The retro Sharon we saw in the past few days at Crawford Ranch is the Sharon that Israel watchers have been used to seeing over the past decades: petulant, fiercely defiant in the face of superior political force, truculent.
Everybody in the entire world knew in the lead up to the meeting it wasn’t going to be pleasant for him. While I despise the man, I do have an ounce of fellow feeling for his predicament. What leader of a country who’s lead his troops to magnificent victories in three wars wants to get taken to the woodshed by the President of the United States?
But before Sharon’s Crawford fiasco I was almost warming to the guy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was thinking DeGaulle or even Begin (evacuating the Sinai). But I was starting to give him credit that he seems to have pulled off the Gaza withdrawal with some deft political maneuvering & impressive moxie in facing down the rabid settler refuseniks. My hope was that Sharon might’ve understood that Gaza was only a first step to peace and not a final step.
But I knew the old Sharon was lurking behind the mask of moderation. And he came out with all his bristling, snarling gusto.
Among the incendiary gems the New York Times reported that he said:
Israelis "are very much interested" in achieving "contiguity between Maale Adumim and Jerusalem."
"It is the Israeli position that the major Israeli population centers will remain in Israel’s hands under any future final status agreement with all related consequences."
Why certainly. That’s the most reasonable attitude in the world. Let’s build 3,500 new homes in a settlement the entire world (sans Israel) recognizes as seized Palestinian land. What’s the problem with that? Surely the Palestinians cannot have a problem with that, can they?
I have always suspected that Sharon saw the Gaza withdrawal as the end of the road rather than the beginning. His truculent reaction to Bush’s entirely reasonable statement that "Israel has obligations under the road map. The road map clearly says no expansion of settlements," indicates what Sharon’s real strategy is.
Furthermore, Sharon appears to be reverting to old form on another one of his bugaboos: cessation of Palestinian terror.
Sharon said the road map could go forward only if Mr. Abbas succeeded in ending attacks against Israelis and dismantling what he called "terrorist infrastructure."
"I believe that in order to move forward, in order to be able later to move to the road map, the Palestinians must take more steps because it should be completely quiet," he said. The American position on the road map is that both sides need to move simultaneously, not that the Palestinians need to move first.
And that’s clearly what the Road Map says. But Sharon ignores that. The Road Map exists for Sharon, when it exists at all, as a convenient fig leaf for whatever he wants his policy to be.
I’ve got to say that Bush, a president I deeply despise, has begun to realize his potential in staking out a reasonable policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He came down hard on Sharon about Maale Adumim:
"Israel has obligations under the road map," Mr. Bush said, speaking to reporters with Mr. Sharon at his side. "The road map clearly says no expansion of settlements."
This is the type of hard clarity Israel needs to hear from the U.S. and which has been sorely lacking for the past four years.
I wonder what Bush’s clear opposition to Israeli settlement expansion will do to his support among the right-leaning American Jewish leadership (or elite)? I can’t believe that AIPAC or the Conference of Presidents is going to like this much since they barely support the Gaza withdrawal. On the other hand, these group have to know that Bush is just about the only game in town as far as Israel is concerned. What’s the alternative? Bush is clearly in command in Washington and there are no other power centers to which Israel or its minions can turn (unless you count the Christian Zionist lobby as a serious power center).
Bush even tempered his earlier shameful pledge to allow Israel to retain large settlement blocs of territory AFTER negotiations conclude by adding in his statement yesterday, according to the Times:
…Such realities – meaning the existence of large Israeli settlements in disputed areas – would not necessarily be part of any final deal but would have to be agreed on by the Palestinians.
This dilemma reminds me of the old philosophical puzzle: what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Well, the settlements and Palestinian opposition to them are an irresistible force and an immovable object. I don’t know who or what’s going to give first.