"Beware of an old man in a hurry." Palestinian leaders and people would be wise to keep that English maxim in mind right now. Ariel Sharon, the old Israeli bulldozer, has his policy rig in overdrive. And, with President Bush riding shotgun, Sharon is driving roughshod over Palestinian fantasies on his way to a unilateral peace.
For a generation Israel, America and Europe have been seeking peace between the Jews and the Palestinians on the theory of good faith negotiations between the parties. But Mr. Arafat's rejection in 2000 of the Clinton-brokered best deal possible, compounded by the subsequent policy of suicide bombing Israeli civilians in Israel-proper, forced Old Man Sharon to think anew of how to gain peace for his people. Now in his 76th year, Prime Minister Sharon has no time to waste -- and neither do the Palestinians if they want to have any role in their own imminent destiny.
Sharon is consolidating Israel's position geographically, as he is consolidating his own political position domestically. He has been well on his way to the construction of a complete fence or wall that will protect Israel plus its major settlements on the West Bank. Now he is yielding Israeli settlements in Gaza and outriding settlements on the West Bank. In other words, thinking like a general, he is withdrawing from undefendable salients. The objective will be an Israeli fortress that can stand until such time as the Palestinians may wish a permanent peace.
Giving up those settlements, however, was opposed by the right-wing faction of his own domestic political coalition. And that is where the tough, stout old general has displayed a Metternich's elegant finesse and delicacy of touch in his diplomacy with Bush and his own Likud Party right wing.
He couldn't consolidate Israeli geography without his right-wing support (which didn't want to give up its dream of an Israel of biblical geography in the West Bank). He couldn't gain that support without President Bush making a series of guarantees and policy pronouncements that would undercut the Israeli right wing's support amongst their own rank file (1. Israel may keep some West Bank settlements; 2. Israel may go militarily back into Gaza to protect itself; 3. Palestinians have no right of return to Israel). And President Bush couldn't make those public statements without frightening the feeble-minded international clucking class that has persisted for a generation in fantasizing a Palestinian leadership willing and able to negotiate a good faith peace.
It was lucky for Sharon that he found in Bush a man who shared his realistic vision of peace and his courage to act. Bush and Sharon are demonstrating an almost Bismarkian diplomacy: shrewd, brutal, realistic, perhaps bloody, but effective. They have definitively rejected the Eleanor Roosevelt/Madeleine Albright/Rodney King/John Kerry/"can't we all just get along" style of diplomacy.
The Palestinians are paying a high price for their revanchist fantasy that Israel can be made to go away, so that they can possess all the land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. Until this week, the "right of return" to Israel for Palestinians and their descendants who left or were forced out at Israel's birth was still a negotiable item.
Had the Palestinians chosen to participate in real negotiations, doubtlessly the United States would have paid them billions of dollars to waive that fantasy right. Now, unilaterally, that point has been extinguished.
Likewise, Israel's unilateral departure from Gaza (combined with the U.S. guarantee that Israel can defend herself militarily from any danger coming from Gaza) has denied the Palestinians a voice in defining any limitations on those prerogatives of self-defense.
What is the next thing Palestinians will lose out on by their continued inability to negotiate in good faith? They will have no voice in the final line of the fence/wall. Thousands of innocent Palestinians will have their lives and property permanently disrupted as the fence/wall goes up because their leaders won't or can't negotiate in good faith.
It may take two to tango, but as Israel has the dominant military/economic force in the region, it takes only one to draw and enforce border lines.
That will leave Israel reasonably secure from terrorism, but still bordered by an unstable and violent West Bank and Gaza. So, the next price Palestinians will pay for not engaging in good faith negotiations will be to leave a free hand for Sharon and future Israeli governments to manipulate Palestinian rule in their remaining territories.
The recent Israeli acts of aerial executions of Hamas leaders reveals the modern version of the ancient practice of divide et impera -- divide and rule. Palestinians will be left in a pitiful, ineffective warlordism created by their own failure of governance and compounded by Israeli manipulations to leave them weak and divided.
There is barely time for the better and wiser voices of Palestinian dignity and liberty to make the supreme effort to suppress their terrorism and get to the negotiating table before the old man in a hurry grabs all the remaining chips and leaves the room. Sharon is only doing what he has to do to protect his people. If only a Palestinian leader could give up the fantasy and do the same for his own suffering humanity.