A year ago this week Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrived in Washington with a bold agenda: to obtain the support of President Bush for a unilateral Israeli solution to his country's conflict with the Palestinians. Abandoning a decade of efforts at negotiations -- not to mention Bush's own "road map" for a two-state solution -- Sharon aimed to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, then impose a border of Israel's choosing in the West Bank, fortified by walls and fences. Rather than seek accord with the Palestinians, whom he knew would never accept his terms, Sharon sought to anchor his initiative in a deal with Bush, whom he asked for an endorsement of Israel's eventual annexation of West Bank territory and its determination never to accept the return of Palestinian refugees. With diplomacy at an impasse and Yasser Arafat still master of his long-suffering people, Bush signed on.
Since then a lot has happened: Arafat died and was replaced by a democratically elected president committed to ending violence and negotiating a settlement. Bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians ceased for the first time in Bush's presidency. A reelected Bush solemnly recommitted himself to the road map and its two-state negotiated settlement, which he said he wants to achieve by the end of his second term. "The world must not rest," he declared in February, "until there is a just and lasting resolution to this conflict."
(Ariel Sharon Surveys An Area Last Week That Has Been Proposed F)
Yet, as Sharon today once again huddles with the president -- this time at his ranch in Crawford, Tex. -- the unilateral solution he has pursued so relentlessly for the past 12 months remains unchanged. If all proceeds as planned, he will remove Israeli settlements from Gaza and one small part of the West Bank by the end of this summer. He will complete construction of the West Bank fence by the end of this year. Then, having effectively created a new Israel that includes all of Jerusalem and at least 7 percent of the West Bank, he will freeze the situation indefinitely. Palestinians will be left with Gaza and several West Bank enclaves separated from each other by Israeli roads and settlements; whether that is someday called a state is a secondary concern for the Israeli prime minister.
Each time I describe this ambitious project, I am challenged by American friends of Israel who claim I don't understand how "Sharon has changed." Well, maybe not, but I do pay attention to what the man says. Quite straightforwardly, Sharon has more than once told Israeli interviewers that his whole purpose is to avoid the likely result of a negotiated settlement -- that is, a Palestinian state that would extend into Jerusalem and force Israel to give up almost all of the West Bank. His closest aide, Dov Weissglas, has been equally forthright. "The significance of our disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process," he told the newspaper Haaretz last October. "It supplies the formaldehyde necessary so there is no political process with Palestinians."
Bush and his team understand very well what Sharon's goals are but choose not to notice them -- except when the Israeli does or says something that can't be ignored, such as his recent endorsement of a new Jewish settlement that would sever Arab East Jerusalem from the West Bank and thus fortify his fait accompli. That's partly because of the president's long-standing reluctance to burn political capital in a confrontation with an Israeli prime minister and partly because Sharon's short-term objectives are worth supporting. If he can overcome the Israeli resistance to withdrawal from Gaza, a formidable undertaking he has so far handled skillfully, Sharon will achieve a genuine breakthrough, one that conceivably could end up floating Bush's plan rather than his own.
Shimon Peres, the indefatigable Labor Party leader who recently joined Sharon's government, spelled out this logic in a visit to The Post last week. "As significant as prime ministers are they can't stop the winds of history," he said. "If the withdrawal is completed it will create an entirely new situation, and Sharon will have to confront that."
He will, that is, if Bush presses him to do so, a condition Peres was too diplomatic to spell out. If Bush is to have a legacy as a Middle East peacemaker, it will be because he insists that Sharon's unilateral solution isn't good enough -- that, as the president also said in February, a Palestinian state "of scattered territories will not work." No such showdown is likely this week: The Gaza withdrawal, after all, has not yet begun, and it's still not clear whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will succeed in creating an administration with which Israel can reasonably negotiate. Still, after four years in which he has successfully dodged hard choices in the Middle East, a moment of truth for Bush may be coming.
For now, the Israeli prime minister can take satisfaction in the fact that the initiative he persuaded the president to embrace a year ago remains on course, despite its contradiction of the U.S. road map. Whether the same is true a year from now depends more on Bush than on anyone else.