Contrary to the predictions of many observers prior to the election, Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon assumes responsibility for Israel's relationship with the Palestinians in particular and the Arab world in general, with considerable latitude facilitated by the Bush administration essentially declaring the demise of the Clinton plan. The message Sharon's envoys share with world leaders this week will serve as an important test of how Sharon exploits this opportunity.
If Sharon only talks of the need for a cease-fire so that Israel may return to the bargaining table with the Palestinians, this will be a crucial and expensive mistake for Israel.
Final-status talks under the cocked gun is a deceptive improvement over negotiations under fire. The very act of engaging in anything but administrative discussions under the cocked gun is to essentially accept the current situation on the ground - a situation which is dangerous to the nation and brought about Barak's downfall.
Surely Sharon will not accept a situation which promises no hope for anything but the most temporary and precarious stability.
And there is no disputing just how bad it is. Thanks to the Barak government's December 29 "First Statement of the Government of Israel Submitted to the [US-sponsored] Sharm e-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee" (also known as the Mitchell Committee, and whose complete text is available on the Foreign Ministry Web site www.mfa.gov.il), the public for the first time has official confirmation of the seriousness of the situation on the ground: Palestinian forces are armed with everything from rocket-propelled grenades to shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles and cannons.
Significantly, Barak deliberately avoided addressing the compelling issues raised in that document.
If Sharon insists that Israel cannot and should not accept this situation, he will not be alone. Last week a US State Department official told me, for example, that the Bush administration does not believe illegal Palestinian weapons should be grandfathered.
Illegal Palestinian weapons and militia are only part of the story. What chance can there be for stability when the Palestinian public is served up an endless supply of anti-Israel and antisemitic propaganda?
What would the world say if every Friday, Israel's chief rabbi called on Israel Radio for the Arabs to be thrown out of the country? That's exactly what Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's illegally appointed mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine and his staff do every Friday in their sermons from al-Aksa Mosque, broadcast live on the Voice of Palestine. And there is every reason to expect open-minded people throughout the world to understand that this situation cannot continue.
If Sharon calls for the replacement and/or muzzling of Sabri and his staff, it does not have to have anything to do with the battle for control of the Temple Mount. The Palestinian call for war and violence against the Jewish state broadcast from the mosque is not an inconsequential violation of the various Oslo agreements. That incessant call from PA-appointed clergy broadcast over PA radio undermines the stability of the region.
The same can be said of the virulent propaganda that is regular fare in the Palestinian educational system (both on the blackboard and in the textbook) and broadcast media.
Can Prime Minister Sharon honor candidate Sharon's commitment to predicate negotiations on Palestinian compliance?
Absolutely. There were certainly some circles that frowned on former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's effort to insist on Palestinian compliance and reciprocity. But the policy failed only when it became clear that Palestinian compliance could be postponed.
Some critics maintain that requiring compliance today is a formula for war. But postponing compliance only means making any future agreement that much less viable.
That is not to say that Sharon should break contact with the Palestinians. The absence of final-status talks should in no way preclude contacts going far beyond immediate security concerns. Israel and the PA share an intricate web of relations in many spheres: commercial, infrastructure, social/welfare, etc., all of which require continuous communication and cooperation for the mutual benefit of both Palestinians and Israelis.
If Sharon institutes a program which requires compliance and stability, it will be met by understanding. Sharon's challenge will be to stand by this policy when Arafat tests his mettle with violence.
If Sharon waffles, we will quickly find ourselves plunging once again down the Oslo abyss. If he stands firm, then we, and ultimately our neighbors, will have him to thank for restoring the stability that is a necessary condition for the pursuit of actual rather than virtual peace.
(The writer is director of Independent Media Review & Analysis. - IMRA)