He looked like a mummy: face frozen, body averted, no eye contact with the other person. Shimon Peres meeting Yasser Arafat. Next to him sat the general who was sent to oversee him, so that he would not talk, God forbid, about solutions, political progress, a peace process. Sharon and the Chief-of-Staff allowed him to talk only about a cease-fire. They know, of course, that no cease-fire will hold without political progress, and they have no desire for a cease fire.
Yet this was an important event, after all. It proved that September 11, 2001, was a crucial turning point in the annals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The rules of the game have changed.
Until then it seemed that the conflict was deadlocked. On the ground, it has turned into a war of attrition. Neither side could vanquish the other. The killings were in full swing, with an ongoing escalation. Washington was indifferent, its official doctrine “Let them bleed!”
Then the atrocity in New York and Washington took place. Sharon jumped at the chance. He was certain that this was a historical opportunity: the Americans were busy with Bin Laden, the world was chasing elusive terrorists, so who would care about the actions of the Israeli army? Now, at long last, under the slogan “Arafat is our Bin Laden”, it could invade, kill, crush and destroy, in order to liquidate the intifada and perhaps Arafat, too. As the journalist Gideon Levy put it: the teacher is sick, the pupils are happy, everyone can do what he wants.
To the utter amazement of Sharon, the exact opposite occurred. Only a few hours after the outrage, when America was still in a state of shock, Colin Powell convened his first press conference and there, instead of speaking exclusively about Bin Laden, as seemed appropriate, he devoted considerable time to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He demanded that the Arafat-Peres meeting take place at once.
If Sharon had hoped that this would be a one-time slap in his face, he was mistaken. Bush and Powell came back to this point almost daily, until it became an ultimatum. Sharon had no choice. He gave in.
Where had he gone wrong? Over the years, Jerusalem has become used to the idea that one could always rely on the US Congress. The Congress was even more loyal to the Israeli government than the Knesset. In the Knesset, members can curse the Prime Minister. In the US Senate and House of Representatives, nobody would dare to curse the Israeli Prime Minister, unless he is as suicidal as the followers of Bin Laden. Most of them were elected with the help of the votes and money from the pro-Israel lobby, which consists not only of the Jewish establishment but also of the powerful Christian fundamentalist pressure groups. If Israel were to request the repeal the Ten Commandments, 85 Senators would sign forthwith.
In ordinary times, this would be enough to abort any initiative of the President that arouses the ire of the Israeli government. But when the outrage happened, everything changed. The President became a national hero. When the drums of war are beating, the people want a strong leader, and the President, who is also the Commander-in-Chief, almost becomes a dictator. Congress becomes a choir of acolytes, reduced to singing the national anthem on the steps of the Capitol. Now the Congress is the sick teacher, and the President can do what he wants. Sharon could well complain, like the late Spiro Agnew: “The bastards have changed the rules!”
The President wants to build a world-wide coalition for his war, even more powerful and more glorious than the one his father built for the Gulf War. For this he has to secure support from virtually all the Arab and Muslim governments. They tell him that the Israeli-Palestinian bloodbath is a major obstacle. The al-Gazira TV station, broadcasting from Qatar, is bringing into the homes of millions of people the daily pictures of Israeli soldiers killing and oppressing brother-Arabs. If America wants to enlist the Arab masses for the war, this has to stop.
The President’s advisors understand this well. They tell Israel to please sit on the sidelines, quietly and well-behaved, to stop shooting and return to the negotiations with the Palestinians. And when America wants something, really wants something, nobody can say no. Not even Sharon, the hero.
The question is whether the Americans will be satisfied with some phony exhibition, like the Arafat-Peres meeting, or insist, this time, on a real solution of the conflict that arouses so much fury and hatred towards America in the Arab world, to the delight of Bin Laden & Co.
After the Gulf War, the Americans convened the Madrid conference. If they now convene a new international peace conference and send an international peace force to Palestine, perhaps the tragedy will have at least some collateral benefit. As Samson said to the Philistines: “Out of the strong came forth sweetness.”