Unprecedented opening for Darfur action exists


It’s getting hard to think of Darfur as urgent these days. It’s not that things have slowed down. Quite the contrary. In the last year we’ve seen devastation on par with the worst of the fighting back in 2005.

The information just keeps rolling in — renewed bombings, attacks on Darfuri refugee camps, humanitarian workers under siege, more than 300,000 people displaced just since the beginning of 2008. But as we approach six years of genocide, it’s just hard to think of Darfur as urgent anymore. Genocide in Darfur has begun to feel, let’s face it, status quo. Stale. Old news.

But the truth is that committing to ending the genocide in Darfur has never been more urgent. Darfur activists are facing an unbelievable opportunity to affect real, lasting change in the region. And if we don’t seize this opportunity now, it could be a very long time before such a window opens again.

Three things are happening at once.

First, we have an American public that has been mobilized politically in record numbers. Darfur activists have a remarkable opportunity to harness this momentum while newly activated Americans are still ready to hear from us what the priority issues of the new administration need to be.

Second, we have an administration that for the first time in a long time is poised to change the prevailing attitude toward the United States within the international community. To do so will mean redefining American values toward the wider world and redefining American policy priorities.

President-elect Barack Obama has already promised his “unstinting resolve” toward ending the genocide in Darfur and, since 2006, has expressed that he sees the Darfur conflict not only as a humanitarian concern but as a national security issue, as well.

His recent nominations of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) for secretary of state and Susan Rice as U.N. ambassador — both of whom have been outspoken advocates for stronger action in Darfur — are particularly encouraging, as they show that this new administration is committed to engaging with the world and to look at peace and prosperity worldwide as an issue for American national security. A bigger push by Darfur activists now will give Obama the grass-roots support — and the constant reminder — he needs to take a firm stance on Darfur.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we have a Sudanese president who for the very first time is facing a real and credible threat — prosecution by the International Criminal Court. When ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo requested an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al Bashir in July, Bashir immediately spiraled through a broad range of reactions — denial of any wrongdoing, threats to suspend all agreements with the United Nations, promises to unleash a wave of devastation in Darfur unlike any the world has seen.

But in an attempt to win an Article 16 deferral of his prosecution by the U.N. Security Council, Bashir seems to have settled on at least a contrived attempt at cooperation. So far, none of Bashir’s superficial tactics seem to have won him much regard — at least the United States still seems unwilling to grant Bashir his deferral.

Bashir’s new “peace talks” were widely discredited and boycotted by rebel groups en masse. His long-awaited arrest of militia leader Ali Kushayb resulted only in the promise of domestic trials against him — promises that are as yet unfulfilled. His recent announcement of a unilateral “immediate and unconditional cease-fire” has already faltered amid allegations (though as yet unconfirmed) of renewed bombings in rebel territory. But Bashir is, at the very least, attempting to look cooperative in the eyes of the international community.

Coupled with renewed mobilization by the U.S. grass roots and mounting pressure by the president-elect’s proposed administration, Darfur activists have the opportunity to create an atmosphere in which Bashir feels threatened enough to make real concessions in Darfur. And with International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor poised to announce charges against rebel leaders that have attacked African Union forces, we seem to have hit on a prime negotiating position.

It’s going to take all of us — a tall order in a time of economic crisis, a time where our first instinct is to turn inward and take care of our own communities. One day in the near future, however, our economic crisis will have subsided. When that time comes, who among us will want to know that we stood by and did not take advantage of this chance to save lives and end a genocide?

Indeed, the price of inaction is too heavy a burden for people of conscience to bear.

It’s urgent.

Fatah fighters’ escape to Israel and what it means


Even for the complex Middle East it was a moment of exceptional irony. Some 180 Fatah loyalists fleeing a series of shootouts and summary executions by Hamas

on the streets of Gaza ran for the border — banking on the mercies of the enemy they usually target.

Remarkably, Israeli soldiers braved Hamas fire to save the Palestinians. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, however, opted to return the fighters to Gaza. The first group of 35 returnees was promptly arrested by Hamas.

Seeing the danger to their erstwhile foes, the Israel Defense Forces balked at transferring the rest of the Fatah men, while the Association for Civil Rights in Israel appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court to block the forced repatriation. Finally, Israel prevailed upon Abbas to give safety to his own followers, and they were sent to Jericho.

