Here was a rare sight: Ariel Sharon making a noisy private display of his commitment to peace. In his cabinet room last week, the Israeli Prime Minister exploded when ministers from his Likud Party questioned his professed intention to support President Bush's road map peace plan. "I will bring the road map to the cabinet!" Sharon shouted. "I heard some of you said I won't get a majority for it. O.K., we'll see who'll have the majority. I'll get it, don't worry." The ministers kept silent, but none was cowed. They know Sharon will have a battle on his hands if he goes ahead with what Israelis see as the road map's massive concessions to the Palestinians. Besides, despite Sharon's cabinet histrionics, many of his ministers just do not believe that the former general who sees Israel's entire history as one continuous battle and himself as the leader who never stopped fighting will really push ahead with the new peace plan.
This forceful figure looms large over any hopes for peace and no one but Sharon can know at this stage whether he intends to make a genuine effort. That is a measure of his checkered history, which leaves many divided over the rock-bottom question: Is it in Sharon to do a deal with the Palestinians? But the uncertainty is also a reflection of where Israelis stand at this juncture in the long, bitter conflict: after 31 months of violence, they care more for their immediate safety and have lost trust that peaceful coexistence is possible.
Last week the Bush Administration stepped in with a long-promised plan that would require hard-liners not just in Israel but in the West Bank and Gaza and in Washington as well to give diplomacy a chance. Even if the leaders of all three parties go at it with genuine vigor, few around them are optimistic that this plan, any more than the three others that preceded it in the last five years alone, will succeed. And the question most observers are already asking is whether Bush, Sharon or the newly installed Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas will or can even try very hard.
The U.S. President, for one, has been backed into playing an active role. The road map Bush unveiled with strikingly little fanfare last week was drawn up months ago by a quartet of co-sponsors including the European Union, the U.N. and Russia, and its contents have been known since last fall. Bush finally got behind it last week because he had promised his European read British and Arab allies that if they stuck with him through the war in Iraq, he would pursue the Arab-Israeli peace they consider just as urgent. He is also in the strongest position of any U.S. President since his father a decade ago to make Mideast negotiations move forward. Bush has promised he'd push before, then done little to follow through, so it's hardly surprising if both Israelis and Palestinians remain skeptical that this time, he will.
Facing Bush from one corner is Israel's tough-guy Prime Minister, whose resistance to being pushed around is legendary. Most Israelis believe Sharon's resolve is responsible for the hard-won benefits of his two years in office. Most importantly, Sharon has restored their sense of security after repeated suicide bombings that have killed more than 750 Israelis a feat he accomplished largely by entrenching soldiers in Palestinian territory. If Palestinians pay for that with more than 2,300 deaths and Israeli soldiers camped permanently on their doorsteps, most Israelis are regretful but unapologetic. They also credit Sharon with maneuvering his old enemy Yasser Arafat from his position at the core of Palestinian power. Taking advantage of receptive policymakers in Washington, Sharon persuaded the Bush Administration that Arafat backed terrorism and therefore was no partner for peace. Together the U.S. and Israel tried to force Arafat to cede his primacy to the new Palestinian Prime Minister.
Sharon could be happy if his legacy rested on the removal of Arafat from the scene. But now he is likely to face U.S. pressure to make political and diplomatic concessions on the way to a peace deal that will prompt anger at home if they aren't accompanied by real change from Abbas. Sharon knows, for example, that withdrawing troops from the West Bank could open the gate for Palestinian extremists to step up the bombing once more.
As Sharon sees it, he can sell the road map to the Israeli public only if there is first evidence that Abbas will arrest suicide bombers and crush their networks. That is supposed to be an immediate Palestinian commitment under phase one of the plan. But already both sides are engaged in a "Who goes first?" debate. The road map calls for them to take their initial steps simultaneously. But Sharon wants violence quelled before Israel takes any action (and Bush last summer demanded the same), and Palestinians say Israel must not be allowed to wait before implementing its commitment to freeze all building in West Bank and Gaza Strip settlements.
Sharon has been working behind the scenes for some time to revise the terms of the plan. Last month, he sent Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to Washington with 14 major "comments," meaning objections, to the road map, hoping to alter it before its release. But the U.S. refused. At first, U.S. diplomats say, Israel presented more than 100 such changes. Now, they're fixing on a few key alterations that would substantially alter how the road map would proceed. The Palestinians see all this dickering over terms they believe were hashed out so thoroughly months ago as a sign Sharon intends to bog down the road map in quibbles.
