WASHINGTON -- For the last three years, one crucial question about the Middle East has lurked just under the surface of events: Has Ariel Sharon changed his spots?
Is it possible, people of good (and not so good) will asked repeatedly, that the man who abhors Palestinians, who continually repeats, "There IS a Palestinian state -- it is Jordan," could now be willing to tolerate some kind of Palestinian state? That is what he has been telling the world and, more important, the all-believing Bush administration.
When I asked him three years ago on a Council on Foreign Relations video hookup between Washington and Jerusalem whether he still believed that Jordan was "the Palestinian state," he hemmed and hawed, did not deny it, and said only that "the world has changed." (Which, I suppose, no one could really argue with.)
And then this week, it became utterly clear. In one of those moments when someone speaks out of truthfulness, from a need to boast about one's cleverness, or simply because he forgot where he was that day, the senior aide to Prime Minister Sharon told the premier Israeli daily, Haaretz, that the goal of Sharon's much-touted "Gaza Plan" of supposed withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers was actually devised to halt for good the "road map" toward Palestinian statehood. It was a trick that made the gullible Americans believe their precious road map was being implemented.
"The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process," Dov Weisglass, who had been the prime minister's point man in negotiations with the Bush administration and remains Sharon's lawyer and close friend, told Haaretz. "Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda."
Then the prime minister's friend spoke with barely disguised satisfaction about how he had been able to get Washington to rubber-stamp everything Israel wanted to do. "And all this with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress," he continued. "What I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns."
The Sharon plan to withdraw from Gaza has frozen the entire Israeli-Palestinian peace process and guarantees that Israel will never have to remove at least 80 percent of its settlers from the occupied West Bank. Most Americans might know that President Bush, who seems to be clay in the hands of master strategic sculptor Sharon, gave the Israeli leader his go-ahead on the plan because he has never remotely understood the inner machinations of the Middle East; but most Americans would not know that the U.S. House of Representatives, always in thrall to the Israeli lobby, passed a resolution 400-to-9 applauding Sharon's "Gaza withdrawal plan."
Meanwhile, in the real world ... The brutal daily Israeli strikes into Gaza, a miserable stretch of land only 30 by 10 miles and housing more than a million impoverished Palestinians, are causing untold misery -- and are done in America's name. As Americans for Peace Now reports, the settlements are being expanded, and not, as Sharon says, frozen. The United Nations reports that more than 85 percent of the barrier wall that Sharon is building is being constructed inside the West Bank, thus systematically taking over Palestinian lands. In Gaza and on the West Bank, as the corrupt and hapless Palestinian Authority falls apart of its own stupidity and voraciousness, it's no surprise that young Palestinians are flocking to the radical Islamic Hamas. And the bombings of the hotels in Taba on the Sinai last week took place in a section controlled securely by the Egyptian security forces -- are they now being infiltrated as well?
The moderate Israeli left is enraged. Labor leader Shimon Peres had supported the supposed Gaza pull-out, believing it was real. Respected leftist critic Yossi Beilin called the Weisglass comments "frightening" and said they showed a rare moment of truth and revealed Mr. Sharon's dangerous intentions. The White House said not much at all.
To Jordan's King Abdullah, it is no secret that Ariel Sharon dreams of forcing all the Palestinians to Jordan, and Abdullah is putting up barriers against it. News reports indicate that, as the thermometer of the Middle East heats up, some of the 11 Syrian intelligence services may be aiding in turning the Hashemite-ruled Jordan into a Palestinian state. Foreign correspondent Arnaud de Borchgrave just reported that the young king has "put the Syrian regime on notice. Cease and desist or a military confrontation comes next."
De Borchgrave summed up in his column for United Press International: "The Palestinian-Israeli peace process is stillborn, erected as it was on the erroneous assumption that Sharon had changed his mind and was now in favor of a Palestinian state. The cascade of illusory assumptions about the Iraqi war has also been swept away."
The only possible way to turn the whole thing about at this minutes-to-midnight moment would involve serious pressure on Sharon from an American administration -- and that is not going to come from either of our impotent political parties. Instead, more nihilistic violence will be acted out before our eyes -- the end of the Palestinian dream, but only the beginning of the Palestinian nightmare.
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