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READING THE ROAD MAP
ARIEL SHARON TAKES A SURPRISING STEP BACK FROM 'OCCUPATION'

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's reluctant but strongly voiced acceptance this weekend of the internationally brokered "road map to peace" took political courage, but it also was a necessary step if any resolution of this conflict is to stand a chance. There is no viable alternative.

That said, it is far too soon for unrestrained optimism, given the depth of the divisions between Palestinians and Israelis and the intense efforts of hard-liners on both sides to undercut any process that does not end by pushing the other side out of existence.

But this weekend's 12-7 vote by the Israeli cabinet backing the peace plan, reached only after a stormy session called by Sharon, was a milestone: the first Israeli government endorsement of an independent Palestinian state. (Former prime minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a state that would have included the Gaza Strip, most of the West Bank and a foothold in East Jerusalem, but negotiations fell apart before his cabinet could vote on the plan).

Meanwhile, the stormier Likud Party meeting that followed the cabinet session included another significant step, Sharon's use of the word "occupation" to describe Israeli rule over Palestinian territories -- a word used virtually everywhere else in the world when describing Israeli control of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. If negotiations are to provide an answer to this crisis, the language of diplomacy has to reach such common ground.

Now, three major questions loom:

1. Will Sharon truly commit to the peace process instead of playing along simply to divert American and international pressure?

2. If he does commit in deeds as well as words, will he be able to pull his party and his ruling coalition along with him?

3. Will Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas be able to crack down on radical militants like Hamas and prevent a new round of terrorism?

This week, Sharon weathered biting criticism from the hawks who make up much of his own party, as well as efforts by even more hard-line parties in his ruling coalition to withdraw from the parliamentary majority. That in itself is not a sign of hope -- the movement to bring down the government faltered only because of the political reality that more dovish parties would simply move into the void.

Nevertheless, the survival of Sharon's government avoids immediate chaos and boosts the diplomatic efforts that will continue when Sharon meets again with Abbas. But nothing comes easily in this troubled part of the world. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat Tuesday forced the postponement of a scheduled meeting between the prime ministers today, reportedly because he wanted discuss Israeli proposals for security arrangements before approving another summit.

More likely, it was Arafat sending a reminder that he, and not Abbas, is in charge.

The first phase of the peace process calls for concrete steps, a crackdown on Hamas and other terrorists by the Palestinians, and an easing of restrictions on civilians, troop withdrawals and a freeze on settlement construction by Israelis. Those concessions -- and especially those relating to the settlements Sharon long has championed -- will prove tough tests for the Israeli leader. And Abbas and Arafat may fail their challenge, which also involves defying strong domestic political forces and abandoning long-held demands.

Israelis, according to national polls, favor both peace and the peace process, and are willing to accept the formation of an independent Palestinian state. Indeed, there seems little room for an alternative if Israel itself is to remain a Jewish state. Within a few years Israeli Arabs and Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza will outnumber Israeli Jews, and either the religious nature of the state or its political status as a democracy may have to change.

If nothing else, Sharon's acknowledgment of political and diplomatic realities -- whether triggered by American pressure or a hard look at the future -- offers both Israelis and Palestinians a glimpse of a better tomorrow. The challenge for diplomats is to wedge that opening ever wider, until the view triggers hope in the people of this region and undercuts the efforts of those who would rely on violence to slam the door on peace yet again.

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