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
- 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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.