Winds of Change

Two politicians - Amram Mitzna and Haim Ramon - who have set their sights on dismantling the Sharon government (mistakenly called a "unity government") are leaving the man who holds the prestigious defense portfolio far behind.

On Monday morning, Javier Solana spoke to one of the PLO chiefs he had met in Gaza a few hours before the Israeli operation in Khan Yunis. The man informed the European Union's foreign policy coordinator that even this incident would not cause the PLO and the Tanzim to renege on their commitment to declare attacks on civilians against the rules. Not only that, but Mohammed Dahlan continued his talks this week with leading factions in Hamas, whose public appeal for a hudna (cease-fire) was drowned out by the cries of the children who paid the price for the assassination of Salah Shehadeh. They are saying that a cease-fire may be possible after they take revenge for the new round of bloodshed that commenced this week in Khan Yunis.

The group of Palestinian leaders that planned to force on Yasser Arafat the appointment of Abu Mazen as a prime minister with genuine responsibilities, was taking a rather big chance. If Sharon had not surrounded the Muqata and thereby freed Arafat from his political siege, what excuse would the "conspirators" have given for unseating the human symbol that Israel is so anxious to be rid of? What exactly would Sharon have offered them in return for this move, which many in the Palestinian street - including Arafat's critics - would have regarded as a humiliating surrender to Sharon's dictates? Would Labor leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer or Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres have tried to convince Sharon to freeze the construction of, say, one house in Netzarim, as a gesture of good will?

The only gestures this government is prepared to make - and even then, only token ones - are directed at the United States. Those around the prime minister are saying that if he manages to beat Benjamin Netanyahu, the day after the war on Iraq, Sharon will try to seduce the political center by invoking that clause in President Bush's speech about establishing a Palestinian state with temporary borders. The Palestinians will presumably reject any plan that doesn't specify an exact date for the end of Israeli occupation. Bush, whose brain will already be preoccupied with the presidential elections, will prefer angering the Arabs to quarreling with the Jews. Actually, if the majority of Israelis are so content with the policies of the Sharon/Ben-Eliezer duo that they are prepared to extend their term of office, who are we to badmouth the goyim?

As always, the salvation of the large Israeli and Palestinian majority still willing to make those really painful concessions can only come from below. It seems logical that electing a just, peace-seeking leadership on one side will encourage the other side to elect a moderate leadership, too. A sign that the Israeli public is also looking for a change, and not necessarily the kind offered by Effi Eitam, can be found in a whole host of surveys. Two politicians - Amram Mitzna and Haim Ramon - who have set their sights on dismantling the Sharon government (mistakenly called a "unity government") are leaving the man who holds the prestigious defense portfolio far behind.

If the two of them keep the promise whispered into their friends' ears about not risking the possibility of one of them losing to Ben-Eliezer in the second round, there is a good chance that next month, a large body of overlooked voters midway between the doves of Meretz and the hawks of the Likud will have a leader. If either Ramon or Mitzna come out ahead, the Labor Party will probably drop Sharon on the spot and extend a hand to the partner taking shape in Ramallah and Gaza. If Ben-Eliezer wins, Yossi Beilin will ask his friends on the left to join the social democratic party waiting on the shelf for the results of the primaries on November 19.

Without exaggeration, these early elections could be more important than the elections for the next Knesset. We must take into account, of course, that the damage inflicted by long months of paralysis may be difficult to repair before the country goes to elections (presumably earlier than scheduled). The convalescence may be prolonged and painful, but whatever the outcome, things will no longer be what they are. Nowadays, even that is something.