In a much-noted speech last week, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ostensibly made a dramatic reversal in course. But I am wondering whether to take his shift at face value.
Mr. Sharon announced that the "road map," a U.S. plan that envisions Israel and the Palestinians negotiating a settlement between them, has only a "few months" left to live. If "the Palestinians still continue to disregard their part in implementing the road map," he warned, "Israel will initiate the unilateral security step of disengagement from the Palestinians."
This "Disengagement Plan," he explained, will include "the redeployment of [Israeli] forces along new security lines and a change in the deployment of settlements" to reduce the number of Israelis living among Palestinians. Security will be provided by "[Israel Defense Forces] deployment, the security fence, and other physical obstacles."
Perhaps the most startling element of this speech — because it is most at odds with Mr. Sharon's long-time views — was this statement about the Israeli civilians living in the West Bank and Gaza: "There will be no construction beyond the existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, no special economic incentives and no construction of new settlements."
Though presented in a take-charge, active, and even somewhat bellicose manner, the Disengagement Plan sent three defeatist messages:
Palestinian terrorism works. Even as violence and attempted violence against Israelis continues (24 suicide attacks have been thwarted just since October 4, 2003), it grants several key Palestinian demands: more land under Palestinian Authority control, removal of roadblocks in place to protect Israeli lives, and dismantling some Jewish habitations in the West Bank and Gaza. Mr. Sharon appears to be hoping that concessions will appease the beast.
Israel is in retreat. Mr. Sharon presented his plan as an ultimatum to the Palestinians, but, however aggressively wrapped, its substance constitutes a capitulation. In the words of Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian academic and politician, as radical Palestinians watch the debate in Israel unfold and note concessions being offered, "they don't think of it as a favor from Sharon's government, they see it as an outcome of their struggle."
Israelis are fearful. Passive obstacles — walls, road blocks, demilitarized zones, and the like — have the tactical utility of reducing casualties and defining territory. But they are useless on the strategic level; they cannot solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. No fence, however high, however deeply dug, however electrified and monitored, can win a war. To the contrary, building a wall implies cowering behind it, hoping the enemy will not strike. And cowering signals to the Palestinians that they enjoy the initiative and that Israel has gone into a defensive mode.
Taken at face value, then, the Sharon speech amounts to a major blunder; were its defeatist policies put into effect, they would spur Palestinians to engage in more violence, and so delay a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But that's taking this speech at face value. Count this observer as skeptical that Mr. Sharon actually means what he says, for it too starkly contradicts his known views, for example, on the need for Israelis to control the West Bank. (In 1998, as foreign minister, he urged Israelis there to "grab more hills, expand the territory. Everything that's grabbed, will be in our hands. Everything we don't grab will be in their hands.") Last week's speech appears to reflect momentary imperatives, not long-term goals.
This reflects the fact that as prime minister, Mr. Sharon has two different audiences. Palestinians he wants to convince that violence against Israelis is counterproductive, and this he achieves by retaliating hard against terrorism. The Israeli public and President Bush he wants to stay on good terms with by demonstrably engaging in diplomacy.
Maintaining these two more-or-less contradictory policies at the same time has not been easy; Mr. Sharon has done so through a virtuoso performance of quietly tough actions mixed with voluble concessions.
I don't pretend to know what is on the prime minister's mind — he does not confide in me — but I do suspect that his speech last week amounted to yet another such concession, this time addressed to an Israeli public demanding something more activist and immediate than the achingly long-term policy of deterrence. Mr. Sharon, a shrewd politician who knows when he must bend, has outlined a plan that I believe he has little wish to fulfill.