Mr. Sharon's Promise
Monday, December 16, 2002; Page A24
MOST ISRAELIS yearn for a peace settlement. In polls, a large majority say they are ready to support the creation of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and to dismantle Jewish settlements to make way for it. Yet the polls also show that the frontrunner in Israel's election campaign, by a wide margin, is the Likud Party of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Mr. Sharon, a fierce defender of the settlements, has overseen the establishment of dozens of new ones in the past two years. He systematically has destroyed the Palestinian administration in the territories, and both his party and many of its senior parliamentary candidates are on record as opposing a Palestinian state. If he is reelected, Mr. Sharon might be expected to continue policies that have focused on ending Palestinian violence through military force and postponing a comprehensive settlement indefinitely.
So why is Mr. Sharon winning? One simple reason is that the Palestinians have utterly failed to control the terrorists in their ranks or put forward a leadership that could be a credible negotiating partner for Israel. In the absence of such a leadership, or an uncompromising Palestinian renunciation of violence, a peace settlement seems to many Israelis more an impossible dream than a tangible choice. Yet Mr. Sharon is also ahead because he has cast himself as the leader who will make the deal that Israelis want. In a major recent speech, the prime minister said he supported President Bush's peace framework, which calls for the creation of side-by-side Israeli and Palestinian states, and a road map to finish the process within three years. He boasted that U.S.-Israeli relations "have never been better." Given such declarations, voters may see little reason to replace Mr. Sharon with the Labor Party's dovish new leader, Amram Mitzna -- especially as Mr. Sharon is also promising to invite Mr. Mitzna's party into his government.
Americans might have reason to be encouraged, too -- were it not for the fact that the campaign declarations have little correspondence to reality. Even as their chief has been telling voters about his readiness to support the Bush scheme, Mr. Sharon's envoys have been harshly criticizing the draft "road map" in meetings with U.S. officials. According to Israeli press reports, Mr. Sharon himself dismissed the administration's plan as "irrelevant" in a recent cabinet meeting. The Israelis say they don't like the plan because it does not ensure Palestinian reform or a change of leadership, but another objection is that it calls for a freeze on the settlements as one of the first steps in the process.
Mr. Sharon has never agreed to such a freeze, which would amount to giving up further territorial expansion by Israel. His view remains that any process must begin with a complete end to Palestinian violence and the ouster of Yasser Arafat, followed by an interim period of indefinite length. The past two years of unremitting bloodshed have shown that there is no chance for a peace process on that basis; even Mr. Bush's plan will be doomed unless the president decides to put the full strength of his administration behind it. Because Mr. Bush has shown no inclination to do that, Mr. Sharon might regard his campaign promises as cost-free. Yet if Israelis elect him on that basis, he ought to be held to them.