The reaction in the Arab world to this incredible turn of events is instructive. Writing in Beirut’s Daily Star, columnist Rami Khouri offered an assessment of the larger issue:

“This is the latest and most troubling example of how a once-grand and noble Palestinian national liberation movement has allowed itself to degenerate into ineptitude…. As Fatah and Hamas battle it out like a bunch of armed neighborhood gangs, it will not be surprising to see some friends of Palestine quietly walk away, mumbling that if the Palestinians wish to kill each other and destroy their own society, they are free to do so.”

Writing in Al-Hayat, Mohammad Salah goes even further:

“The flight by Ahmad Hilles and other Palestinians to Israel in search of safety away from the bullying and aggression of Hamas affirms that the Palestinian issue is on its way to disappearing, evaporating and being forgotten. It also proves that Israel, for many Palestinians, is a refuge or objective one seeks and heads toward when Palestinians oppress each other.”

The border episode should have been cheered by nongovernment organizations and church groups who insist that peace will come to the Middle East not through governmental fiat, but when people on both sides recognize the humanity of the other.

Other developments, however, indicate that we are a long way off from moving beyond widely held stereotypes in the Arab World that depict Christians as bloodthirsty crusaders and Jews as the offspring of pigs and monkeys. The reaction to a University of Haifa course shows just how much toxicity prevails in the Arab street.

Professor Ofer Grosbard, assisted in a project by 15 Muslim students, quoted verses from the Quran that would help Muslim psychologists reinforce in their religious patients concepts like respect, responsibility, honesty, dignity and kindness. Their selections were vetted by three Islamic clerics.

Nonetheless, the project drew furious responses. Speaking to Gulf News, Dr. Abdullah Al Mutlaq, of the Senior Ulema Board in Saudi Arabia, insisted that the project should not be trusted by Muslims, because it is run by Jews who openly show their hatred to Islam and Muslims, and that Grosbard’s interpretation of the Quran’s lessons in human dignity and kindness would give Muslims the wrong impression of their religion. Not surprisingly, officials of the Palestinian Authority concurred.

Don’t expect the caretakers of the global civil society to challenge the Arab world anytime soon. Some self-appointed activists, operating in the rarified moral high ground of nongovernmental organizations, refuse to be impacted by the facts. For even as Israelis fought to obtain the safety of Arab fighters on Aug. 5, two boats in Cyprus were preparing a mission to burst through Israel’s sea blockade into an embrace with Hamas. The success of the mission was to be measured by Google hits on BBC and Iranian media coverage, not by any humanitarian cargo for the beleaguered residents of Gaza.

Israel has consistently allowed such supplies in and arranged passage for many critically ill patients to Israeli hospitals. This despite the fact that at least one ill woman from Gaza used the privilege of shuttling back and forth to an Israeli hospital to try to smuggle a bomb that would blow up the very facility and doctors who treated her.

Most nongovernmental organizations (NGO) that see themselves as protectors of Palestinian interests remain blind and silent, both about the Israeli largesse and the rupture of Palestinian society. Have they ever wondered what issues Israelis grapple with, what their needs are in the Gordian knot we call the Holy Land?

Did anyone consider the reaction of the parents of Gilad Shalit to the Fatah rescue? Shalit is the Israeli soldier kidnapped near that very crossing where the Fatah members were saved by other Israeli soldiers.

And what of the bereaved families of Vadim Nurhitz and Yossi Avrahami, two Israeli reservists who took a wrong turn into Ramallah? Taken to a PA police station, they were brutalized and dismembered by a mob. Rather than protect the two soldiers, a PA policeman at the station participated in the lynching.

For too many, repeating empty mantras about the “occupation” is much easier than rethinking the nature of a future Palestinian state and how it would treat its own citizens or its Jewish neighbors. Indeed, too few in the international community care enough to demand a modicum of accountability from the Palestinians.

These events present a microcosm of a clash not between two governments but of two fundamentally different cultures. Nothing will ever change until the world comes to understand the truths that led the Fatah fighters to choose the Israeli enemy over their Palestinian brothers?

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of interfaith relations for the Wiesenthal Center.

Kids Page


Back to the Beach

Just because we’re back in school doesn’t mean we can’t think about the beach. If you want to go into the new Jewish year with another mitzvah under our belt, here is a fun opportunity:

Coastal Cleanup on Sept. 17

Help clean the Coastal Park area at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, as well as the Point Fermin Marine Life Refuge, from 9 a.m. to noon. After the cleanup, stay for refreshments during an open house at the Salinas de San Pedro salt marsh (noon-2 p.m.). Learn more about this unique habitat by using binoculars and microscopes to observe live animals. This is a free activity.

