Sharon the optimist
Published: Thursday, January 6, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2005 at 10:33 p.m.
Reached late Sunday night at his farm in Israel - where Mediterranean breezes bring him the sounds of Palestinian rockets aimed at the nearby town of Sderot - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says, "I might not have a majority in the Knesset."
That was a shocker, coming toward the end of a long telephone talk. Didn't Sharon's Likud strike a deal last week with Labor's Shimon Peres, which - along with a far-right party - would give Sharon a solid governing majority?
"We agreed with the Labor Party," he said, "but have problems with an ultra-Orthodox party. They changed their mind under heavy pressure from radical rabbis of the settlers. And part of my own party is against joining with Labor. If I don't have a majority this week, then maybe we'll have to go to elections."
He views this with equanimity because his popular support in Israel is soaring. Danny Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States, reports it to be more than 65 percent. Hopes among Israelis are on the rise after the announcement of Sharon's plan to unilaterally disengage from Gaza and four West Bank communities. This was followed by the death of the rejectionist Arafat, and by the likelihood that Palestinians will elect the anti-violence Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, next Sunday.
Would Sharon's possible need for an election to reaffirm his leadership paralyze his plan for pulling the 8,000 Israeli settlers out of Gaza, now being scheduled to begin in June?
"No. The left cannot do it, and much of the right - my side - is against it. An election now would be a major mistake for Israel, but even if it becomes necessary, I will go ahead with disengagement."
His threat to take the issue to the people may scare many politicians on the far right - who would lose their seats - to rally to Sharon's side. If not, he's ready to go to the people.
But disengagement or relocation, euphemisms for withdrawal, need no longer be a one-sided act: It may now be possible to use this plan as a way to open talks.
"We have a window of opportunity, after the death of Arafat and the re-election of President Bush, to break the stalemate of negotiation and replace it with a strategy of reconciliation."
In the next breath, however, Sharon notes that "the Palestinians have 30,000 armed security people who still find it hard to fight terrorists. Not the slightest step has been taken so far."
Abu Mazen caused consternation last week by letting himself be borne aloft by a crowd of gunmen and promising the radicals he would protect them from Israeli retaliation.
That was an awkward attempt to persuade the gunmen to vote for him, but Secretary of State Colin Powell realistically told Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" Sunday that if such persuasion fails, "he may have to undertake operations against them."
Sharon says only, "I understand it's the eve of an election. We do not interfere so as not to make it harder for him, but I believe Abu Mazen will be elected. Then if the Palestinian Authority starts to coordinate between our security services, and if they - not Hamas, not the Jihad
- take charge of the areas we are leaving, I will coordinate
"After their election, we'll see if they take the steps to stop the terror. If they do, it will be also quiet on our side." That seems to me to accept a cease-fire, qualified with "but if we have intelligence of a terrorist attack, we'll have to act."
A further caveat: "It would be clearly impossible to evacuate under fire. With thousands of cars and trucks relocating women, children, animals, we will tolerate no attacks during withdrawal. I told the Egyptians to pass the word that if these people come under fire, Israel's reaction will be very hard."
I'm hopeful that Abu Mazen, if elected, will prove tough-minded enough not to let that happen, even if it requires using the Palestinian Authority's 30,000 troops to "undertake operations" against Palestinian insurgents.
Are you optimistic, Arik Sharon, about 2005?
"Yes. We have faced harder times. Jews now have the capability of defending themselves by themselves."
And do you expect to be prime minister one year from today?
"Why only one year?"
William Safire writes for The New York Times.
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