By WILLIAM SAFIRE
New York Times
October 21, 2002
After his visit with President Bush and Congressional leaders, Israel’s Ariel Sharon returned to his farm, surveyed his cattle and sheep, and as the Sabbath sun set, took my call.
If war starts, did you promise Bush that Israel would not be provoked by Saddam into responding to his missile attack, thereby troubling whatever Arabs may want to cooperate in his overthrow?
“Israel is not interested in being involved in a campaign against Iraq,” the prime minister replies, having been assured that U.S. forces would first seek to neutralize Iraq’s capability to attack Israel. “We’ll support America’s decision and will show sensitivity to U.S. needs by exercising maximum restraint. At the same time, if our citizens are attacked seriously — by a weapon of mass destruction, chemical, biological or by some mega-terror act — and suffer casualties, then Israel will respond.”
Has he promised to consult Bush before doing anything drastic?
“Consult? We have a regular dialogue. Israel and America are consulting now as never before in the past.”
Sharon notes an unremarked danger: “The Syrians, together with the Iranians, are playing a double game, escalating tension on our northern border. Assad’s son is completely under the influence of Hezbollah, helping them more than his father ever thought about, integrating the terrorists into Syria’s front-line forces. And the Iranians have supplied those terrorists with 9,000 to 10,000 rockets, maybe including a new one with a 200-mile range. If war comes, we see what Syria-Iran-Hezbollah are preparing: they’ll be surrogates for Saddam, opening a second front to help him.”
In that regard, Sharon persuaded Russia’s Vladimir Putin not to sell Syria shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles. Putin wants our old Jackson-Vanik amendment dropped, and Sharon says “we support that it should be bent already.”
Syrian-occupied Lebanon has begun diverting precious water from one of the sources of the Jordan River: “That blatant violation of law does damage to a strategic resource, and is a matter of life and death to us.
“The Six-Day War in 1967 really started in 1964 when Arabs started to divert the sources of the Jordan. We accepted the U.S. proposal to negotiate, but if the diplomatic process does not produce results, Israel will be forced to act.”
Turning to Intifada II, I asked if he had reacted to Bush’s draft of a “Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution” handed him in Washington. “It’s six pages in small letters and I haven’t read it yet,” he says, shifting the emphasis with “We accept the plan outlined in Bush’s speech.” Then he struck a note of optimism:
“About the Palestinian reforms, one feels that there are changes going on there. There are those who realize Israel won’t be able to move forward until the end of the terror attacks and a different leadership emerges. We have seen positive signs that Palestinian society is moving toward reforms, especially economic reforms, though slowly — first, Arafat must remove his hands from the cash flow.”
Progress was made in Washington on the release of tax money to the Palestinian Authority, which Israel feared would be used for arms. “We agreed to a mechanism to monitor those revenues,” Sharon reports, “which is the most important thing right away. The Palestinians chose a man with good intentions. For accountability and transparency, we want a team led by U.S. experts, along with Europeans and Russians and especially Japanese, so that the money we release gradually, under inspections, will not be used to purchase illegal weapons.
“We will continue our secret contacts with high-ranking Palestinian officials, and we have told them that the appointment of a prime minister is a first, necessary step in Palestinian reform.” (That would, I presume, leave Arafat as figurehead president. As for those “secret contacts,” they’re hardly secret anymore.)
“The U.S. knows who are the leaders who support reform,” Sharon stresses, “and they should be strengthened.”
He’s an unabashed admirer of this President Bush. “Thank God, at this historic moment, the U.S. is leading the free world toward liberation from fear of terror.”
And his unwavering confidence under sustained pressure makes me an unabashed Arik Sharon admirer. “We go back many years,” he says. “Call me more often.” I may just do that.