Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave a much anticipated speech last week about his plans for the future. Like all good Sharon clarifications, it confused everyone.
Sharon came out for negotiations based on the American road map (the European-UN version is a dead letter). "We wish to speedily advance implementation of the road map toward quiet and a genuine peace. We hope the Palestinian Authority will carry out its part," he said.
Then came the but. "If in a few months the Palestinians still continue to disregard their part in implementing the road map, then Israel will initiate the unilateral security step of disengagement from the Palestinians."
Israeli hard-liners were horrified because "disengagement" means dismantling some settlements. Palestinians were outraged by what they heard as an ultimatum. In Washington, some administration spokesmen applauded Sharon's fidelity to the two-state road map, while others made "do as we say, not as we do" noises against unilateral Israeli action.
Everyone, it seems, missed the key words in Sharon's speech: "in a few months."
This phrase invokes a Polish-Jewish folk tale that is at the very heart of Sharon's planning.
In the story, a great nobleman decides to expel the Jews living in his domain. The Jews send a delegation to reason with him, but to no avail. As they are leaving the palace, the rabbi points to the nobleman's hunting dog.
"A beautiful animal," says the rabbi. "Can he speak?"
"Of course not. Dogs can't speak."
"In one year, I can teach your dog to speak perfect Polish," says the rabbi.
"Done," says the nobleman. "If the dog talks in a year, you Jews can stay. Otherwise, you go."
On the way back home, one of the Jews asks the rabbi, "Do you really think you can teach the dog to talk?"
"Don't be silly."
"Then why did you say you could?"
"He gave me a year," says the rabbi. "That means we don't have to leave now. And who knows what can happen in a year. The dog could die. For that matter, the nobleman could die."
With the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Middle East is in real motion for the first time since the 1967 Six-Day War. Nobody knows what will happen. Libya's Moammar Khadafy already appears to be switching to the American side. The Syrian Baathists, fearing a similar fate, may also want to cut a deal. The Iranians are scrambling. Saudi royals are terrified by their own terrorists. Meanwhile, the most pro-Israeli President in history is running for reelection.
Sharon knows he can't make the Palestinian dog talk "in a few months." Dogs don't learn new tricks. The Palestinians will continue to bark enthusiastically for Saddam and Osama Bin Laden and the jihad and the extermination of Israel. They will chase after buses and blow them up. And, as they did to Bill Clinton at Camp David, they will continue to bite the hand of any American President who tries to feed them a compromise.
While they do, Sharon won't have to move a single settlement. Or if he does, it will be for his own domestic political reasons; Israelis are sick of sending soldiers to protect outposts of fanatics living in trailers. He'll just fast-forward the security fence he is building in the West Bank.
This is the actual import of Sharon's deadline of "a few months." It is sufficient to complete the fence and, essentially, create a new border Israel can live with.
Sharon knows what the rabbi knew: A few months can turn into forever.