NEW YORK Writing in The New York Times (IHT Views, June 10), Ariel Sharon unveils the fundamental idea that defines his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is an approach whose implications should awaken Israelis, and those in the international community who so far haven't got it, to what Sharon has in mind for his fellow countrymen and for the Palestinians, not to speak of outside powers with important interests in the region.
With an audacity that is breathtaking, Sharon offers an entirely new formulation of the keystone of all Middle East peace initiatives since the 1967 war - the UN Security Council's Resolution 242 of 1967. In the face of the resolution's explicit affirmation of "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war," Sharon proposes that 242 intended to grant Israel rights to the West Bank and Gaza that are equal to the Palestinians' rights formally recognized by the United Nations in 1947.
Resolution 242 affirms Israel's right to "secure and recognized boundaries." Sharon's unspoken assumption is that it was 242's intention to allow Israel to construe "secure borders" as applying not to minor adjustments to a pre-existing border but as giving Israel license to claim large parts of the West Bank and Gaza, if not all of them, on security grounds. Ergo, Sharon concludes, the West Bank and Gaza are not territory occupied by Israel's military but territory whose ownership - in principle, all of it - is "in dispute." Sharon is thus informing the international community that Israel's claim to the West Bank and Gaza is on a par with that of the Palestinians.
The international community had better take heed, for the implications of this idea are as mind-boggling as they are predictable. Given Israel's control of all of the territories, and given its overwhelming military superiority over the Palestinians, there should be little doubt about the outcome of this contest of Israeli and Palestinian "rights."
One might think that Sharon's notion of the rights conferred by 242 on Israel is so outlandish, not to say so pernicious in consigning an entire people to permanent homelessness, that there is little danger that he will be allowed to act on it.
But that would be a big mistake. Sharon's latest fantasy about 242 is no less absurd than was his proposition that he could get Palestinians to end their violent resistance to Israel's occupation without offering a political framework that holds out the promise of meeting minimal Palestinian national aspirations if they end the violence. Although there are few examples of peace talks that did not take place concurrently with continued fighting between the parties, whether in the Balkans, Ireland or Vietnam, the United States bought into Sharon's idea, to its subsequent chagrin.
Sharon then came up with an equally absurd idea that a peace process with the Palestinians must await the transformation of the Palestinian Authority into a democratic, transparent and accountable set of institutions. Of course, God only knows how long this will take, but Sharon is a patient man. Not only did Washington embrace this transparent ploy to delay a political process, but it enlisted Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two paragons of democracy and transparency, to pressure Yasser Arafat to change his ways.
As director of an international Task Force for Palestinian Institution Building that is funded by the European Commission and the government of Norway, by far the largest contributors to Palestinian institutions, I welcome Washington's belated support for reform of the Palestinian Authority's institutions. Until recently, Washington could not have been less interested in the subject. The task force's efforts to mobilize pressure on Arafat to reform the Palestinian Authority by establishing the rule of law, respect for human rights and a separation of powers were seen by many in the previous administration as interfering with efforts to get Arafat to deal harshly and effectively with the terrorists. A former senior State Department official recently said: "I don't think we really cared about due process. Due process often means letting the bad guys go."
Instead, the effectiveness of the Palestinian Authority was measured by the United States "in terms of whether it increased Israel's sense of its security."
Sharon's interest in the Palestinian Authority is not its democratic character but its effectiveness in eliminating terrorists and terrorism against Israel. The less transparent such efforts, the more effective they are likely to be. For this purpose a Genghis Khan is a far better president of the Palestinian Authority than a Thomas Jefferson.
Yet Sharon had no difficulty getting U.S. and international support for his idea. There is every reason to believe that he will be equally adept at getting Washington to buy into his formulation of Resolution 242, a formulation that, for all practical purposes, erases Palestinian rights to the West Bank and Gaza.
Sharon's remarkable creativity in producing ever new obstacles to the initiation of a political process has so far been matched by the international community's gullibility.
Equally remarkable has been his audacity in the way he invokes history in support of his policies. Considering his opposition to Israel's peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, insisting that Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem was nothing but a ruse to get Israel to lower its defenses; to the Madrid peace conference in 1991; to Oslo in 1993, and to the peace treaty with Jordan in 1995 - preferring a continuation of violence over peace agreements in every one of those instances (not to speak of the war in Lebanon that he personally initiated by deceiving his own government and prime minister in 1982) - one would think Sharon would not have the chutzpah to invoke these milestones to justify his opposition to a peace process with the Palestinians. If he does so anyway, it is because he counts on people's ignorance of history not to ask the obvious question: Where would Israel be today had it followed Sharon's advice in all of these previous instances?
It is a question that one hopes George W. Bush and his advisers will ask themselves when they consider the contours of a new U.S. peace initiative that the president has promised to announce.
The writer, a senior fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.