It is doubtful that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded this week to former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. But were they to confer Nobel prizes for political public relations, Israel's premier would win one, hands down. Only Sharon is capable of toughening up his positions, while simultaneously appearing in public as a moderate who is virtually a leftist. His "Herzliya speech" last week, in which he presented his diplomatic plan, was favorably received by many who referred to the Likud chairman's "thrust to the center" following his victory in the party's primaries. Officials in Washington were also enthusiastic, and the Bush administration sent a message this week, saying that the speech provides "something to work with" in relations with Arab states.
A perusal of the speech's transcript establishes that Sharon's proposals to the Palestinians have been scaled down. They are not as forthcoming as positions he upheld prior to the last elections. In the past, he offered an interim solution based on a Palestinian state in 42% of the West Bank; now he refers to these areas as "crucial security regions." In the past, the sole precondition to negotiations which he cited was an end to terror; now he calls for "new, responsible and honest Palestinian leadership," along with sweeping security, administrative, educational, cultural and legal reforms. Then, and now, he opposed the dismantling of settlements in the interim stage; in the past, however, he was more evasive on this point.
The reasons for the gap between these positions are clear. In 2001, Sharon wanted to shed his old image, make himself agreeable to U.S. President George W. Bush, and discard former prime minister Ehud Barak's and former U. S. president Bill Clinton's plans for withdrawal from the territories. Worried about his ability to attain these goals, he was careful when articulating his positions. His success exceeded his expectations: Bush adopted Sharon's stages plan, distanced himself from PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, and agreed to the Israel Defense Forces' occupation of the West Bank.
Sharon's self-confidence and appetite increased as a result of these achievements. As a clear front-runner in the 2003 elections, the prime minister is no longer wary about stating his positions. But it would be wrong to be misled by them. His proposal is no peace plan. Instead, it is a winner's dictates to the Palestinians, who are on the "verge of defeat," as a chorus of Sharon's security officials put it.
Sharon frequently alludes to his proximity to Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. But his true guiding model is Golda Meir. Like Sharon, Meir was popular: no other Israeli politician led his party to Knesset victories of the scope which Meir notched. Like Sharon, Meir pulled her ministers like puppets on a string; like Sharon, Golda conducted barren negotiations with the U.S. about terms for the launching of talks with the Arabs, while concurrently strengthening Israel's grip on the territories. With the help of "the friend in the White House," she was able to thwart the State Department's peace initiative, the Rogers Plan, the ancestor of subsequent American peace roadmaps and proposals.
Ha'aretz's archives are brim with articles that praise Meir's triumphant visits to Richard Nixon's White House. In this period, prior to the grievous error of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, she was able to defer the peace initiative until "after the elections," and wrest from the president economic aid and encouragement for her election campaign after she had exhausted her source of American Jewish donations. Also at this time, Israel's top military and intelligence officials believed that the Arabs were weak, and depicted Israel as America's front-line outpost.
It's unsettling to note how little has changed since 1973. Only Arafat appears rather younger in pictures from that time.
American columnist William Safire wrote recently that Limor Livnat is the "next Golda Meir." He is wrong: Sharon has already taken the part. Golda and Sharon did not share the same background; nor did the two get along. But both reached the top at advanced ages and had similar perspectives. Like Meir, Sharon is wary of any compromise with the Arabs; like Meir, Sharon believes that having an understanding with the U.S. suffices to avoid concessions, win elections, and enjoy public support. At least in one of these two cases, these beliefs produced a national catastrophe.