Groups please call the education staff at (310) 548-7562 ext. 217 to reserve and arrange for parking.

 

A Little Light Seeps Into Dark Times


It is hard to recall such despairing times.

A young Tel Aviv man spat three times on Yitzhak Rabin’s memorial — the same number as the bullets that felled him — in front of a Channel 2 news crew a few days before the anniversary of his murder. Glaring swastikas were found splashed across the site on the morning of the yahrzeit (anniversary of his death). Both of these events bring to the surface some of the toxic undercurrents running through this country.

It is hard to believe, eight years later, that this national day of grief becomes an opportunity for some to demonstrate their despicable, baseless hatred. But maybe that is the point, as suggested by many since that terrible night, and in retrospect, we will remember it as the beginning of the destruction of the Third Temple. But just when you think we have sunk as low as we can go, more than 100,000 people turn out to honor Rabin in a memorial rally in the huge square that bears his name and to voice a collective "yes" for peace that hasn’t been heard here in the last three years or more.

It may be wishful thinking to say so, but the positive energy galvanized to express support for Rabin’s way — a political track, a sustained and determined peace process — might well signal, at last, the return of Israel’s "peace camp."

For three years, once-hopeful Israelis have been stunned into silence by suicide bombings and have lapsed into an acquiescent majority that nods its assent to both prolonged military occupation and aggressive responses to terror that are not accompanied by any serious, creative political initiative.

Oslo, it was concluded, did not work, period. Ehud Barak and his generous Camp David-Taba offer did not persuade the Palestinians to negotiate for peace, proving that they do not want a peaceful compromise. So muscle is the only answer.

But after three years and nearly 1,000 Israelis deaths, compounded by the sinking realization that a strong economy and an endless conflict do not go hand in hand, the level of frustration and trepidation about the future has reached an all-time high.

This loss of hope is best illustrated by the sheer apathy of the Israeli voter in the recent local elections. Figures showed 41 percent came out to vote for their mayor, compared to 57.4 percent who voted in the last round of municipal elections, making this the lowest voter turnout in Israel’s history. The gloomy economic statistics released the day before the elections, plus a runaway government deficit and looming Histadrut (labor union) action that has already been tagged the "mother of all strikes," all put the country in a miserable mood.

The numbers were overwhelming: close to 11 percent unemployment, with towns across Israel rating as high as 27 percent (Kseife) in Arab and Bedouin towns and 12.4 percent (Acre) in Jewish towns; 300,000 families (triple the 1988 figure) living below the poverty line, meaning that one in every three children in the State of Israel is living in poverty.

By staying home, the voters made clear that they have lost faith that the political system can do much to remedy the grim situation. What does this augur for Israeli democracy?

Still, national security issues dominate the public agenda.

As support grew within the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for an easing of restrictions on the Palestinians, the remarkable admission to the press by Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon that Israel’s failure to have done enough in that area not only contributed to the fall of Mahmoud Abbas but, in fact endangered Israel dominated the headlines and rocked the establishment.

Ya’alon, who was identified as the "high-ranking IDF officer" quoted in the explosive article written by Nahum Barnea in Yediot Aharonot, said, "The ongoing curfew is causing damage to Israel’s security: It destroys the agriculture, it increases hatred for Israel and strengthens the terror organizations."

Public criticism, first by pilots who refused to take part in air force attacks on civilian population centers, then by the grieving parents of soldiers killed in the territories and, finally, by the army’s top brass, is making life increasingly uncomfortable for Ariel Sharon.

To top it off, the prime minister was grilled for seven hours by police investigators over corruption charges. Sharon’s main line of defense, according to press reports, was that he knows nothing of these matters and the police should talk to his son, Gilad — a rather cynical response considering that Gilad, all along, has been "pleading the fifth."

All of this was accompanied by the announcement of the Geneva accords, the joint U.S. tour of Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh, the Israel Democracy Institute’s first public discussion of a 50-page paper examining Israel’s departure from the settlements and the mass turnout at Rabin Square.

