Diplomacy: Golden handshake?

PM Sharon was given a hero's welcome abroad. Still, the Likud party may put him out to pasture.

sharon olmert bibi 298AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolmiski)
sharon olmert bibi 298AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolmiski)
The dynamics of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's trip to New York last week epitomized his year: surprisingly deft when dealing with world leaders, but oddly clumsy when managing party politics. Love disengagement or loathe it, Sharon succeeded last week in turning the tables on the Palestinians on their own home court: the United Nations. There was Sharon on Wednesday, explaining Israel's position to US President George W. Bush in a simple, stuffy room off the UN's General Assembly in the morning; and to Russian President Vladimir Putin in a roomy, luxurious conference room at Manhattan's Waldorf Astoria in the afternoon. His message was simple one he repeated, mantra-like, throughout the week to every leader, and behind every microphone: Israel made its promised painful concessions; it ripped Jews from their homes; took all its soldiers out of Gaza. Now it was the time for the Palestinians to perform. He emerged from the UN virtually unscathed with many of the leaders interested at this time in hugging, not pressuring, him. Sharon's lobbying job at the UN was made somewhat easier by the fact that with the exception of PA Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa, a former PA ambassador to the UN whose presence there doesn't send hearts in the building all a-flutter as it once did the Palestinians did not send a blue-ribbon delegation to present their positions. Sharon's presentation to Bush, Putin and other heads of state was not offset by any counter arguments offered by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas stayed away from the UN General Assembly ostensibly to deal with the chaotic situation that emerged following the IDF's final withdrawal from Gaza. But, according to Israeli officials, the real reason for his absence was because he did not want to hear the world's leaders tell him that they expected the Palestinians to step up to the plate, take responsibility, and show that after all these years of clamoring for a piece of land of their own, they now actually need to show they can govern. In general, these officials said, the Palestinian leadership was not expected to show up at many international gatherings in the near future, because they don't want to hear that now that Gaza is free of Jews and IDF soldiers, the Palestinians have to prove themselves. Which isn't to say they don't have a ready reply Al-Kidwa showed in New York that they do it's just that there is apparently a concern by the Palestinians, as evidenced by their low-level delegation to the UN, that this reply has a somewhat hollow ring to it. Al-Kidwa appeared with Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Quartet disengagement envoy James Wolfensohn on a panel moderated by Dennis Ross that took place in New York last Friday at a conference called the Clinton Global Initiative, sponsored by former US President Bill Clinton. When Ross mentioned that a consensus that has emerged for a two-state solution, and Peres called on the Palestinians to turn Gaza into a model to show the world they can govern, al-Kidwa deferred responsibility. Don't expect all that much, he said, working hard to lower expectations, because the Palestinians don't have full control of Gaza: the territorial waters, airspace and international crossings are still in Israeli hands. Don't expect all that much, he urged, because the Palestinians haven't been promised anything regarding the West Bank. Don't expect all that much, he warned, because Israel was still building in the settlements. In short, his message to a group of business people and academics who Clinton gathered in the hope they would "invest in peace," was, "Okay, disengagement was nice, but don't expect too much from us because Palestine is still occupied. It's still Israel's fault." But this argument, which generally falls on receptive ears in the UN, did not carry the same weight this time around, because of the different set of facts on the ground now; because the Palestinians, for all to see, are in control of Gaza; and because Abbas was not there to deliver the argument. In his absence, Sharon dominated the playing field and Israel benefited, reaping widespread international approval. Diplomatically, therefore, it is safe to say that Sharon fared fairly well. Politically, however, it was another story. Even as Sharon was lobbying the world, he was overlooking all that critical political stuff. By all accounts, the appeal for a $10,000 donation that appeared on an invitation to attend a dinner with Sharon at the home of Sears heiress Nina Rosenwald last Sunday night was just plain careless. The invitation should not have gone out. Someone should have been standing guard, diligently looking after the prime minister's interests. Sources in Sharon's office said he didn't know about the monetary request in the invitation, and this excuse does actually seem credible. It is surely within reason that the prime minister does not personally review every invitation to meet him for dinner, like some careful father reviewing the printing of his son's bar mitzva invitations. Surely, however, somebody in the Prime Minister's Office should be sweating the proverbial small stuff. His advisers should be taking up this job. But, uncharacteristically for this staff, Sharon's advisers increasingly seem to be on a different page than their boss at least in regards to political matters. Sharon took the rare step this week of publicly contradicting one of his senior advisers who was quoted in the press as saying that Sharon would leave the Likud if he were to lose the battle over when to hold the primaries at next week's Likud Central Committee meeting. Some of his advisers may have a personal interest in his bolting the party, in order to get into the Knesset as part of a new list. Sharon then called a meeting of his advisers and asked them not to speak in his name on these matters. This was another indication that, while on the diplomatic track things from Sharon's vantage point were running smoothly, on the political track, there were potholes. Sharon made it clear in remarks to journalists, as well as to the American Jewish leadership in New York, that he finds the current political machinations in the Likud a bothersome nuisance. He would so much more like to concentrate on the big issues, he stressed, but instead has to spend valuable time and energy with annoying political matters. One of Sharon's problems in fact is that the political matters often seem to be an afterthought. One source close to Sharon admitted that he erred in holding a Likud referendum in the spring over disengagement, and then ignoring it when he lost. He has consistently treated the central committee with barely-veiled contempt, and this may now all be coming back to haunt him. As the famous, anonymous poem goes: "But every wrong will find its place, And every passion loosed will drift back to meet you face to face, When the chickens come home to roost." It is often said of Sharon the human bulldozer that when he concentrates his mind on an issue he is unstoppable. Now that disengagement has been implemented, he is free to concentrate on Likud politics. He may, however, be too late. The Likud Central committee may be the coop, and the 3000 members to meet on Sunday and Monday the chickens. In which case Sharon will likely do what Sharon has done throughout his career: set his mind to his next project, this time forming a new centrist party. In a speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York on Sunday, Sharon said that the Likud today is not the same Likud he formed some 32 years ago. Those who believe that Sharon may for sentimental reasons be loath to dismantle the political entity he created with his own two hands, should be sobered by one thought: He also built the settlements in Gaza.