Essay: Sharon, Bush and the 'road bank'

hillel halkin 88 (photo credit: )
hillel halkin 88
(photo credit: )
As readers of the Post, you may not have read the Hebrew papers and may not have seen last Monday's Ma'ariv. Perhaps you heard of its front-page "scoop," prominently headlined Mapatz Hadrachim, "The Road Bang" - a wordplay on Ariel Sharon's "big bang" - his explosive re-configuring of the Israeli political scene, and on George Bush's "road map." The Ma'ariv story was indeed, if true, momentous. Israel and the United States, it claimed, are currently holding secret talks to discuss a Gaza-like disengagement from most of the West Bank that will end with American recognition of the security fence as Israel's eastern border. In return for withdrawing from close to 90% of Judea and Samaria, including parts of east Jerusalem, Israel will receive a public American guarantee that its "settlement blocs," as well as Jerusalem's Old City and its immediate environs, will be regarded as part of sovereign Israeli territory. True, Ma'ariv said, this plan "still does not have American approval. Senior [Bush administration] officials have listened to it with interest and made comments, but have yet to declare that they accept it…. On the other hand, it was the subject of a detailed and interesting article in the October issue of the American magazine Commentary, the intellectual guide of the neo-conservatives, the Bush administration and the Republican Party, which aroused great interest in the United States." Great interest? That may be overstating it. None of the responses to this article that appeared in the letters-to-the-editor section of the January issue of Commentary was written by anyone with the slightest standing in the neo-conservative movement, the Bush administration or the Republican Party. The reason I read them is that the article's author was me. Actually, it's not entirely clear what Ma'ariv is saying about Commentary, a magazine I've been contributing to since 1968. Is it that its influence on a Republican White House is so great that anything appearing in it is immediately brought to the attention of the highest circles? ("Excuse me for interrupting your meeting with the French ambassador, Mr. President, but the latest issue of Commentary is just in.") Or is it that it is so favored by the White House that it is routinely used as a conduit for floating a Republican administration's latest ideas? ("Fellows, get on the phone to Commentary! There may still be time for one of their writers to present this as his own plan in the October issue.") Either way, it's flattering to be associated with a magazine reputedly so powerful that an article in its pages is taken as evidence that something is being considered in the inner sanctums of Washington. And perhaps, for all I know, Commentary really is read and taken seriously at the top levels of government. All I can say is that I've never been in an inner sanctum in my life, neither in Washington nor anywhere else. My article was conceived in a cluttered work room with no more contact with the outside world than an occasional trip to the kitchen for a snack. STILL, I wouldn't find it particularly surprising if high Israeli and American officials were indeed now discussing ideas like those put forth by this article, which was written immediately after the disengagement from Gaza. That doesn't mean they read it. It simply means they have some common sense. After all, 38 years after the Six Day War, 12 years after the Oslo Agreement, six years after the final collapse of the Barak-Arafat talks at Taba, and one year after the death of Arafat himself, certain things should be obvious to anyone not hopelessly blinded by ideological preconceptions. One is that there is not the ghost of a chance in the foreseeable future of any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Another is that the security fence is indeed an effective barrier against most kinds of Palestinian terror. Still another is that if Israel does not leave most of Judea and Samaria, it will cease within two or three decades to be a Jewish state. And still another is that the Palestinians deserve to live their own lives free of military occupation, without daily checkposts and humiliations. AND THERE is also one more thing: Disengagement from Gaza, as beneficial to Israel as it has been, cannot possibly be repeated on a scale 10 times bigger in the West Bank (where there are an estimated 80,000 Jewish settlers living beyond the route of the security fence, as compared to the 8,000 who lived in the Gaza settlements) without some major quid pro quo. Israelis are simply not prepared to undergo a trauma many times more massive, complicated, painful and expensive than last summer's in return for nothing - or more precisely, in return for continuing to live in a situation of uncertainty in which their borders are unrecognized and they are still considered by the international community to be the illegitimate "occupiers" of land they are living on. One doesn't have to read Commentary in order to understand that there is only one practical form that such a quid pro quo can take: An American-Israeli deal whereby, in return for having a say on the security fence's route, the United States endorses it as Israel's permanent frontier once all Jewish settlements beyond it are evacuated. Nor does one need anything more than common sense to realize that the time for such a deal is now. Seventy-eight-year-old Ariel Sharon is the only leader in Jerusalem with the political strength and the intrepidity to take such an agonizingly difficult step; there is no one capable of replacing him once he is gone. George W. Bush is the friendliest president to Israel that Washington has ever seen; there is no guarantee that his successor will be the same, or will be willing to face the furor of the Arab world (about Europe one needn't worry; it will squawk and live with it) when America recognizes the unilateral Israeli annexation of parts of the disputed territories. And Bush's second and last term of office ends in less than three years. It would be nice to think that one could write an article that affects the thinking of political leaders. Alas, political leaders are not so easily affected. Fortunately, however, they are as smart as the writers of articles, and can come to the same conclusions on their own. Let's hope that in this case they do. The writer's most recent book is A Strange Death.