Israeli Pragmatist

In persuading his cabinet to accept the U.S. road map, Sharon initiates historic 'firsts.'

May 28, 2003

Over the weekend, Israel's government made pivotal moves toward Mideast peace. The developments are significant and encouraging. If they are followed by good-faith efforts on both sides to come to the negotiating table, then they are potentially historic in import.

After intense pressure from the White House, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon persuaded his reluctant cabinet to accept President George W. Bush's "road map" to a peaceful resolution of the Mideast conflict and the creation of a Palestinian state.

It was the first official acknowledgment by an Israeli government of the right of Palestinians to form a sovereign state - a goal articulated as a negotiating point by Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak but never formally accepted as official Israeli policy.

Then on Monday, Sharon - a hard-liner but also a consummate pragmatist - stunned his Likud Party and the Israeli nation by acknowledging the negative impact on Israel of the military occupation of the Palestinian territories. He pointed out the obvious, of course, but it had never been said officially and Sharon's blunt assessment said it best: "I think the idea of keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is the worst thing for Israel, for Palestinians and also for the Israeli economy. You may not like the word, but what's happening is occupation."

It mattered little that later, after a barrage of outraged criticism from Likud's extreme right wing, Sharon softened the word, using the legally correct locution, "disputed territories." He had already articulated what the majority of Israelis openly say they want, in poll after poll: an end to the occupation and full separation of the two peoples in adjacent, sovereign and peaceful states. And ending the occupation also means an end to hard-line claims to Judea and Samaria as ancestral Jewish lands.

Unfortunately, Sharon contradicted his own remarks - and the road map's basic premise - by failing to address the provocative and volatile issue of Jewish settlements. Unless he orders an immediate stop to all settlement construction, Sharon puts a roadblock to the most direct route on the map toward peace. Sharon should match Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' reciprocal pledge to crack down on terror cells. That's the first step. Implementing those pledges, of course, is a much longer, harder step. But that's what negotiations will be all about.

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