Sharon in Barak's Footsteps

Before he continues down Barak's path, Sharon should remember that Barak proved to be prophetic. He had the time sequence down pat - 15 months after he came into power, the political process fell apart and the violent conflict broke out.

Ehud Barak boasts of being the ideological father of the "disengagement plan." According to Barak, after he realized at Camp David that "he had no partner" on the Palestinian side, he suggested unilateral disengagement from most of the territories, and annexation to Israel of settlement blocs, behind a fence, until conditions were ripe for renewing the negotiations. If only they had listened to him. Now Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is striding down the same path, and is proposing a deal for partial withdrawal from the territories in return for partial annexation (Gaza in exchange for the West Bank), with the support of the United States.

Like Barak, Sharon believes in taking advantage of opportune political moments in America. When he came to power, Barak talked about 15 months, during which he would try to put an end to the conflict with Syria and with the Palestinians. The time schedule corresponded to the remainder of the term of former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and relied on the outgoing president's desire to win a Nobel Peace Prize and to repair the damage to his image caused by the Monica Lewinsky affair. Sharon's plan relies on the difficulties of U.S. President George W. Bush, who is fighting to survive in the White House, and on America's disappointment with the Palestinians.

Sharon is apparently afraid that after the elections, American patience will run out, and would-be president John Kerry, or second-term president Bush, will impose an arrangement on Israel, in the form of the Geneva Initiative or the Saudi initiative - in other words, withdrawal from all the occupied territories and a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem. This is why Sharon is trying to lock the U.S. administration into a long-term commitment to leave Israel alone, after it withdraws from the Gaza Strip and from parts of the West Bank. "I have to exploit the rare opportunity that has arisen," he said this week to the Likud faction.

Barak asked the Americans for tens of billions of dollars and Tomahawk missiles. Sharon is modest in his monetary requests. He wants only a "green light agreement," in which Israel will be released from any demand to negotiate with the Palestinians, and will be allowed to build in the settlement blocs and to administer severe military blows if the terror continues - until a new, terror-fighting leadership emerges among the Palestinians.

It's not clear whether Sharon planned the "green light agreement" ahead of time, or brought it up for the purpose of appeasing those in the Likud who oppose the withdrawal and of convincing his reluctant ministers (Netanyahu, Shalom, Livnat) - and in order not to be a hostage to Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres. It's clear that he is trying to impose a long-term interim agreement on the Palestinians, in the spirit of his old concept, which will leave the "security areas" in the Jordan Valley, western Samaria and around Jerusalem, in Israel's hands.

Sharon has come in for quite a lot of criticism over his intention to evacuate settlements without getting, or even asking for, something in return from the Palestinians. He was asked why he didn't offer the same concessions to former Palestinian prime minister Abu Mazen and prevent his downfall. Anyone who thinks that way doesn't understand the prime minister. From his point of view, it's preferable to withdraw unilaterally to a line determined by Israel, rather than to enter the tunnel of negotiations, in which the Palestinians will demand "more" and the world will support them.

Sharon has stuck by his two refusals - "no" to the 1967 lines, and "no" to talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. They are more important to him than the appearance of "mutuality" and reciprocity from the PA, which he calls "a government of lies and murder."

And before he continues down Barak's path, Sharon should remember how it ended. Barak proved to be prophetic, and had the time sequence down pat - 15 months after he came into power, the political process fell apart and the violent conflict broke out. But a correct assessment is not sufficient, nor is American support. That same Barak, who is presently emphasizing his proposals for disengagement, got cold feet and failed to carry them out. Instead of going to a unity government with Sharon and separating from the Palestinians, he was induced by Yossi Beilin to offer more and more concessions to Arafat-who-is-not-a-partner, until the capitulation talks in Taba, at the end of which Barak was kicked out of the government.