Of late I have criticized Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for maintaining the status quo and only responding to events rather than developing initiatives in accordance with a strategic game plan of his own. This paralysis, coming at a time when our relationship with the Americans had reached an all-time high following the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, resulted in missed opportunities of historic dimension.
Instead of capitalizing on the new situation, he dilly-dallied, prompting a weakening of morale on the home front and confrontation with the Bush administration vis-a-vis the road map which failed to take our security requirements into account.
For months now, Sharon has been pressed by the Israeli public and by the Americans to formulate a more activist policy. Only in the wake of Ehud Olmert’s dramatic call for unilateral withdrawals and dismantlement of settlements did he bite the bullet, elaborating for the first time a far-reaching disengagement strategy including the relocation of some settlements.
His plan of action will find resonance with the majority of Israelis who believe that if we intend to separate ourselves from the Palestinians, the maintenance of settlements in heavily Arab-populated areas cannot be sustained.
However, the short-term Sharon message will unquestionably be regarded by the Palestinians as defeatist.
How can it be otherwise?
The prime minister is effectively saying that if the Palestinians come to their senses and revert to negotiations, he will close down the “illegal outposts.” If, on the other hand, they continue the terror, he will close down a number of “isolated settlements.” This is what Sharon’s Herzliya speech boils down to – a bizarre policy which is hardly calculated to influence the Palestinians.
Gone are the penalties for Palestinian intransigence. If the unilateral territorial consolidation is to be dictated solely by security considerations, as Sharon himself insists, and is in no way to be construed as political annexation, then all Palestinian bets for the future are still open.
Moreover, Sharon kicked in his own goal by pacifying the Americans with the promise to effectively freeze future settlement construction irrespective of the Palestinian response. In such a scenario, all Arafat has to do is to sit back and maintain the terror while Sharon concedes territories and settlements.
Everything is a matter of style and timing. The withdrawal from Lebanon enjoyed overwhelming support but the chaotic manner in which it was executed encouraged Palestinians to believe that terrorism pays, thus paving the way for the intifada. By now offering to withdraw unilaterally under fire, Sharon is certainly sending the Palestinians the same message – that terrorism will be rewarded.
THE POLITICAL response to the Sharon plan was predictable. The right wing condemned him for betraying everything it stood for, while Shimon Peres accused him of procrastinating and predicted he had no intention of doing anything.
Clearly we stand at a crossroads.
The frequently used buzzwords “painful concessions” and the seeming inevitability of a future Judenrein Palestinian state has led most Israelis to conclude that withdrawal from isolated settlements is inevitable. But getting there the Sharon way is going to be particularly divisive, because he has now offered the Palestinians precisely the unilateral concessions under fire they had sought, the Left had always demanded, and he himself had hitherto savagely condemned.
In this difficult and painful environment the time has come for the cabinet and the Knesset to assume the decisive decision-making role that is properly their domain and cease bowing to policies determined ex cathedra by the prime minister’s bureau.
Policy decisions must be made by persuasion and consensus, not by diktat. Debate must take place in an atmosphere of civility and tolerance. The frenzied demonization that characterized so much of our recent national discourse must be avoided at all costs. One may disagree with Sharon and Olmert, but to accuse them of behaving like traitors is criminal. Equally obscene is the blanket condemnation of settlers as evil fanatics.
Such behavior polarizes the nation, portending a far greater potential disaster than anything our external enemies can inflict.
Of course, no amount of dialogue will assuage the pain and anguish of people dispossessed from their homes amid shattered cherished dreams. But even if many settlers are convinced that the government policies will lead to disaster, after canvassing their views and resorting to the courts, they must ultimately accept the will of the majority and reject those who would encourage them to defy democratically constituted norms.
Religious Zionists must speak up and condemn the extremists in their midst, including rabbis who insist that in matters of politics and security concerns, a higher authority than the government prevails, and that defense-related halachic edicts interpret the Almighty’s will. Nothing could alienate Israelis more from the sad state of the settlers than such outbursts.
The heaviest burden of responsibility lies on the Right. The national camp must face the reality that the prime minister will find a responsive chord among the Israeli public when, one day, he announces that soldiers will no longer protect isolated settlements that will, in any event, be abandoned in some future arrangement, whether unilateral or bilateral.
By the same token it will be up to the national camp to stand firm against those trends that would have us withdraw to the 1967 boundaries. They must, at all costs, avoid repeating the mistakes of the past when they quit the government and became marginalized in the opposition.
Such irresponsibility would simply pave the way for the return of the architects of Oslo.The Right must recognize that politics is the art of the possible and that by reconciling themselves to accepting some concessions they will be averting a far greater future disaster. Their task is to keep Sharon in harness to withstand the pressures from the Americans for further concessions which are bound to come, and which, if conceded, could result in a catastrophe.
Therefore, the continued presence of the National Union and the NRP in the Sharon government is more vital than ever. They share a national responsibility of historic dimensions to ensure that we retain what we can and do not return to the 1967 boundaries, which Abba Eban was wont to describe as “Auschwitz borders.”