The Histadrut strike hasn’t materialized, at least for now, pushed off by a late-night Labor Court order. And, as it turns out, some cracks of light have appeared in the government’s dark refusal to talk to the Palestinian Authority, when Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter met with Jibril Rajoub — former head of preventative security in the West Bank — and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met with Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad.

With a full 71 percent of the Israeli people supporting a renewal of political negotiations with the Palestinians (according to the latest Steinmetz Center poll released Nov. 5), a final glimmer of hope comes from the unsubstantiated rumor that Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei will meet this weekend — bringing us back full circle to Rabin and his way.

If nothing else, let them talk.


Roberta Fahn Schoffman is an expert in U.S.-Israel relations and Diaspora Jewry and founder of MindSet Media and Strategic Consulting.

Dialing for Peace


In the past two years, a soundproof curtain has descended on
dialogue between individuals in Israel on the one hand and Gaza and the West
Bank on the other. Without the possibility of interchange, it is but a small
step to collective demonization of the other.

If Palestinians and Israelis are linked by anything, it
seems to be fear and mistrust.

Now a one-of-a-kind social experiment has stepped into the
void, attempting to pierce the soundproof curtain. Not between politicians. Not
between delegations. Not between professional groups. Not between celebrities.

With supreme — and perhaps naive — faith in the common man,
a local group has come up with a scheme to allow Palestinians and Israelis a
first step in one-to-one contact: giving them the opportunity to talk.

The binational organization, Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved
Parents for Peace, is made up of about 400 Israeli and Palestinian parents,
whose children have been killed by the other side. Until now, its efforts have
been focused on using its members’ immense moral credibility to press leaders
for peace.

With their tragic credentials, hardly any door remains
closed to them. In addition to meetings and workshops among themselves, the
group has also conducted projects to raise public consciousness.

For example, it has filled Tel-Aviv’s biggest square with symbolic
coffins to represent the victims of both sides, as well as undertaking hunger
strikes in which each day another bereaved parent volunteered to fast.

With its new telephone project, Hello, Salaam! Hello,
Shalom! Hello, Peace! the parents group has initiated a program audacious in
scope, yet employing the simplest tool of communication available to almost
everybody: the telephone.

Although Israelis and Palestinians are now unable to meet in
person, telephone lines between them are as open as a conversation between two
girlfriends living in adjacent apartments. Often mobile phones even have the
same area codes.

But how would anybody from either side know whom to contact
within the sea of the other nationality?

Hello, Peace! has established an ingenious matrix for
telephone contact: an automated telephone system through which any individual
can, without charge, talk by phone to a member of the other side. It is a
grass-roots connection of the most basic and immediate kind.

Callers within Israel, the West Bank or Gaza dial 6364 from
any telephone. They then have the option of browsing through a list of messages
and names of individuals who have signed up as interested in receiving phone
calls — to date, 590 Israelis and 1,377 Palestinians are listed.

Participants can decide to whom to place a call, which is
done through the project’s system. Additionally, every caller may create a
personalized message box identifying himself and giving a short greeting, thus
enabling another caller to contact him. The data is further broken down by
gender and age, so that a caller can direct contacts.

When instituted in October 2002, the project was advertised
on billboards, the radio, the Israeli press and in the Arabic-language
newspaper, Al Quds. Since then, its existence has spread by word of mouth. To
date, more than 100,000 calls have been made, far exceeding the expectations of
its creators.

Edna, a 66-year-old Israeli living in Beersheba, has been
calling Hello, Peace! regularly. She very much would like to speak to another
woman, but has yet to find a Palestinian woman who speaks English or Hebrew,
and Edna’s Arabic is too rudimentary to have a real conversation.

However, Edna has established contact with two young men
with whom she speaks often. At first, Edna was hesitant to give her age but
decided that a 66-year-old on the line is a message in itself. Their
conversations are not limited to politics.

One man, previously injured in a car accident, told her that
he has been treated in the Beersheba hospital in the past. “If he comes again,”
Edna said, “I will definitely go to visit him.”

Last year 22-year-old Yaniv finished his Israeli army
service, serving in a combat unit. This winter he has been speaking on Hello,
Peace!  “I heard many — at least 10 — say they are against suicide bombers and
support peace,” Yaniv said. “It is important for us Israelis to know there are
Palestinians who feel this way. Because when we see all those pictures on the
TV, we think there are no normal people on the other side. And they feel
exactly the same way.”