Israel's right wing, which believes Sharon won re-election in January solely because he cast himself as toughest on the Palestinians, is furious that the Prime Minister has not rejected the road map outright. A lawmaker from Sharon's Likud Party set up a new pro-settlement lobby in the Knesset last week. So far, 18 of the 40 Likud legislators in the house have signed on. Domestic political pressure on Sharon will try to prevent him from conceding anything, even as a diplomatic gesture to please the U.S. The latest polls show that only one-quarter of Israelis believe Abbas' government will fight the terror groups, and 71% believe Arafat is still the one in charge. "In the Oslo peace process, we had to deliver real things and the Palestinians just talked," says Natan Sharansky, a hard-line cabinet minister who opposes the road map. "The question is whether there's a new type of regime, not just new personalities."
Many Israeli rightists take comfort in the belief that Sharon at heart isn't genuine in his advocacy of the road map. They don't see how Sharon, who in earlier ministerial jobs led the charge to build many West Bank settlements, would now agree to freeze construction. Sharon is too savvy to throw the road map in Bush's face, but rightists expect he will play for time, so that the minute Abbas fails to rein in terrorism, Sharon can seize on that as an excuse to drop the talks. This is hardly a dealmaking period for Sharon. Israeli opinion broadly favors his wait-and-see approach to the road map. And he seems confident he can walk between the raindrops of U.S. pressure to avoid doing much unless he has solid evidence that Abbas is cracking down on the terrorists or until Abbas' failure proves the road map can't work.
Still, some around Sharon say he's serious about peace and the confirmation is the political capital he has already expended on the road map. As Foreign Minister Shalom sees it, Sharon is in line with Israeli opinion that is wary but ready to make concessions when Abbas reins in the terrorists. Last week's polls also showed that if Abbas succeeds, 61% would support a freeze on settlement construction. Before his re-election in January, Sharon declared himself in favor of eventually establishing some kind of Palestinian state, which went against long-standing opposition in the Likud opposition formalized a year ago with a resolution by the Likud Central Committee. But the state Sharon has in mind would be a truncated area with military restrictions dictated by Israel, not the bigger entity offered by the Labor government at Camp David in 2000. Even so, right-wing parties are threatening to quit his coalition if he starts talks with Abbas and stops building new settlements.
In the Palestinian corner, Bush faces a different kind of adversary, one whose weakness makes him a problematic partner. Abbas' position is extremely vulnerable, as his rather defensive inaugural speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah last week showed. Outside, 200 relatives of prisoners held in Israeli jails demonstrated against his willingness to reopen talks with Sharon. "We don't recognize the new government," they chanted. "We have been deceived too many times." Inside, the 68-year-old Abbas, who prays five times daily, opened his speech with an extra Koranic dedication intended as a signal to his opponents in Hamas and Islamic Jihad that he will not surrender the religious high ground to them. Abbas warned the armed Islamists and the militia offshoots of his own Fatah Party that "pluralism does not extend to security."
Hamas officials rejected the call to give up their weapons. And Israeli officials remain wary. In his airy corner office in Israel's brand new Foreign Ministry, Shalom "wants to be convinced" by Abbas, but isn't yet. "His speech starts well, but he still makes the old demands," Shalom told TIME.
Fatah gunmen from the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have the same reservation: they say they would have been ready to hang up their Kalashnikovs if Abbas had cleared Arafat's corrupt party hacks from his cabinet. "We would have been confident that our affairs were in clean hands," says a Brigades leader in Ramallah. Instead, Abbas was forced to let most of Arafat's cronies retain their jobs. After the Palestinian Authority Chairman agreed under intense international pressure to cede most of his powers to the Prime Minister a month ago, he has been working backstage to muscle many of them back. Abbas has control of the Palestinian Authority's money, but Arafat retained control over the bulk of Palestian forces, making it doubly hard for Abbas to go after terrorists.
That is the road map's chief problem. Security is the one element that Abbas must deliver, if there is to be any cooperation from Sharon. Before Secretary of State Colin Powell visits late this week, Sharon is likely to make a cosmetic concession, perhaps evacuating a few illegal settlement outposts, as he began to do last week. But Shin Bet officials tell Time they have not yet been asked by Sharon to recommend any potential measures, such as troop withdrawals or loosening of roadblocks, that could be real incentives to Abbas.
There's not much beyond cheerleading that the U.S. can do to help the Palestinian Premier. The Bush Administration may not even get a chance to do that: Abbas recently told the U.S. that it would undercut him if Powell met with him but not Arafat. But State Department sources say Powell will not sit down with Arafat; will Abbas sit down with Powell? U.S. diplomats were scrambling to come up with a solution so Powell could finally weigh in, having already delayed a trip to Jerusalem because Abbas said it was too soon after his confirmation to be embraced by the American. But in the end, the success of the road map rests on Bush's willingness to lean on Sharon, the immovable object who stands squarely between progress and failure. This time, says a senior White House aide, "the President is serious as a heart attack." Maybe. However attractive the image of peacemaker may look to him, though, Bush may look ahead to next year's election and think twice about going up against American Christians and Jews who are ardently pro-Israel. Like Sharon and Abbas, he has plenty of reason not to drive the road mapped out before him.