Mr. Sharon goes to Crawford

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When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon flies to President George W. Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch for a scheduled April 11 meeting, the premier will leave behind a tense, bitterly divided nation still in the dark about his real intentions after disengagement.

And despite achieving high levels of public support, Sharon’s government remains shaky and may well collapse before the end of the year. Yet the prime minister continues to treat his cabinet colleagues like schoolchildren, refusing to consult them on new initiatives and denying them insight into his intended end game.

The prime minister’s determination to avoid publicly discussing difficult issues such as borders and the retention of settlement blocs could lead to disastrous consequences. It may even pave the way for a concerted international effort to force us to back to the indefensible “Auschwitz borders” of 1967. Should that happen, Sharon and his ministers will, rightly, be blamed for having failed to capitalize on the unique window of opportunity that prevailed with the Americans.

The April 14, 2004, letter by Bush to Sharon referencing the need to take into account “major Israeli populations centers” was an immensely important breakthrough. But Sharon misleadingly implied that the administration had actually committed itself to supporting Israel’s right to annex the major settlement blocs. What Bush wrote was that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” Sharon glossed over the fact that Bush also wrote that annexation of settlements could only take place in the context of final status negotiations and as an outcome “of mutually agreed changes that reflect the realities.”

Describing such a qualified statement as a firm commitment may once again prove to be nothing more than wishful thinking, a recycling of the delusions that prevailed during Oslo euphoria.

Instead of exploiting the statement for domestic political considerations, our prime minister should have launched a campaign to obtain formal administration and Congressional ratification of the views expressed by Bush. Moreover, this should be done in tandem with a request for an unequivocal US repudiation of the Arab right of return.

The extent of the confusion was illustrated by the harsh reactions to Israel’s ill-timed Ma’aleh Adumim expansion announcement. Despite the usual diplomatic equivocations, US Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated the non-binding character of the president’s letter relating to the retention of settlement blocs. If that is the American stance today in the midst of Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal, what should one expect from a future American administration?

Therefore, Sharon must admit that American support for the annexation of settlement blocs is far from a done deal; he must inform the administration that unless vague Bush statements are transformed into explicit commitments, he will be confronted with a catastrophic internal upheaval.

Time is running out and this matter must be resolved during Sharon’s Texas sojourn. The administration is under enormous European pressure to become more “even handed” and rebuild bridges with the EU. Demands on Israel to be more “forthcoming” are also being intensified because of the prevailing belief (without any real substance) that Mahmoud Abbas is a genuine peace partner who should be encouraged.

It is therefore vital, that on his forthcoming trip, Sharon pulls out all stops to persuade our American friends that the disengagement is having a radically divisive impact on Israeli society, and urge the administration to enable him to diffuse some of this tension by formally ratifying the views already expressed in Bush’s letter. Sharon should also underline the fact that retention of major settlement blocs and rejecting the Arab right of return, are issues that have genuine existential implications for us.

Loyal supporters of the prime minister such as ministers Ehud Olmert, Shaul Mofaz and Meir Sheetrit would be doing him – and us –a service if they announced that they too consider the domestic schisms arising from disengagement unacceptable in the absence of an explicit US ratification of the ideas expressed in the Bush letter.

It stands to reason that if Sharon is to succeed in gaining American support, he must also stop misleading his own people. He can no longer fall back on his oft-repeated “trust me” mantra. It is past time for him to report to the nation and make us privy to his intentions. A public discussion could well be painful, but it should take place now rather than later, especially as a broad consensus already exists in relation to the red lines that we would be unwilling to cross.

Since the Oslo debacle and especially since September 2000 when the current Palestinian onslaught was unleashed, Israelis have undergone immense trauma. But we have far more common sense than our leaders credit us with. We will endorse “painful sacrifices” to achieve a real peace. But we are entitled to be treated with respect and told the truth. At present most of us are plagued with doubts as to Sharon’s intentions and many are disinclined to believe anything he says.

The time for openness and transparency is long overdue. We are at a crucial turning point in our history and we should not be obliged to read Sharon’s mind.

Mr. Sharon: Speak to us.

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