Imagine Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s perfect world. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is exiled to a lonely island in Micronesia, without phones or faxes (but with closed circuit cameras broadcasting by satellite to the Arab world that he is alive and well–thus introducing a new genre of political reality TV). And the entire leadership of Hamas, military, religious and "civilian", has been eliminated. For the sake of argument let’s even assume that the Arab world, the European Union and the United Nations have stopped protesting these Israeli measures and have come to terms with them, and that the Bush administration has given its blessings.
What does Israel under Sharon do now, at this moment of strength? There is no new Palestinian leadership that agrees to discuss his plans for a "state" in 50 percent of the West Bank. His government is not prepared to make a more generous offer–certainly not until a Palestinian leadership that is fully in control ends all violence, and even then, not an offer that compromises key "strategic" settlements like Netzarim. New and even more violent Palestinian terrorist leaders are emerging every day, more or less at the same pace that new "outposts" decorate the West Bank horizon. In the absence of an agreed source of authority, anarchy is spreading throughout the West Bank and Gaza, with Israel forced to reoccupy and administer the territories.
Not only are we not closer to an end to the violence and the beginning of a political process, we are farther away. The decision to "remove" Arafat at some indeterminate time and in an indeterminate manner is not policy; rather, it is typical of what Israeli governments do when they have run out of policy options, yet have to show the public that they are "doing". The decision to eliminate the Hamas leadership might make sense if it did not rest on a political policy vacuum. Eliminate Hamas, and then what?
Sharon has, from the start of his tenure nearly three years ago, lacked a realistic policy for peace. But he is a superbly talented politician who has effectively neutralized the political opposition by escalating the Israeli response, either operationally or declaratively, at moments when his lack of a policy is becoming too obvious.
Yasir Arafat, too, is a talented manipulator within his own unique political milieu–witness the way he maneuvered, from his "isolation" in the muqata’a, a frustrated and angry Abu Mazen (outgoing prime minister Mahmoud Abbas) out of office, then neutralized any prospect that his successor-designate, Abu Alaa (Ahmed Qurei’) would do better at consolidating authority over the Palestinian security services.
But Arafat relies on violence and is incapable of adapting to the requirements of negotiating genuine coexistence with Israel. He, too, has no realistic strategy for peace. Thus far he has succeeded again and again in thwarting Sharon’s attempts to neutralize him. But in so doing he has become totally non-credible as a potential peace partner.
George W. Bush doesn’t have a realistic strategy for Israeli-Palestinian peace either. The need to galvanize a coalition for the war in Iraq–or at least to reduce international opposition–led him to endorse the Quartet’s roadmap for Israeli-Palestinian peace some six months ago. His enthusiasm after the quick military victory in Iraq–a victory which, we recall, was supposed to usher in an era of peace, democracy and stability in the Middle East–and Abu Mazen’s emergence as Palestinian prime minister, produced what sounded like a genuine American commitment to a process of stabilization and peace.
But Bush never dared apply the superpower pressure that was so obviously required in order to oblige Abu Mazen to begin dismantling the terrorist infrastructure; nor did he pressure Sharon to begin rolling back the settlement movement and the occupation. By ignoring the parties’ roadmap obligations and avoiding his own responsibility to "ride herd" (his colorful term) over the two sides, Bush effectively weakened both Abu Mazen and the roadmap.
Now Bush is reverting to his previous "hands off" approach to the Palestinian issue, coupled with a green light to Sharon to deal as he wishes with Hamas. The State Department is laboring to ensure that Abu Alaa is "given a chance" by Sharon–and this requires that Arafat remain in the muqata’a–thereby ensuring that the appearance of a "process" is maintained. It’s all done by telephone; god forbid that a senior US statesman should put in an appearance and bang heads together.
The American president is lowering his profile in Jerusalem and Ramallah in order not to alienate the key constituencies whose support he needs in the coming elections. He must concentrate all of his energies on Iraq (and Afghanistan) if he wants to win in November 2004.
Meanwhile the prognosis is for no letup, and probably escalation, in the violence between Israelis and Palestinians–with or without a roadmap. Without Bush, there is no prospect for effective international intervention. Nor is grassroots Israel beating down Sharon’s door to demand unilateral withdrawal. The only limited ray of light is the fence: if indeed it is now completed more or less along the green line (here Washington does exercise effective pressure), then at least one building block of separation will be in place, and with it an improvement in the conditions required for Israel, under a saner government, to decide to dismantle settlements and remain a Jewish and democratic state.