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.