Sharon changes the map again

The electorate will go to the polls in the spring with 3 choices: right, left and center.

arik sharon main 88 (photo credit: )
arik sharon main 88
(photo credit: )
Three months ago, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismantled the Gaza settlements he was so instrumental in establishing. On Monday he followed a similar pattern, and embarked on a course that would effectively dismantle the Likud party he himself helped cobble together more than 30 years ago. One could be forgiven for saying that, of late, Sharon has taken to consuming his offspring. Just as disengagement effectively redrew the country's physical map, Sharon's bolting the Likud has effectively redrawn the political map. The electorate will go to the polls in the springtime faced with three clear choices: right, left and center. The right bloc - NRP, National Union, Yisrael Beitenu and remnants of Likud - will argue that disengagement, the truly formative event that was the catalyst for this political realignment, was a disaster that must not be repeated. The left - Labor, Meretz/Yahad - will argue that, while a positive development, disengagement did not go far enough. And the center - Sharon's new party - will campaign that disengagement was spot on. Indeed, Sharon will run on his record as the prime minister who fundamentally altered the rules of the game in the region, dramatically reduced terrorism and significantly improved Israel's position in the world. It is difficult to imagine, however, that he will make many changes in the diplomatic program he has followed since unveiling disengagement in 2003. Meretz/Yahad head Yossi Beilin hit the airwaves Monday and, in a remarkable indication of the extent to which the country's political sands have shifted, did not rule out a possible coalition with Sharon. But Beilin said this virtually end-of-days scenario would be dependent on the prime minister's diplomatic platform. Right now, he added, no one really knew what that platform would be. Beilin is kidding himself. Over the last two years, Sharon has given a clear indication of where he is steering the country: toward a two-state solution with Israel in control of Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs in the West Bank. It is difficult to imagine that he is going to change this course now that he has changed parties. Indeed, at Monday night's press conference he pledged allegiance, yet again, to the road map. "I do not intend to carry out any other plan," Sharon said. "There is no additional disengagement; that was a one-time course of action that was meant to make possible a continuation of the diplomatic process on the condition that the sides do what they are obligated to do. That is the plan, there is no other." In Sharon's interpretation of the road map, nothing needs to move forward and no negotiation needs to take place until the Palestinians fulfill their requirements, first and foremost of which is the obligation to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. Whether he heads the Likud or a new party, he will certainly not cede this point. It is also fair to assume that, without the nipping at his heels from the right wing within his own party, Sharon will do something he promised US President George W. Bush he would do long ago: dismantle the unauthorized settlement outposts. He has held up payment of this pledge to Bush out of concern over the fallout this would cause inside the Likud. Those considerations melt away, however, with Sharon's disengagement from his party. If the PA does indeed begin to tackle terrorism, Sharon has indicated he would like to see an extended interim agreement in the form of a Palestinian state with provisional borders as called for in the road map to judge Palestinian abilities and intentions. And, if all that works out, he has made clear, both in the past and again Monday night, that he would back territorial concessions in Judea and Samaria that would keep Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs in Israeli hands. The big question, and one he has never really responded to, is what he envisions would be included within these settlement blocs. He has said they would include Gush Etzion, Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel, but what about places like Ofra, Shiloh, Beit El and the Jordan Valley? While saying Monday night that he envisioned Israel holding on to "security zones" (a euphemism for the Jordan Valley?), he added, "When we get to the last stage of the road map - when we get to the permanent borders of the state of Israel - one can assume that some of the settlements won't be able to remain there. Our aim is that this will be done in the final stage. But right now there is no plan for additional withdrawal." Observers say that centrist parties in this country don't last long, and that a Sharon centrist party would also be lucky to survive more than one term. But this observation misses a critical point. In Israel, where long-term thinking and planning is negligible, and where events follow one another in machine-gun, rat-a-tat fashion, one term is an eternity. And, as Sharon demonstrated through disengagement, much can be done in one term. Sharon, who at 77 can't realistically be thinking of that many more years in office, obviously wants another chance to further shepherd forward the diplomatic process he put into motion and place his imprint indelibly on where this country's final borders will run. This is the process that Sharon has pushed forward for the last two years as Likud's chairman, and the reason, indeed, he got into so much trouble with his own party. It is the same process he will now promote as head of a new centrist party. The name of the party he heads may change, but Sharon's overall diplomatic vision will stay the same. Until Monday, this was a centrist vision in a right-wing party; as of Monday, it is a centrist vision in a centrist party.