Trying to get through to someone sometimes takes
determination and perseverance. The language barrier is frequently a stumbling
block. Often English is the lingua franca.

In the opinion of the project’s organizers, the language barrier
is symptomatic of the noncommunication of the two societies in general. Even
after there is a human being on the other end, it is not always easy to break
the ice with a stranger and exchange more than platitudes.

Ahmed from Hebron learned Hebrew during his many years
working in Israel as a building subcontractor, so he was able to freely express
himself to his Israeli counterpart. In fact, Ahmed has spoken with many
Israelis through Hello, Peace!, some of them several times. When he calls, he
gives only his first name, as is customary.

When asked if he thinks these calls can help and what
private individuals can actually accomplish by talking, Ahmed responded, “It is
true, I can do nothing. But Israelis can.”

“Israel is a democracy,” he continued. “Israel has all the
power on its side. The scales are not even. Israelis are the ones who can make
a choice.”

Ahmed has a message he wants to convey to Israelis: “To know
that we, too, deserve to live like human beings.”

When asked if he was working, Ahmed replied, “Not now. Now
the situation is terrible.”

Then further questioned about what he does instead, Ahmed
laughed and said, “I sit at home and watch television — and I talk on the
phone.”

The Common Ground News Service, which supplied this story,
distributes articles to promote constructive perspectives and dialogue about
current Middle East issues.  


Helen Schary Motro is an American writer and lawyer living in Israel, who teaches at the Tel-Aviv University law school.

A Costly Win


Since the start of Israel’s election campaign last October,
the flamboyant leader of the secular-rights Shinui Party had been promising a
secular revolution in Israel.

This week Yosef “Tommy” Lapid seemed to have a golden
opportunity to fulfill his promises when Shinui — which became Israel’s third
largest party after the Jan. 28 elections — agreed to join Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon’s new Likud-led government.

But the initial signs for a radical shift in
secular-religious relations were not auspicious: Shinui, which has 15 Knesset
seats, backed off much of its agenda when it compromised with the National
Religious Party (NRP) on the guidelines of the prospective government.
Moreover, political analysts are questioning just how much a government based
on Likud, Shinui, the NRP and the hawkish National Union bloc — but without the
Labor Party — will be able to move toward peace with the Palestinians.

The National Union, which is staunchly opposed to the
Palestinian state Sharon says he supports under certain conditions, tentatively
agreed Tuesday to join the government. The inclusion of the seven-member bloc
would give Sharon a 68-seat coalition and a bit of breathing room in the
120-member Knesset. Sharon was expected to present his government to the Knesset
on Thursday.

The form of that government took some shape Wednesday, when
Sharon offered the Foreign Ministry in the new Israeli government to Finance
Minister Silvan Shalom, ousting Benjamin Netanyahu from his current position.
Earlier Wednesday, Sharon had offered the Finance Ministry to Netanyahu, who
turned it down. But following consultations with close advisers, and a proposal
from Sharon that sweetened the deal, Netanyahu was still considering the
finance portfolio late Wednesday.

According to Israel Radio, in addition to the Cabinet
appointment, Netanyahu would be a member of the Security Cabinet. He also wants
to serve as acting prime minister in Sharon’s absence.

Before Shinui and the NRP signed initial coalition
agreements with the Likud on Monday, they worked out a bilateral deal on
secular-religious affairs that was mediated by Ehud Olmert, the outgoing mayor
of Jerusalem.

First they agreed to annul the “Tal Law,” which allows for
blanket exemptions from military service for yeshiva students and enables
fervently Orthodox men to join the Israeli work force without having to serve
first in the army. On the face of it, canceling the Tal Law seems like a major
step forward in the campaign for equality between secular and fervently
Orthodox Israelis. But the Shinui-NRP agreement gives no indication of what
will replace the Tal Law, stipulating only that a committee will propose new
legislation within a year.

It is therefore not at all clear that Shinui made any gains
at all on one of its main election promises: equal army or national service for
all. Nor did Shinui achieve dramatic breakthroughs on two other key election
promises: civil marriage and public transport on the Sabbath. The Shinui-NRP
deal does provide a civil marriage option for an estimated 250,000 people
barred from marrying by the Chief Rabbinate — for example, when one of the
partners is not halachically Jewish or when a descendant of a priestly caste
seeks to marry a divorcee.

