Sharon's Showdown With Likud

December 8, 2004

The political tectonic plates under the Middle East may have at last begun to shift.

Some Arab leaders, facing four more years of George W. Bush, seem to have understood the policy message he sent from Canada last week: "Achieving peace in the Holy Land is not just a matter of pressuring one side or the other on the shape of a border or the site of a settlement. This approach has been tried before without success. As we negotiate the details of peace," said Bush, "we must look to the heart of the matter, which is the need for a Palestinian democracy."

That message - putting the bedrock principle of democratic interaction ahead of the endless process of "engagement" - is reverberating through the Arab world. A few days ago, Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, swapped a Druse Israeli citizen, Azzam Azzam, imprisoned for seven years on phony spy charges, for a group of captured Egyptian infiltrators. Israel sets great store on freeing its citizens, and the release of Azzam was a major gesture by Egypt.

This followed Mubarak's surprise description, after Yasir Arafat's death, of Ariel Sharon as the Palestinians' best chance for peace - "he asks for only one thing: the end to the explosions, so they can work together on a solid basis." It also follows Mubarak's offer, accepted by Israel, to station troops along Egypt's border with Gaza to stop Hamas's arms smuggling as Israel begins its withdrawal.

Hopes are rising that Sharon's prospective pullout, along with easements to facilitate Palestinian elections and his promise "to give quiet for quiet," will lead to the return of the long-absent Egyptian and then the Jordanian ambassadors. (The euphoria does not extend to Syria, whose president is suddenly offering talks without preconditions about the Golan Heights. Nobody trusts Syria.)

Today's sense of early movement comes on the eve of Sharon's showdown with Likud, the rightist party he helped found. Its 3,000-member central committee meets tomorrow to accept or reject the prime minister's plan to form a unity government with leftist Labor, which supports him on leaving Gaza to the Palestinians but opposes his budget.

Sharon welcomes the showdown within his party. If a Likud majority were to reject his new coalition, that would trigger unwelcome new elections, a re-freezing of the current thaw with Arabs and the splintering of Likud. But yesterday, the former Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Sharon, urged reciprocity from Palestinians and continued economic reform, and pledged his support. (Bibi wants Arik to succeed because he wants to succeed him.)

As Palestinians elect a new government that can restrain its violence-prone bitter-enders, I'm told that Sharon's coalition of Likud, Labor and several religious parties would agree to start Palestinian negotiations with a clean slate. The previous Barak-Clinton offers, including a division of Jerusalem - anathema to most Israelis - came off the table when Arafat chose war.

That unencumbered start would please Likud's right and annoy Labor's left, but here's the delicious complexity of the first "unified disunity government": On foreign affairs, Sharon will have his center-left coalition; on domestic budgets, his rightist coalition.

This swinging Knesset majority would be designed to last until the next election in 2006, enough time to negotiate a settlement that Palestinians and Israelis could abide.

The dangers: rebellion in Likud if Gaza settlers are seen to be heroic, or an "end run" by Labor's Shimon Peres to appeal to pro-Palestinian European, Russian and U.N. concessioneers.

Already we see outside pressure for "return to the pre-'67 borders." As documented in Dore Gold's "Tower of Babble," this ignores Lyndon Johnson's defeat of Aleksei Kosygin's attempt to slip the specific word "the" in front of the general "territories" in crafting U.N. Resolution 242 - which would have left Israel's borders vulnerable.

No global bureaucrat can belatedly dictate who owns what part of those disputed territories. As Bush noted, "This approach has been tried before without success."

What could succeed is a direct negotiation between democratically elected officials of two Middle East nations who can control their extremists. That has not happened yet, but Jews and Arabs may soon have a narrow window of opportunity.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company