Meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is very much like visiting with your grandfather. He is warm and engaging. He lives in the history he did so much to write, speaking of events that happened 50 years ago with the same spark with which he speaks of the latest developments. His personal warmth, clear love for his people, and his dedication to our welfare have a way of clearing your mind of worry and fear. Sitting across from him, you cannot help but look at him and recall the footage from the Sinai in the Yom Kippur War -- Maj.-Gen. Ariel Sharon riding in an open jeep with a bloodied bandage on his head.
The atmosphere at his Jerusalem residence is serene. People are tranquil and smile at you. Even the security guards are calm. No one seemed worried about protecting his turf. The street leading up to the prime minister's house is quiet, no demonstrations. All you notice on your way to meet your leader is the Moment Cafe with its muted, transparent plaque at once memorializing the 12 people murdered while drinking coffee on a Saturday night and asking the public not to think about the massacre too much. Understatement, serenity or is it apathy? are the order of the day.
After three years of stormy government under Binyamin Netanyahu and another 18 months of total governmental breakdown under Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, national grandfather and national hero, is a soothing influence. He exudes confidence and a sense that he is comfortable wielding power. He walks in the footsteps of his mentor, David Ben-Gurion, the "Old Man."
And if the striking similarity between the white-haired leaders is not clear to his visitors, perched on the prime minister's bookshelf is a framed photograph of Sharon, the brilliant young paratroop commander and tactician of counterterrorism, conferring intimately with the Old Man himself. The photograph, nestled comfortably next to a photo of Sharon and his late wife, Lilly, together in a wheat field, seems right. It is not a vanity picture, you might say. It is no delusion of grandeur. It is there by right. Looking at Sharon in the flesh, sitting across the desk you think, he sits here, in the prime minister's chair, by right.
Sharon knows precisely what he wishes to say. He is not easily interrupted or swayed from his line. He explains, proudly and in great detail, how he envisions a phased settlement of the war with the Palestinians. It is all in the Palestinians' hands, he explains.
They need to destroy terrorism. They need to arrest terrorists, dismantle terror organizations, collect illegal arms and transfer them to American monitors to be destroyed. If they do this, and if they end incitement and reorganize their finances in a manner that ends corruption and siphoning off of funds to terror, we will be able to make a deal with them.
This plan, he explains, is a framework agreed upon with the Bush administration. The Americans agree, he says, that before anything else happens, the Palestinians must end terrorism and violence.
Last Friday night, we received a good indication of what will happen if the Palestinians don't do what Sharon demands. The IDF gave an ultimatum to the arch-terrorists under siege in the Mukata compound in Ramallah with Yasser Arafat, the godfather of all arch-terrorists. You must come out with your hands up in five minutes, they were ordered.
Hearing this, Tawfik Tirawi and Arafat had a good laugh. They had been there before, two years ago, when Ehud Barak gave them the same ultimatum on Yom Kippur. End terrorism in 24 hours, he ordered. But then, as now, there was something missing. There was no "or else."
The hollowness of the IDF's ultimatum, like Barak's, points to the strategic vacuum that Sharon has not filled. His plan for transforming the Palestinian Authority is missing the same vital ingredient. He has no "or else." What will happen if the Palestinians do not turn against one another and destroy their one achievement as a people terrorism? What will happen if there are no arrests, if they continue to attack us?
I asked Sharon repeatedly what he has taken from the Palestinians to make them decide to stand down. He pointed to their poverty. He intimated that they are now reaching the conclusion that force will get them nowhere.
Maybe this is true. But why is this new understanding any different from their supposed understanding in 1993, when they pledged before the entire world to forswear violence against us and combat Palestinians who refused to take the path to peace?
Sharon explains that under him things will be different. The Palestinians will be forced to fulfill their part of the bargain. Under the Sharon plan, US security forces will monitor the activities of the PA security services.
On the face of it, this seems reassuring. After all, the Americans are our friends. They agree that the PA must end terrorism. But if the Americans are so committed to the plan, why do they protest the IDF's actions against the terrorists being harbored in Arafat's compound? Why does President George W. Bush insist that we not harm Arafat? And why did US Ambassador Dan Kurtzer publicly attack Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Wednesday, asking him acidly how the IDF's operations against Arafat's house guests advance the "Quartet's" plans to reform the PA?
After all, if the US is committed to truly reforming Palestinian leadership, it should be applauding the IDF's actions at the Mukata and encouraging the air force to drop a one-ton bomb on the building from a US-made F-16 in order to clear a path for those peaceful leaders who will not dare to speak up as long as the murderers remain in charge.
Sharon explains that given the world's refusal to accept the reality that the Palestinians are waging war against us, our ability to conduct continuous and decisive battles against our enemies is constrained. This is certainly true. But rather than making the case to the world that we are at war, Sharon accepts the notions of Peres and Kurtzer, the EU and the UN that there is no military solution to the war and that the end of the war will be to arrive where we started, at Oslo and Camp David, offering the PLO a state. He is there with them even as he quibbles about the final borders.
Sharon's innate leadership skills, his ability to make those around him trust that he will make things come out fine, mark him as a proper leader for a citizenry traumatized to the point of apathy by terrorism. His tactical brilliance has transformed the IDF from a military addicted to negotiations into a lean, mean fighting machine ready for action at a moment's notice.
But this is not enough. Sharon is leading this country at a transformational moment in our history and will not see the changes. After two years of war, after nine years of broken promises to fight terror by the Palestinians and by the US to supervise this, it is clear that the old strategy of land for peace was a delusion. We know today that the Palestinians will only stop fighting when they can no longer fight and only we can bring them to that point and ensure that they stay there. Reality has repudiated belief in land for peace.
The new paradigm, borne out by our monstrous experience on the ground, is "peace or else," and the time to act on the "or else" is now. But our new Old Man refuses to break with the past. Unless he breaks with the repudiated past, the best we can do is bask in Sharon's warmth until the time has come for us to move past our hero and toward a better future.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.