Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is in a buoyant mood as he meets with a small group of journalists at a Washington hotel, the day after talks with President Bush.
Sounding prophetic, Sharon says, "There will not be any war in the Middle East. There will be no escalation (of terror)." An aide explains that no one can "afford" war or an escalation in violence. That remains to be seen in view of the history of wars (five of them) and legions of terrorist acts in Israel since it achieved statehood in 1948. According to an Israeli Defense Force spokesman, six Israelis died between June 13, when a unilateral cease-fire was announced by Sharon, and June 27. There have been 26 mortar attacks, 109 shooting incidents, 19 incidents involving grenades and 15 roadside bombing attacks in the same period.
Sharon repeated his statement to the President that before negotiations with the Palestinians can proceed, there must be a "full and unconditional cessation of terror, hostility and incitement" for 10 days. This is to be followed by a six-week "cooling off period" during which there are to be no terrorist attacks. Then, says Sharon, if things are quiet, peace talks can resume.
I ask Sharon if the land-for-peace formula is still valid. He responds, "We've had land for peace for many years. We gave land, but we never got peace. (Former Prime Minister Ehud) Barak made a major mistake by putting everything on the table" (referring to Barak's offer of East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital and handing over virtually all the land captured by Israel in previous wars in exchange for a peace declaration). Curiously, Sharon thinks land-for-peace remains "a workable formula to some extent." But then he says Israel must have a "security zone along the Jordan River," which means it must keep what is known as the West Bank. "There are some things we cannot afford to give up," Sharon says.
Sharon says the only hope of persuading Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to negotiate is to keep him "under constant pressure." In response to a question about whether Sharon believes Arafat has changed since the Oslo accords were signed more than a decade ago, he replies, "No, he is the same man. But he is more experienced now in maneuvering and manipulating. His strategy has not changed."
Asked whether he believes Arafat is prepared to live at peace with Israel, Sharon says, "we don't see any signs."
Sharon seems to be double-minded about Arafat. Perhaps he thinks Israel will wait until Arafat passes from the scene and then deal with a new leader. He doesn't say that, but it is difficult to reconcile the conflicting statements Sharon makes about the PA leader.
Sharon says he can empathize with the Palestinians: "As a Jew, I know it's hard to be a Palestinian. They suffer from a lack of continuity. They must go through checkpoints. It is not a pleasant thing. But that can be changed." He implies that Arafat is the one who can be the change agent.
Sharon likes comparisons, so he says each Israeli killed by terrorists proportionately equals 60 dead Americans. To Sharon, the six Israelis who have died since the June 13 cease-fire are equivalent to 360 dead Americans. He wonders how long an American president and public would put up with such numbers. He wants points for his "restraint" in not responding to the most recent incidents, but when asked whether "concessions to terror will make peace more realistic," he says simply, "no."
Previous cease-fires have ended when Israel could take it no longer and struck back. The Palestinian side then used the reprisals as an excuse for an escalation of violence. Sharon says he realizes he was elected to respond to the previous violence, which the concessions offered by Barak did not stop.
Sharon now confronts the same choices each of his predecessors faced. Will Arafat change his terrorist ways without achieving 100 percent of his objectives? It isn't likely. Can Sharon continue to hold his fire if Israelis die in single, rather than double or triple digits? No more than any other Israeli leader.
Sharon claims he is optimistic about the future. Given the history and beliefs of Israel's enemies, he has more faith in his enemies than I do.