In light of the much-misreported Sharon- Bush meeting, here's a little quiz to put the event in a perspective that eluded the media.
Q: Which Palestinian leader demanded the following immediate concessions as a condition for further talks:
(i) Israel must withdraw all 7,500 settlers from Gaza and leave the housing and infrastructure there intact.
(ii) Israel must remove settlers from four communities on the West Bank.
(iii) Israel must remove the military installations and checkpoints around these communities so there is an area of contiguous self-government and freedom of movement for Palestinians.
A: The Palestinians have not had to demand these concessions. They were made unilaterally by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon without any quid pro quo. Why? Simply because Israel has finally concluded that it cannot expect to live in peace with a Palestinian state led by Yasser Arafat. A protective wall, virtually everyone in Israel believes, is the only way left to protect innocents from anarchic terrorism. Every day, 40 to 50 murderous assaults are threatened against Israeli citizens and foiled only by the vigilance of Israeli security forces, with no help from the Palestinians, whose leaders have betrayed every promise on security. The nature of the beast was manifest at Passover, when a terrorist was intercepted with explosives meant to be laced with HIV-infected blood intended to enter the wounds of his victims.
Horror chamber. President Bush described Sharon's actions as courageous, historic, and deserving of America's support, and that is a fair appreciation. Sharon, the architect of the settler movement, is the first Israeli prime minister, and a member of Likud at that, to propose dismantling settlements unilaterally. He has demonstrated his willingness to eliminate all illegal outposts by a set date, stop construction of new settlements, and agree to a building line on construction within existing settlements that will be monitored by the United States. He has also agreed to review all roadblocks in the West Bank and give Palestinians all tax revenues now withheld (correctly) on the grounds that they have been used to finance terrorism.
Instead of assessing all this, the media got stuck on two aspects of the president's statement that weren't really new at all. The first was that Palestinian refugees would be absorbed in a future Palestinian state rather than within Israel. The second was that any subsequent agreement over permanent borders must recognize Israeli sovereignty over established population centers. In this, President Bush was simply making explicit what veteran observers of the Middle East have long understood. That is that these are the two preconditions essential to any Arab-Israeli accord to guarantee the viability of the Jewish state demographically, in terms of the mix of Arab and Israeli birthrates, and psychologically, in terms of security.
The president underscored the exclusivity of the American-backed road map as the only framework for peace. That's important because the road map obliges Palestinians to stop their campaign of violence and has a better chance of success than any of the other options, such as the half-baked Saudi initiative and the sundry European plans that all tilt unfairly against Israel.
Ariel Sharon's wall, President Bush understands, affords the first real opportunity to unlock the horror chamber of terrorism, violence, and despair in which Israelis and Palestinians have been trapped for more than three years. With the wall and the proposed Israeli withdrawals, there is now, finally, a chance to break the retaliatory cycle of suicide bombings and reprisal.
The wall is a security barrier, not a political one, an expedient that doesn't prejudice any final-status issues, including borders. It will give Palestinians the opportunity to show how they govern in Gaza and on 60 percent of the West Bank. The wall will encompass less than 10 percent of the West Bank and leave 99.4 percent of the Palestinian population on the east side, meaning future negotiations will start from that point.
Not that this is enough to make the proposal succeed. If it is to jump-start the peace process, Washington will have to make sure the Palestinians get the message that here is another test of their capacity to behave like a respectable government and halt the corruption and the terror that have so tainted the Arafat regime.
President Bush has spoken truth to terrorism and scored a genuine diplomatic achievement. It is the first time Israel has been persuaded to evacuate settlements, and if the president is right, it will be a beginning, not an end.
Now we will have a chance to see whether miracles are still possible in the Holy Land.