Why Sharon says yes when he means no.

How you look at things.
May 16 2002 6:34 PM

But Out

Ariel Sharon demonstrates how to look like you're saying yes when you're really saying no.

Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon 

Your boss asks you to work the weekend. Your friend asks to crash at your place. Your college asks you for money. Should you say yes? Maybe. Should you say no? Never. There's always a way to brush off a request or obligation without quite saying so. Just ask Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Sharon lives in a neighborhood where ducking your duty by shading your words is an art form. His enemy, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, has made a political career of disavowing terrorism while extolling and financing "martyrdom." Sharon's rival, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, slithered out of the Oslo land-for-peace accords by claiming that Israel didn't have to give up land since the persistence of rogue terrorists meant that Arafat wasn't providing peace.

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Now it's Sharon's turn. He's under heavy international pressure to do what Netanyahu wouldn't do: negotiate a final peace pact with Arafat's Palestinian Authority. In that pact, he's expected to sign over the Gaza Strip and virtually all of the West Bank to a Palestinian state. But Sharon loathes Arafat. He doesn't want to deal with the Palestinian Authority. He doesn't want to give up territory. He certainly doesn't want a fully armed Palestinian state next door.

How does Sharon get out of this bind? By redefining the terms of Israel's commitment. Yes, he'll allow a Palestinian state, but not one with all the powers a state normally has. Yes, he'll negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, but not this Palestinian Authority. Yes, he'll sign a permanent agreement defining Israeli-Palestinian borders, but not until after a long, indefinite period of Palestinian obedience to a limited "interim" agreement.

This week, the Central Committee of Israel's Likud Party, to which Sharon and Netanyahu belong, passed a resolution declaring, "No Palestinian state will be established west of the Jordan River." Netanyahu promoted the resolution; Sharon opposed it. The consensus among pundits is that the resolution won't cripple Sharon because the Central Committee has no more control over Sharon than the Republican platform committee has over President Bush. But in fact, the resolution helps Sharon by creating a false appearance of division between him and Israeli hard-liners. What the hard-liners imply with a "no," Sharon implies with a "yes, but."

Start with the question of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu promoted the no-state resolution by arguing that some of the traditional powers of statehood, such as importing weapons and controlling airspace, would imperil Israel. "Just say no to a Palestinian state!" he told the Likud delegates. A decade ago, Sharon shared that view. As prime minister, however, he has turned the argument around. The Palestinians can have a state, he says, as long as it doesn't include an army or control of its airspace and borders. This is like telling your boss, "Sure, I can work the weekend—as long as it doesn't include Saturday or Sunday."

Should Israel negotiate with the Palestinian Authority? Netanyahu says no. "We must immediately dismantle the Palestinian Authority," he wrote last month in the Los Angeles Times. Sharon disagrees. "I have no intention of dismantling the Palestinian Authority," he said recently. On Tuesday, he told Israel's parliament, "Israel wants to enter into peace negotiations and will do so as soon as two basic terms for the establishment of a genuine peace process are met." One condition was an end to terrorism; the other was reform of the Palestinian Authority. "It must be a different Authority!" Sharon told Israeli legislators. This is like telling your friend, "Sure, you can stay at my place—when you're Anna Kournikova." (One Israeli lawmaker quipped that Sharon's next demand would be to "replace the Palestinian people.")

When will Israel finalize a deal with the Palestinians? Never, says Netanyahu. "It is clear now that we cannot reach any kind of solution at all with the Palestinians," he told the Likud committee. Sharon rejects such pessimism. He's willing to complete negotiations with the Palestinians; he's just not willing to say when. On Tuesday, he told the Israeli parliament that he would "sign a peace agreement" with the Palestinians only after "a lengthy intermediate stage."

How lengthy? According to the New York Times, "Mr. Sharon has indicated privately that the interim period of calm he seeks could last 10 years or more." Publicly, Sharon refuses to put any explicit limit on the "interim" stage. When asked last week what reforms the Palestinian Authority would have to complete before Sharon would consider approving Palestinian statehood, Sharon said it was "premature" even to broach that question. This is like telling your college, "Sure, I'll give you money—some day."

Palestinian officials have pounced on the Likud resolution, imagining that it will drive a wedge between Sharon and Bush. Saeb Erekat, one of Arafat's top negotiators, called the Likud vote "an eye-opener for President Bush," arguing that it "unmasked" Sharon's resolve to maintain the Israeli occupation rather than pursue peace. Erekat has it backward. The media have interpreted the resolution as a slap at both Bush and Sharon, thereby uniting them in apparent opposition to Netanyahu and the Israeli right.