradition, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, father of the Samaria settlements (and of a good many in Judea and Gaza too), has come up with a catchy new formula that is intended to fulfil the same role as a guarantor of eternal procrastination - "reform".
The Palestinian Authority, says Sharon, is in desperate need of reform. It needs reforms in practically every sphere: security, business, justice and social affairs. The PA must become "fully transparent," Sharon declared in the Knesset this week. It "must become another authority." Then - and only then - will Israel deign to enter into a long process of interim agreements, to be followed at some vague time in the future by discussion of "permanent peace" (there was no mention of Palestinian statehood, for which he had ostensibly fought at the Likud Central Committee two days earlier). Until these reforms have taken place, there would be nobody to talk to on the other side, and certainly nothing to talk about.
This time, however, unlike in the days of Meir and Allon whose formulas helped prevent any political progress for many years, Sharon's formula could yet disappoint its inventor.
Instead of falling on deaf Palestinian and Arab ears, Sharon's call for reform has coincided with a growing wave of domestic Palestinian fervor against the corruption, decay and violence that besot the Palestinian Authority and its chairman. Worse yet (from Sharon's point of view), this wave of revulsion is supported by the leading moderate Arab states. Some fear for the stability of their own regimes, others fear for regional stability. But they all share deepening doubts about Arafat - the man, his methods and his idiosyncracies.
In the wider world, too, especially among the donor countries that gave the PA millions of dollars which went down the drain, Sharon's call for reforms elicits echoes of agreement and understanding. The endorsement is sweeping, even though there is little sympathy for Sharon himself, who is not perceived as someone whose heart goes out to the Palestinians suffocating under the burden of a nontransparent PA. All support the call for reform - Americans, Europeans, Russians, Asians and Arabs - from the entirely transparent to the totally opaque.
When he came up with the slogan of Palestinian reform, Sharon doubtless believed that it was doomed to failure - and therefore, as far as he was concerned, to success - because it implied the removal of Arafat, or at least his marginalization in a non-executive, symbolic role. But the prime minister did not take into account the intense distaste - and not only in Israel and America - now shared by so many for the aging Palestinian leader. Ironically, as it turns out, Sharon did not accurately assess the impact of the suicide bombings, and especially Arafat's passive reaction to them. Not that suddenly people everywhere were concerned about the spilling of Jewish blood. But everywhere there was fear of the inevitable reaction from the Jewish state and the possible ramifications for stability in the region and the world. Even for many supporters of the Palestinian cause, Arafat had become a burden. More importantly, he became expendable.
Among many statesmen, there is a powerful, growing sense that the peace-for-land formula accepted by the entire international community could materialize faster without Arafat than with him, and that a deep reform which shakes up the leadership and the administration of the PA would greatly help to achieve that goal.
Hopefully, therefore, the call for Palestinian reform may turn out not to be an obstacle, as originally planned, but a catalyst. That is not what Sharon had in mind. If it happens, he could yet find himself, despite himself, going down in history as the leader who brought peace and security (as he promised) by expediting the re-partition of the Land of Israel between the two peoples who live in it.
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