More than 100,000 Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv Sunday night to send a clear message to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: Don't even think about uprooting settlements in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.
It was a striking sign of how much Sharon has changed in his three years at the helm. Not too long ago, the man who was a principal architect of Israel's settlement efforts would have been a keynote speaker at such a rally. This time, however, he could be found at a news conference in Jerusalem where he minimized the Tel Aviv demo, saying, "Things are decided not by demonstrators, but by the government."
When Sharon came to office, his platform envisioned enhancing Palestinian autonomy in a portion of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He dismissed the suggestion that Israel might dismantle any settlements and rejected the idea of Palestinian sovereignty.
The world has changed, and so has Sharon. While he's certainly no enthusiastic advocate of Palestinian statehood, he has adopted a cautiously positive stance on the subject. And while he doesn't relish the notion of dismantling Israeli settlements, he says matter-of-factly that there is no other choice.
Why the change? Cynics say it's all tactics, and that may be true. But Sharon has undoubtedly undergone a major transformation. Through a series of speeches, starting with June 2002 remarks in which he acknowledged the need for a Palestinian state, and most recently in comments made Tuesday—just hours before a female bomber blew herself up and killed four Israelis at the main crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip—about Israel getting out of Gaza someday, he has expressed a very different view of the Israeli-Palestinian endgame.
Let's be clear: The 75-year-old Sharon hasn't gone soft. He's still a hard-liner. What's changed is his view of how to achieve security. In the past three years, he's tried a variety of tactics, including hard-driving military responses to terror and fruitless efforts to isolate Yasser Arafat from the Palestinian hierarchy. None have worked. Either this is the latest in his series of attempts, or he's finally figured out that Israel can't have it all. It's fair to assume, too, that he's keeping an eye on public opinion polls that show Israelis favor cutting a deal with the Palestinians, provided they have real leadership that clamps down on terror and can be trusted to keep its promises.
And there's the rub. All Sharon's talk about a Palestinian state and "painful concessions" has been predicated on embarking on a meaningful negotiation path with reasonable Palestinian leadership. As long as Arafat pulls the strings from Ramallah, this has all been just talk; you could probably count on the fingers of one hand the Israelis who still think Arafat's a peace partner. But ever since Sharon's landmark speech last month when he said Israel will take steps to disengage unilaterally if the Palestinians don't come to the table, the parameters have changed. He's no longer just offering carrots to tempt the Palestinians and the world. Now he's waving a stick that has sent the Palestinians into a panic.
Actually, the panic has been building for months, since it became clear that Israel was serious about building a security fence to keep suicide bombers from infiltrating from the West Bank. Sharon opposed the idea of a fence between Israel and the West Bank when the left advocated it two years ago, but now he's a firm believer in the multibillion-shekel project.
Sharon didn't ask the Palestinians to sign off on the route he chose for the fence, and they are rightly outraged by the steep price it exacts. But their outrage should be aimed at the Palestinian Authority, not at Israel. If Arafat would crack down on terror, there would be no need for the fence.
The barrier seems to be paying off. In 2003, "only" 213 Israelis were killed in terror attacks, down from 451 in 2002. The defense minister attributes much of the fall-off to the effect of the fence.
Israel's talk of unilateral moves has forced Palestinians to confront what many Israelis have suspected for months: that the fence may become Israel's unilateral withdrawal line. Last week, PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei said that if Israel makes good on its threats to disengage unilaterally, the Palestinian Authority may seek to merge Israel and the territories into a single Jewish-Arab state.
Not surprisingly, Qurei's trial balloon was dismissed by senior Israeli and American officials: Colin Powell said a two-state model is "the only solution that will work," while an adviser to Sharon said Qurei "may just as well call for a Palestinian state on the moon." As if to underscore the total chaos that reigns at the top of the Palestinian leadership pyramid, Arafat convened a meeting the next day to assert the Palestinian Authority's right to unilaterally declare Palestinian independence whenever it wants to.
Sharon's threat of unilateral disengagement is driven in part by his people's demand for security, but there's something else at play. He is reacting to the very same reality that precipitated Qurei's panicky threat of a one-state solution: Both premiers have been crunching numbers.
The West Bank and Gaza are home to some 3.5 million Palestinians. Of Israel's 6.5 million citizens, some 1.2 million are Arabs. Do the math, and you'll see that in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea there are 4.7 million Arabs and 5.3 million Jews. Each time a Palestinian mother gives birth to her sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth child, the demographic balance shifts a little more. Unless a huge number of Jews decides to move to Israel in the next decade (it's not out of the question; think of the million immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s), at current rates of increase, it's only a matter of time—not all that much time—until Arabs constitute a majority in the area.
This brings hope to many Palestinians and explains Qurei's enthusiasm for a one-state solution, but the demographic trends do not mean that Israel has to disappear. As long as Israel does not annex the West Bank and Gaza and grant citizenship to all who live there (and Sharon reiterated last weekend he has no intention of doing so), there's no threat of the Arabs voting Israel out of existence. But Sharon knows that Israel's case will be significantly harder to make if the areas under its control ever have a Jewish minority. Given this reality, it's a lot easier to understand why he's ready to hand over some territory—and lots of people—to a Palestinian state.
Sharon continues to pledge support for the Bush administration's "road map" but says that if the Palestinians don't turn into a real partner, he'll have no choice but to take unilateral steps. If you want to get a glimpse of what those steps might look like, take a look at the route of the security fence, which places significant swaths of the West Bank on the Israeli side. Increasingly, Israelis are speculating that the fence will become the border if the Palestinians don't hurry to the table. While most Israelis will back such a plan, many settlers and their supporters will pull out the stops to derail any territorial compromise, as Sunday's mass rally showed.
In an interview published in the Jerusalem Post Monday, one of Sharon's top ministers said that unless negotiations get going by June, Israel will begin to implement those as-yet-unspecified unilateral moves. Sharon, who earned his nickname "the Bulldozer" by stopping at nothing to achieve his goals, has shifted his approach. He's let go of the dream of Greater Israel—not because he doesn't want it, but because he realizes it's worth paying a price for the peace and stability he's determined to bring.
Clearly, it's in the Palestinians' best interest to crack down on terror and get back to the table, where they have a chance of negotiating a better deal. But if past performance is any indication of future moves, Arafat will remain loyal to his impossible dream of Greater Palestine and let the Palestinian people, who pay a price for his intransigence every day, be damned.