WASHINGTON -- "We need many more Jews to come to Israel, a million more Jews," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee behind closed doors last week. Here was something entirely new even for well-informed senators, and their facial expressions conveyed surprise. Massive immigration to a country of 6 million signified no interest by Sharon in negotiating a settlement with the Palestinians.
Indeed, speaking off the record to mostly uncritical American politicians, the old soldier-statesman was even more blunt than he is in public. Sharon pointed to no Israeli-Palestinian deal for at least 10 years and talked of a hundred years struggle with Arabs. Warning of Egyptian and Saudi duplicity, he informed the senators that removal of Saddam Hussein from Iraq would be the best way to deal with Palestinians.
Senators new to Sharon and senators who have known him for more than 20 years were equally impressed by his self-assured calm. Consigned a short time ago to the Israeli political trash heap, he now has status in Washington denied preceding prime ministers. He enjoys popular American support, bipartisan political backing, reluctance by President Bush to contradict him and a degraded adversary in Yasser Arafat. As demonstrated in meeting the senators, he sees no need to temper his views.
Sharon claimed the ancient boundaries of the "Land of Israel" are guaranteed to the Jewish people by Holy Scripture. "The Pope told me so," Sharon added. That sent freshman Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island home to search the Bible for justification. Sharon added he was prepared to compromise anyway but was not specific and stressed he never would compromise Israeli security.
With all this land claimed and Palestinians exceeding the Israeli birth rate, he raised the prospect of 1 million Jewish immigrants bulwarking the nation's security. Jaws visibly were dropped by senators, including Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry of Massachusetts. Sharon specified emigration from France (where anti-Semitism has erupted), Russia (where age-old anti-Semitism is reflected in recent incidents) and Argentina (apparently because of the poor economy).
Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden asked Sharon his vision of Israel five years from now. The 74-year-old prime minister replied that the realistic time frame is 10 years (though he was not explicit about what would happen then). In short: no peace in my time.
Committing himself to a hundred years war against Arabs, Sharon warned the senators not to trust his adversaries -- including moderate states closely aligned with the U.S. He expressed nothing but contempt for Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. The royal rulers of Saudi Arabia, he said, are liars. The only Arab leader spoken of favorably was Jordan's King Abdullah. Sophisticated senators perceived Sharon pointing to the Kingdom of Jordan as the only Palestinian state, take it or leave it.
Voices of Arab caution should be disregarded, said the former Israeli general, when it comes to ousting Saddam Hussein. Sharon contended U.S. military action against Iraq, instead of exacerbating the Palestinian problem, would end it. No senator disputed this judgment.
A few Foreign Relations Committee members left this remarkable session with Sharon deeply disturbed about the outlook for peace in the Middle East. They include Biden, Kerry, Chafee and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. However, the current political climate precludes overt criticism of Israel or even so controversial a figure as Arik Sharon.
Hagel did go to the Senate floor Friday to send a message to Sharon (without mentioning him): "Israel must make some hard choices for peace. It knows that military means alone will not end terrorism. Settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza must end." He then asked Israel to develop "a coalition of common interests" with the U.S. and "our Arab allies," adding: "Israel should move closer to this coalition and away from isolation and reliance on only the military option to ending the crisis."
Those words dispute the prime minister and probably most senators who heard him. They surely reflect the views of Secretary of State Colin Powell and the administration official closest to him, CIA Director George Tenet. It remains to be seen whether President Bush will take a position so different from Sharon's.