When the fruit-sellers in the market in Tel Aviv shout ‘The boss has gone crazy!’ they mean that they are selling their merchandise at ridiculously low prices. In the world’s capitals, a similar cry is now being heard, but it is not about the price of oranges. It refers to the situation now that George W. Bush has been re-elected. Bush has attacked Afghanistan. He has attacked Iraq. His neo-con handlers want to attack Syria and Iran in the next phase. They want to establish subservient regimes everywhere (‘promoting democracy in the Middle East’), station permanent garrisons in the region, control the world’s oil market, and help Ariel Sharon to fulfil his plans.
Bush can do pretty much as he pleases: Middle Eastern rulers have drawn this conclusion with impressive speed. Every one of them has rushed for cover in the nearest political cave. The Syrian ruler, Bashar Assad, has started a peace offensive, to the sound of a hundred angelic trumpets. Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, has suddenly discovered that Sharon is his long-lost brother, a man of peace from the cradle. He now presents himself as Bush’s viceroy in the Middle East. King Abdullah II of Jordan is making similar noises (after taking the opportunity to clip the wings of his younger brother). The rulers of Iran, the tough ayatollahs, have agreed to give up their nuclear programme. And the Palestinians are uniting behind Abu Mazen, who is favoured by Bush.
Optimism is having a field day. The winds of hope are blowing through the region. Like bees descending on flowers, diplomats from all over the world are suddenly coming to town, hoping to capitalise on the expected success. International commentators, prophets with an uncanny ability to foresee the past, talk about the Middle Eastern Spring. (This is a geographical misconception: spring is a symbol of hope in Europe, where nature awakens after the cold, hard winter, but in our region, the symbol of hope is autumn, when nature awakens after the hot, dry summer.) Have these hopes any substance? Assad is proposing peace negotiations without preconditions: a seductive offer. Will Sharon accept it?
‘It seems to me that you are faced with a fateful decision,’ I once said to Golda Meir in the Knesset: ‘whether not to give the West Bank back to King Hussein, or not to give it back to the Palestinians.’ Today Sharon is faced with a similar dilemma. What to do first: not give the Golan back to the Syrians, or not give the West Bank back to the Palestinians? Like his predecessor, Ehud Barak, Sharon would not dream of giving the Golan back. Even if he had been ready to do this, he would not dare to propose the evacuation of the dozens of settlements there.
In his autobiography, Bill Clinton recounts what happened last time peace with Syria was on the agenda. Barak asked Clinton to call a conference. Clinton, eager for a foreign policy success, readily agreed. He was pleasantly surprised when Assad Sr gave up all his demands (‘to dangle his feet in the Sea of Galilee’ and so on) and agreed to all of Israel’s. Then, at the very last moment, when everything was ready for signing, Barak told Clinton that he had decided to call the whole thing off. Now there is no Clinton around, and Sharon has no need even to pretend. He said contemptuously that Assad is talking about peace only because of American pressure. So what? Doesn’t that create the perfect opportunity to achieve peace?
Sharon rejected the Syrian offer of talks out of hand. Assad offers negotiations without preconditions? Fine, but we have some preconditions of our own: he must drive all the leaders of the Palestinian organisations out of Damascus and disarm Hizbollah in Lebanon. In other words, Assad must give up all of the few cards he holds before negotiations can begin. One would have to be pretty naive to believe that Sharon would then be prepared to give up even one settlement. The more so since Bush has given a clear-cut order: don’t talk to the Syrians; don’t make it difficult for me to attack them.
All hope is now concentrated on the Palestinian front. If Abu Mazen is elected president of the Palestinian Authority on 9 January, will real negotiations start? It doesn’t look that way. Sharon has agreed to withdraw the army from Palestinian towns on election day – but not before. In the meantime, his offensive goes on relentlessly: this week another ‘targeted assassination’ was attempted (it failed), practically every day Palestinians (including children) are killed, the systematic humiliation at roadblocks goes on, the building of the wall continues, and settlers uproot Palestinian olive groves without hindrance. One of the candidates for president, the left-leaning Mustapha Barghouti (a distant relative of Marwan), was recently stopped at a checkpoint and severely beaten by the soldiers.
The real question is not whether there is a temporary easing of restrictions, as a gesture towards Abu Mazen (and, more important, towards Bush), but whether Sharon is ready to enter genuine negotiations for the establishment of a real Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and a return to the pre-1967 Green Line. There is no indication of that.
True, Shimon Peres says that he is going to join the government in order to facilitate the Gaza ‘disengagement’, and that immediately afterwards he will push for a solution to the problem of the West Bank. But those are empty words, calculated to silence his opponents in his own party. When he served in Sharon’s previous government, he did practically nothing for peace. Now, crawling back into the government when everybody knows that he wants to stay there whatever happens, he will achieve even less.
In the new government, Sharon can do what he wants. If he wants to, he can implement the ‘disengagement plan’. If he wants to, he can annex most of the West Bank. The boss has gone crazy? The last thing he will do is put pressure on Sharon.