But the key principle — offering a civil marriage option for
all Israelis — is not part of the deal. Nor is there any advance on public
transport on the Sabbath: Where such services exist, they will continue; where
they don’t, nothing will be done to introduce them.

Perhaps most importantly, the Shinui-NRP deal leaves the
Orthodox monopoly on Jewish religious affairs in Israel intact. There is no
recognition of the Conservative or Reform streams nor any upgrading of their
secondary status in Israel. Indeed, except on civil marriage and Sabbath
transport, Shinui agrees to back the status quo on religious affairs.

So binding is this commitment that even on civil marriage,
Shinui’s Knesset members are no longer free to back bills presented by
individual members without the backing of their parties; the most they can do
is abstain if such proposals come to a vote. Acknowledging that Shinui
legislators no longer could support a private member’s bill on civil marriage
that they had proposed jointly with a Labor legislator, Shinui’s Yehudit Naot
declared Monday, “There are things you just can’t do when you’re in
government.”

A few days before he signed the coalition deal, Lapid
insisted that “whether we end up in the government or not, I see in our
agreement with the NRP a new chapter in the relations between secular and
moderate religious people in Israel.”

However, few political analysts would agree.

“Where’s the change?” the left-leaning secular daily
Ha’aretz asked in a scathing editorial Monday, playing on the Hebrew meaning of
Shinui’s name.

The Shinui-NRP deal “raises concern that in their eagerness
to join the government, Shinui’s leaders have given up some of the most
significant of their principles: freedom of religion and freedom from
religion,” Ha’aretz argued.

The paper also pointed out that Shinui is not pushing for
the enactment of more basic laws enshrining individual and social rights or the
completion of a full-fledged constitution.

“If Shinui turns into another ruling party with no agenda,”
the paper warned, “its fate will be the same as the centrist parties that
preceded it” — all of which quickly disintegrated.

Lapid blames Labor for staying outside the coalition,
missing the chance to establish an all-secular government that would have been
able to make far more radical changes to the status quo.

Labor’s secretary-general, Ophir Pines-Paz, retorts that
Shinui torpedoed any chance for a secular government by rushing to cut a deal
with the NRP — the patron of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip — that made Labor’s participation in the government nearly impossible.

The presence of the NRP and National Union in the coalition
raises a second question: Will the new government, with its right-wing bias, be
able to move toward peace with the Palestinians?

NRP leaders insist they will not accept Palestinian
statehood in any shape or form, even though that is the declared aim of the
“road map” toward peace being prepared by the diplomatic “Quartet” of the
United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. Sharon has publicly
accepted the gist of the road map, though Israel is suggesting certain changes
that will make the Palestinians’ responsibilities more explicit.

To appease the NRP, Sharon promised that government
guidelines would include not a commitment to a Palestinian state but a
reference to a speech Sharon delivered last December, when he outlined his
vision of phased, performance-based progress to Palestinian statehood.

“Only once a specific phase has been implemented,” Sharon
said then, “will progress to the next phase be possible.”

But what happens if there is genuine progress? Would the NRP
stay in the coalition or pull out, forcing Sharon to form a new government,
possibly with Labor?

The same uncertainty surrounds the durability of Sharon’s
pact with National Union, which is considered far more hawkish than the NRP.
National Union leader Avigdor Lieberman had refused to accept any mention of a
Palestinian state in the government guidelines. But he agreed with Likud
negotiators Tuesday that the issue of Palestinian statehood would be brought
before the Cabinet “if and when it becomes relevant.”

In his coalition talks with Labor, Sharon said he was convinced
that after an anticipated U.S.-led war against Iraq the international community
would turn its attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When that
happened, he told Labor leaders, he would be ready to make far-reaching
compromises. That statement kept Labor interested, but the talks broke down
when Sharon refused to commit himself in writing.

The big question pundits are asking is whether the phased
style Sharon favors in peacemaking applies to his coalition building as well.
First, he strikes deals with Shinui, NRP and National Union, dealing mainly
with economic and social issues; then, pundits say, when Sharon wants to move
on the Palestinian track, Labor will again be invited to join the government on
the basis of an agreed peace program.

Then again, this narrow coalition, with all its limitations,
could be all Sharon really wants. Even with Labor consigned to the opposition,
Sharon knows it would support any peace efforts he chooses to make — just the
way Labor supported former Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s peacemaking with
Egypt from the opposition.

JTA’s Naomi Segal contributed to this report. Â

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.