Shalom' at the Bottom of the Sea

"Shalom," the former flagship of the Israeli fleet, died and was buried at sea last week, about 200 kilometers off the coast of South Africa. No death notices appeared and no eulogies were delivered.

"Shalom," the former flagship of the Israeli fleet, died and was buried at sea last week, about 200 kilometers off the coast of South Africa. No death notices appeared and no eulogies were delivered.

The exhausted passenger liner was being towed by a Chinese tugboat from the United States to India, where it was to be dismantled for scrap, but began taking on water and sank. The ship was 37 years old, an old wreck that was renamed at least four times - as the German "Hanseatic," the Greek-Swiss-Panamanian "Doric," the "Canyon Ranch" and finally, the "Sun."

With a profligate crew of 450 serving 700 passengers, it sailed under the Israeli flag only three years after it was built in a French shipyard, but never recuperated from the argument over its two kitchens - the kosher one (the only one that actually operated) and the regular one - and the losses it incurred shortly before the era of jet airplanes for all.

In a sense, the only survivor of the "Shalom" is the person who, in the spring of 1967, took part in the turbulent Knesset debate over the ship's future - Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

The sinking of the "Shalom" has taken place at a time in which Israel is far from safe shores, with no lifeguard on the horizon. The illusion of Oslo was that in the end, as the two opposing national desires collided, things could turn bad; but that in the meantime, they are okay. But right now in the conflict, things are bad, with no certainty that things will turn out okay in the end.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is not pushing for war. His situation has changed. As the commander of a battalion, brigade or division, he had to prepare - and usually to hope - for the next battle. As defense minister, he had the prime minister above him. Now, as the final arbiter, his duty is to look three hilltops ahead and to the day after the war, the day of empty warehouses and anxiety over deteriorating relations with Washington, Cairo and Amman. Instead of striving to be higher, he makes do with being broader (politically speaking) and deeper (in terms of security).

But the final and complete outcome is not up to Sharon. Each suicide bomber who wades into a crowd, each exploding watermelon, could grab hold of the Israeli regime and shatter the thin cortex between controlled warfare and overreaction.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat deludes himself into thinking that such a reaction would lead to the realization of his desire for international intervention. Said intervention would be, at most, extremely confined and limited - like the multinational force that monitored the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut and not like the one that went back there after the Sabra and Chatila massacre and then hightailed it out of Lebanon after the terrorist bombing that claimed the lives of 241 Marines.

Arafat's salvation will not come from the Americans: They will intervene in words, but not in actions. They will fulfill their obligations, but will recoil at the first signs of resistance. Their aim is to manage crises, not get entangled in them.

In his election campaign, U.S. President George Bush referred positively - perhaps out of ignorance - to former president Ronald Reagan's Lebanon adventure. Bush will not be a Reagan; nor will he be a Clinton. At most, he'll be a William Rogers, whose initiative "to stop shooting and start talking" ended the War of Attrition at the cost of Israel's acceptance of UN Resolution 242 (and the Likud's departure from the government). There was no binding diplomatic follow-through, perhaps because former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser died less than two months later.

Arafat is ready to stop shooting only after Sharon starts talking, but such an approach assumes a 180-degree shift in Sharon's belief system. The deep chasm of aspirations for a permanent settlement cannot be bridged at this time either.

In the opinion of reserve Major General Avraham Tamir, following a round of discussions with prominent Arab public figures, a realistic goal would be a gradual process of linked interim steps - three steps within five years - toward a permanent settlement that would include an association with Jordan and a regional and multinational framework, as well as the rehabilitation of the refugees and their settlement outside of Israel.

First, the acts of hostility would end and a "national boundary of separation" between Israel and Palestine would be declared, in a different format than that outlined in the Oslo accords. The next move would be to the second separation boundary, the location of which would be agreed on during the first stage. In the end, a redeployment to permanent borders would be negotiated.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has, evidently, accepted this approach. Unless Arafat comes to his senses and accepts such a formula, years and leaders will come and go until the "Shalom" can be salvaged from the depths.