So, what did we get? After months of expectation and postponement, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Wednesday finally got his audience with US President George W. Bush.
Since the beginning of the year, we have been told day after day, "Just wait and see." So now that the visit is behind us, what did we get? What did Sharon bring back from Washington?
On the positive side, we received American acknowledgement of Israel's basic right as a sovereign state to defend itself against aggression. This is no small feat today. In acknowledging that Israel can defend itself, Bush said something that no other leader in the world would say today. Certainly not any leader in Europe where every action Israel takes to defend itself is condemned.
Aside from that, Bush recognized the right of the Jewish people to self-determination by acknowledging Israel's right to remain a Jewish state. Here too, with the resurgence of the anti-Semitism throughout Europe, this statement should not be taken for granted. It is hard to imagine many European leaders saying as much.
Bush also embraced Israel as America's friend. This too is impressive. Today, the US needs the assistance of states like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to help it fight Al Qaida and the US is seeking to rebuild an Iraqi society that was poisoned by decades of Saddam's anti-Semitism. In this state of affairs it would not be surprising for an American president to eschew any public statements of support for Israel. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any other president standing with Israel's leader while his military forces fight Arab and Muslim armies and insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In these days of diplomatic isolation and ostracism, it is comforting to know that we have a friend in the White House.
If Sharon had simply wanted to go to Washington to remind Israelis that we have a powerful friend, we could stop the analysis here and call it a success. Unfortunately, Sharon did not go to Washington just to hear that America has not abandoned us to our fate. Rather he went there to receive American goodies in exchange for his plan to surrender Gaza and parts of Samaria to the Palestinians while they remain in a state of war against Israel. And here he returned empty-handed.
Sharon and his people claim that Bush's letter to Sharon contains such goodies and so it is important to read the letter closely.
A good attorney wrote Bush's letter. While the prime minister and his media flaks declare that the president agreed that the so-called Palestinian refugees not be allowed to immigrate to Israel, the president said no such thing. What Bush wrote was, "It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel."
There is no commitment here. There is no positive statement that the US will never back the immigration of foreign-born Arabs to Israel in the framework of a deal with the PLO or any subsequent Palestinian leadership.
There is not even a simple declarative sentence stating that this will not stand. The president wrote, "It seems clear." What does that mean? It means nothing.
Then there is the issue of the Israeli communities that are not yet slated for destruction. Sharon and his spinmeisters claim that Bush agreed that many of these communities will remain inviolate as part of Israel even in the event that a Palestinian leadership arises that will cut a deal with Israel. But a look at the text shows something else entirely.
The president wrote, "In light of new realities on the ground [since 1949], including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."
Again, there is no positive statement of support for the continued growth and development of these communities. It is simply unrealistic to assume that hundreds of thousands of Israelis who live in them will be forcibly transferred from their homes and communities. And this statement can actually backfire on Israel.
Take for instance the case of Jerusalem. Over the past decade the Palestinians, in an effort to create "facts on the ground" have built scores of largely illegal housing developments in the city. Many of these apartment blocks stand empty, awaiting the "return" of the so-called refugees. It will no doubt be argued that it would be unrealistic to deny the Palestinians sovereignty over these areas of the capital, given the "new realities on the ground."
Then too, there is the issue of Sharon's letter to Bush. In that letter, Sharon committed Israel to a continued ban on building in the remaining communities in Judea and Samaria when he wrote, "we are fully aware of the responsibilities facing the State of Israel. These include limitations on the growth of settlements."
So if Israel, under American pressure, agreed to continue to curtail the growth of the remaining communities in Judea and Samaria, how can we view the president's statement as support for the continued existence of these communities? If we aren't supposed to build in them, why should we trust that the US won't pressure us to give them up?
Indeed, Bush himself said that Sharon's plan has "started the process of removing settlements from the West Bank." Aside from all of this, Bush's letter, and indeed, Sharon's, continue to force Israel into an untenable position of having to fight terrorism while promising victory to the terrorists in the form of a state. Why should the Palestinians lose hope that terrorism pays when they have yet to pay a price for it?
As well, Bush and Sharon both wrote and said that they remain committed to strengthening the Palestinian security services. This is a regurgitation of a commitment that has been stated repeatedly since those same security services enabled the first suicide bombers to enter our cities in 1994.
And it makes no sense. Israel has exposed and the US has reviewed mountains of evidence proving that these security services are terrorist cells and that the Palestinian Authority itself is a terrorist entity. Yet in spite of this, the US continues to insist, and Israel continues to agree, that these security services should be reformed and strengthened and PA institutions supported and reinforced rather than destroyed and replaced.
Finally, as has been the case since the "land for peace" equation was coined, the demands on Israel from the exchange of letters are all concrete while the demands from the Palestinians are not. They have to reform and fight terror but there is no "or else." Nothing will happen to them if they don't. And as for the reform of their political institutions, there is no blueprint for how they are supposed to go about it, especially in light of the fact that the Bush administration has ruled out the option of getting rid of Yasser Arafat.
The truth is that it is hard to blame Bush for the fact that aside from comforting Israel with his declarations of support and friendship he gave Israel nothing on Wednesday. He didn't ask for this meeting. Sharon did. Sharon begged for it. The US didn't put Sharon up to his plan to surrender Gaza and uproot Jewish communities. He came up with the idea all by himself.
Given all of this, the question arises, why did we have to go through this edifying exercise in statecraft? Here one is reminded of the way that then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin decided in 1993 to take the European mediated Oslo Accord and have the Americans present it as their own plan. It was R
abin's view that American adoption of his radical decision to cut a deal with the PLO would make the agreement more palatable to a skeptical Israeli populace that viewed Arafat as an unreconstructed mass murderer committed to the destruction of Israel.
Then as today, Israel's leaders went to Washington and offered the Americans a gift. Whereas the US expected Israel to stand strong and not give an inch in the face of terror in spite of America's interest in getting a peace process going, both Rabin and Sharon presented their US counterparts with an easy win. No administration will be opposed to the notion of a peace process or an Israeli surrender of land. It serves the US interest to have a peace process or a withdrawal process going, especially before an election. It mollifies the Arabs. It paints the president as a moderate champion of peace. And it costs the US nothing.
Sharon, like Rabin, preaches defeatism and retreat because he sees time working against us and for our enemy. According to this view, in the event of a stalemate, Israel must surrender because our enemies have more staying power.
But there is an alternative approach to the situation. This approach says that we should fight the war waged against us with the aim of winning. On the ground this means that we fight terror everywhere it exists, we take away the bases of operation and support from the terrorists and we push hard for societal change among our enemies by enacting policies that will lead toward democratization. By so acting, it is actually Israel, not our enemies, that has the real staying power.
This is what the US is doing in Iraq. It is also the opposite of what Israel, under Sharon's leadership, is now doing and indeed, the opposite of what we have been doing since 1993. It is a policy built on the strength and resilience of our people and our democracy and the weakness of our enemies' dictatorial terrorist breeding grounds.
Too bad Sharon has so little faith in us. I'll bet that Bush would have supported such a strategy.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.