The Washington Times

As a siren and flashing lights stream past an outdoor cafe here, my Israeli dinner companion, an acute observer of manners, tells me to watch the way our Israeli fellow patrons’ heads turn – first in the direction in which the emergency vehicle was going, next in the direction whence it came. Why look back? Well, my dinner companion explains, if other emergency vehicles aren’t following the first one, it’s routine, maybe a heart attack or something. Only if more are following could it be a terrorist attack.

Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put the question of disengagement – essentially, the unilateral withdrawal of Israel, including Israeli settlements, from the Gaza strip, leaving the management of the territory to the Palestinians living there – to a vote of his ruling Likud Party. Thanks to an energetic lobbying effort on the part of Israeli settlers in Gaza, the referendum lost by a lopsided 60-40 vote. What next? The answer will come as no great surprise to Sharon-watchers: The Israeli prime minister is pressing on.

Some have indulged themselves in conspiracy theories about Mr. Sharon’s motives in putting the question to his party. Members of Likud have been among the strongest supporters of Israel’s settlements policy in Gaza and especially on the West Bank. Perhaps, then, Mr. Sharon’s secret plan was the very result achieved: a rejection of withdrawal and a further delay in the day of reckoning, which is to say, the abandonment of dreams of a “Greater Israel” encompassing the territory of the promised land of biblical times – or at any rate, the territories Israel has occupied since the 1967 war.

After all, Mr. Sharon could have put the matter to a national referendum. With the help of Labour and other parties, he clearly would have won, as his bold attempt to change the facts on the ground has wide support overall. Yet he chose to survey only his fellow Likud members.

It’s a clever theory – except that it would seem to require evidence that having lost, Mr. Sharon was abandoning his plan. He isn’t. Earlier this week, he met with his Cabinet to discuss how to go forward. No, what seems more likely is that Mr. Sharon thought he could win this referendum and emerge from it with a clear mandate from the hard-line party to go ahead. There is nothing conspiratorial about political miscalculation.

Mr. Sharon seems nothing if not determined, and not for the first time in his stormy political career. Given the breakdown of talks with the Palestinians since Yasser Arafat walked away from the Oslo process at Camp David in 2000, given the current absence of any plausible Palestinian interlocutor, given the continuation of attacks on Israelis, especially suicide bombings, the facts on the ground look lousy from the Israeli point of view. Exactly how many blown-up cafes and buses must Israelis endure?

As for those deplorers of the “cycle of violence” who like to postulate a moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli reprisals, including assassination of members of terrorist organizations, does anyone really doubt from which side the violence originates? Once one accepts that Israel is here to stay, then the obvious route to the satisfaction of legitimate Palestinian aspirations is the creation of a Palestinian state. True, the proposal former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak put on the table, the one Mr. Arafat rejected, was objectionable on grounds that it did not provide the new state of Palestine adequate geographical contiguity. But surely that issue could have been resolved or at least tested in further negotiations. Instead, Mr. Arafat walked away. The question once again becomes the basic matter of acceptance of Israel’s permanence.

If you don’t like the old facts, try making some new facts. Mr. Sharon’s government has been building a physical barrier between Jewish and Palestinian populations, by turns an imposing fence or solid wall, in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks – and behind which Israel might withdraw fully, leaving those on the Palestinian side to themselves. Its route is controversial and its aspect is ugly. It does indeed implicitly impose a territorial political solution that would be addressed more properly by negotiation. It does indeed disrupt the lives of Palestinians who find it harder to get to jobs on the Israeli side or who are caught on the Israeli side, separated from relatives and friends.

And the alternative is what? That’s the problem. More suicide bombings? No thanks.

So it is that Mr. Sharon, of all people, may have more support for his policies coming from the Israeli left than its right, overly sympathetic as some there are to the concerns of settlers. Once a figure of demonization to the left, he is now the indispensable man.

Call it, perhaps, the arrival of “neoconservatism” in Israel. A generation ago, Irving Kristol famously said that a neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality. That’s a metaphor. In Israel, a neoconservative is a liberal who’s seen one too many suicide bombings. That’s not a metaphor.