Is Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon on the level?
Here's an old military hawk who for decades has been the sworn enemy of a Palestinian state and a staunch defender of Israeli settlements on the West Bank (the principal obstacle to a Palestinian state) - doing nearly a 180-degree turnaround.
In a stunning speech to his country on Monday, Sharon, after persuading a reluctant Cabinet to go along with him, endorsed in principle the controversial internationally brokered "road map to peace" calling for a pullback of settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state.
It wasn't just Sharon's endorsement of a peace plan that opens the way for President George W. Bush to get deeply involved in the process - he's slated to meet next week in Jordan with the Palestinian and Israeli premiers - it was the way in which he did it, the words he used.
For the first time ever, Sharon referred to Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - territories Palestinians claim must be part of their newly formed state - as an "occupation."
"To keep 3.5 million people under occupation is bad for us and them," said the Israeli P.M. This is a remarkable change of attitude for a former general who until recently rammed through the Cabinet one settlement program after another and once argued that giving up even 13 percent of the West Bank and Gaza would seriously endanger Israeli security.
Granted that there's been a radical change in Sharon's rhetoric, the question now is, does he mean it? Optimists say he must, or he wouldn't have endorsed the peace plan using pro-Palestinian language ("occupation") in a way that could bring down his anti-Palestinian government.
This line of thinking sees Sharon as an aging warrior who wants to leave a legacy of peacemaking.
A more cynical view holds that Sharon can afford to be expansive in his peace rhetoric because he knows the peace plan is contingent on new Palestinian Premier Mahmoud Abbas putting an end to Palestinian violence, including suicide bombings, against Israelis - and that's destined to fail.
Indeed, it might become expedient, even necessary, to carry on with the peace process even in the face of terrorists' violence.
To call off peace talks every time a bomb goes off puts the terrorists, not the peacemakers, in charge of the peace process. It's hard to see the road to peace going in that direction.
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