ISRAEL'S Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has had a good couple of months. In August, his policy of forced withdrawal from the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, which he imposed on his Likud party despite bitter opposition, was carried out far faster and with much less violence than most people expected.
On Monday, he successfully repelled a leadership challenge within the party by his most dangerous rival, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. So now he is going to do nothing.
Nothing, that is to say, on the â€œpeaceâ€ front. Sharon removed the 8,500 Jewish settlers from amidst the 1.5 million Palestinians, who live in the Gaza Strip unilaterally, without any meaningful negotiations between the Israeli government and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, because Sharon does not want to enter into real negotiations over territory. The point of pulling out of Gaza, as Sharonâ€™s closest aide, Dov Weisglass, said last year, is to â€œplace the peace process in formaldehyde.
Gideon Saar, Likudâ€™s leader in the Knesset (parliament), says exactly the same thing. â€œSharon will do nothing. He cannot afford to do anything if he is to retain control of the party and stay in power.
Anyone who thinks it is Gaza first is mistaken. It is Gaza only.â€
As Sharon has been trying to explain to the thicker Likud members, by giving up the Gaza settlements (which were untenable in the long run anyway), his government can claim credit for a major step towards peace and win freedom from outside pressure for years, while it gets on with expanding the West Bank settlements and builds a â€œsecurity fenceâ€ to create a new de facto border.
Sharonâ€™s problem was that the devious and hugely ambitious Netanyahu was trying to exploit the gap between what he could say in public and what he actually intended to do, accusing him of selling out to the left (i.e. those who believe in the possibility of a negotiated peace with
Faced with Netanyahuâ€™s leadership challenge, Sharon had to give explicit assurance to the Likud rank-and-file, most of whom are obsessed with holding on to all of the conquered territories, that there werenâ€™t going to be any further peace talks and withdrawals from settlements.
This assurance had to be given out loud, since Likud is a mass movement of sorts, which is why people like Weisglass and Saar were allowed to discuss Sharonâ€™s real strategy openly.
The danger, you might think, is
that foreigners can hear them too, and would see through Sharonâ€™s game, but the only foreigners, who count for Sharonâ€™s government are in the US.
He can count on the Bush administration not to raise any objections to his real policy, and the US media are generally pretty reluctant to question either their own or the Israeli government's
So, on Monday night, Sharon narrowly defeated Netanyahuâ€™s challenge in the 3,000-member Likud central committee, and he now has a clear run
down to the election due in November of next year.
The number of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank grew by 12,000 in the past year to
250,000, while the new wall and the proliferating new Jewish suburbs in eastern Jerusalem (population now 200,000) are more and more cutting off the Arab part of the Old City from the West Bank.
Behind a smokescreen of good intentions, the project continues. And just in case the majority of Israelis, who want peace negotiations might think of putting pressure on Sharon, the Palestinian radicals, who share his determination to avoid a compromise peace, are lending him a hand.
On Saturday, Hamas fighters launched a shower of Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip at the Israeli town of Sderot, which gave Sharon an excuse to start launching air-strikes against Gaza and making mass arrests in Palestinian towns in the West Bank again. Which was, of course, exactly what Hamas wanted him to do. In effect, they are allies.
The air-strikes continue, the ceasefire itself is at risk, and
there is every chance that next Sundayâ€™s scheduled summit between Sharon and Abbas will be cancelled.
That will further undermine Abbasâ€™s position and increase the likelihood that in next Januaryâ€™s election, disillusioned Palestinians will vote for Hamas and other groups that fundamentally oppose
the whole notion of a negotiated peace with Israel.
Hamas might even win that election. That would suit Sharon too, since he could then say even more persuasively that he has no credible Palestinian negotiating partner.
The two are strategic enemies, but most of the time, they are tactical allies, each manoeuvring to defeat and isolate those in their own camp, who want to negotiate a deal with the other side. And they are winning again.
In the long term, however, it is Hamas and its friends, who benefit most from this perverse alliance. Israelâ€™s security ultimately depends on
achieving a real peace with its Arab neighbours, while it still enjoys its present advantages of overwhelming military superiority, a nuclear-weapons monopoly and a close alliance with the US, but none of these things are forever.
As time passes, the incentives for Palestinians and other Arabs to make peace with Israel will probably dwindle.
That is precisely Hamasâ€™s calculation. Why isnâ€™t it Sharonâ€™s? Perhaps because most of Hamasâ€™s leaders are men little more than half
Sharonâ€™s age (77), which gives them a different perspective on the meaning of the phrase â€œlong termâ€.
Israelâ€“Palestine: the peace spoilers