sharon knows how to say no. will he?

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    Sharon knows how to say no. Will he?
    By Evelyn Gordon

    Last time I checked, Israel's elected prime minister was Ariel Sharon, not George W. Bush. But you would never guess it to listen to Bush administration officials these days.

    They have never spent more than a few days here; they comprehend neither Hebrew nor Arabic; they have never perused the masses of material collected by Israel's security services. But none of this deters them from declaring themselves, rather than Israel's elected government, the best arbiters of Israel's security needs.

    This messianic belief emerged immediately after last month's Aqaba summit, and its first target was Israel's policy to attempting to kill terrorist leaders. When Israel tried to kill Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer declared publicly that this "does not contribute to the security of Israel."

    Two weeks later, after Israel killed Abdullah Qawasmeh - the man responsible for a suicide bombing that had murdered 17 Israelis earlier that month - during an attempt to arrest him, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he "regretted" the death of this mass murderer, as it "could be an impediment to progress."

    Never mind that America deems killing terrorists important for its own security and has repeatedly tried to assassinate al-Qaida officials and Saddam Hussein. Never mind that Israel was then suffering almost daily terror attacks, but Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas had publicly declared that he would not act against the terrorists himself.

    Never mind that, off the record, the Palestinians themselves say the targeted killings were the Israeli tactic Hamas feared most and the main reason it eventually agreed to a cease-fire - or, as one Palestinian put it: Why else do you suppose an end to the assassinations tops Hamas's list of conditions for a truce?

    Bush knows better.

    The next target was the security fence between Israel and the West Bank. During her visit to Israel last month, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice informed Sharon that the US wants construction of the fence halted since the Palestinians view it as an attempt to determine a political border. Its continued construction will thus weaken Abbas and perhaps derail the US road map for a settlement, she said - and that is more important to Israel's security than the fence.

    NEVER MIND that over the last 35 months hundreds of Israelis have been killed by suicide bombers from the West Bank, but not a single bomber has managed to enter from fenced-off Gaza. Never mind that the "political border" argument is nonsense, since Israel, just as it dismantled the settlement of Yamit under the agreement with Egypt, would also not hesitate to move parts of the fence should an eventual agreement dictate different borders.

    Never mind that an agreement without a fence would almost certainly not end the terrorism, since the Islamic organizations, whose avowed goal is Israel's destruction, have sworn to continue attacks regardless of any accord, while Abbas has repeatedly pledged to take no action against them.

    Bush knows better.

    And now, there are the Palestinian prisoners. At a meeting with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom last Tuesday, Bush's handpicked envoy, John Wolf, demanded that Israel release many more prisoners than the 350 the government has so far agreed to free. When Shalom pointed out that under the road map, Israel is not required to release any prisoners at all, Wolf brushed that off with the same argument Rice used about the fence: A mass prisoner release is necessary to strengthen Abbas, and Abbas is vital to Israel's security.

    Never mind that the US would never agree to release terrorists involved in murdering its own citizens. Never mind that no "peace agreement" is likely to be worth the paper it is printed on as long as the Palestinians view terrorists as heroes to be brought home in triumph rather than murderers who ought to rot in jail.

    Never mind that every previous release of Palestinian terrorists has resulted in a new wave of terror:

    The 1,150 prisoners Israel released in the 1985 Jibril exchange became the core of the first intifada, launched 19 months later;

    The 415 Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists Israel deported in 1992 and then allowed to return in 1993 became key players in the wave of post-Oslo terror, which culminated in early 1996 with four suicide bombings that killed 59 Israelis in a single week;

    the hundreds of prisoners Israel released under the Oslo Accords became the core of the current bloody war, which has left more than 800 Israelis dead.

    In fact, according to Shin Bet statistics, an astonishing one out of every two prisoners released in past deals has returned to anti-Israel activity.

    But Bush knows better.

    The truth, of course, is that Bush is not terribly interested in Israel's security just now: He has decided that America's interests currently lie in appeasing the Palestinians. I think he is wrong, but the American people elected him to make that decision, not me.

    Israelis, however, did not elect Bush; it is Ariel Sharon whom they chose to defend their interests, and who will have to answer to them for his actions. And for Sharon, who prides himself on his good relations with the US administration, this poses an agonizing dilemma: Does he insist on what he knows is right for Israel, or does he keep Bush happy?

    The good news is that Sharon has occasionally stood up to American pressure in the past: When Bush ordered him to call an immediate halt to Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, for instance, Sharon ignored him - and that proved to be the right decision for Israel.

    Israelis can thus only hope that in this new series of conflicts with the Bush administration, Sharon will once again have the courage to put Israel first.
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