Thank you sir, may I have another?

One of the many memorable scenes in the movie Animal House involves the fraternity initiation at Omega House. A young pledge, played by Kevin Bacon, is squatting before  the sadist ROTC leader Nedermayer, who keeps  walloping his behind. Bacon feels the excruciating pain, but keeps giving the required pledge response: 'Thank you sir.  May I have another?'  Clearly, Bacon's fixation on joining Omega has clouded his critical faculties and ability to judge what he is getting himself into.

I was reminded of this line, when I read this week that Israel had offered to free 900 Palestinian prisoners as a good faith gesture prior to the first meeting between newly elected Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. No sooner had the offer been made than the PA's Saeb Erekat described it as insulting. 

My immediate concern was that Israel was back to the Oslo days, when it was, in effect, negotiating with itself for 7 years, and the Palestinians perfected the art of answering 'Not enough. Offer me more.' Or as Nedermayer would say: 'Drop and give me 20!'  (or 40, or 50 push—ups).

Many true friends of Israel are in a state of great trepidation as a new round of Israeli—Palestinian negotiations begins today.  There is worry that Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza and a few West Bank settlements is ill—advised. There is concern that while Abbas has made some gestures towards controlling the violence that emanates from Gaza and the West Bank, at best his intentions are to achieve a ceasefire, not disarmament of the Palestinian terror groups. There is fear that the appearance of an end to the violence will lead to Israeli concessions that will weaken Israel if and when a new round of violence begins.

Regrettably, I cannot calm these fears, nor do I want to.  The fears are legitimate. My trust, rather, is in Prime Minister Sharon, and President Bush. I do not believe Sharon is unaware of the dangers that are out there, and I do not believe President Bush is about to sell out Israel. Israel has had Prime Ministers and America has had Presidents for whom establishing a legacy, and realizing a personal triumph through success in ending the Arab Israeli conflict, were of undue importance. I do not believe this is the motivating force for either Sharon or Bush. My own sense is that both men are willing to test whether the Palestinians have learned anything from the grotesque failure of launching and continuing the terror war as a political strategy. 

Prime Minister Sharon came to office at the same time as President Bush in 2001. For four years, Sharon has astutely coordinated his fight against Palestinian terror with the President and his team. Israel has had only one real friend in the world these last few years, and it is the United States. After 9/11, the focus on fighting terrorism became as real for the President, as it has always been for Sharon.  The relationship between the two leaders has been very strong.

In my view, Bush is deservedly considered the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House. Bush supported Sharon's hunting down terror leaders and his military effort to defeat the intifada. He has supported Israel with vetoes of one sided UN Security Council resolutions, by withdrawing the US delegation at the hatefest otherwise known as the UN Conference on Racism at Durban in 2001, and by challenging the jurisdiction and wisdom of the decision by the International Court of Justice in the Hague in 2004 ordering the removal of Israel's anti—terror separation  fence. Bush refused to meet with Yassar Arafat, an unreconstructed terrorist murderer, whose goal was always the destruction of Israel. Bush has spoken about not going back to the 1967 lines, and has rejected the 'right of return' for  Palestinian refugees to Israel proper ( 95% of these 'refugees' are  descendants of the original refugees and have never set foot inside of Israel).  He has indicated his agreement with the message of Natan Sharansky's new book The Case for Democracy, which sets much higher hurdles that need to be met by the Palestinians in order to achieve a lasting peace, beyond merely agreeing to a temporary ceasefire, limiting corruption, or holding an election.

As I have argued before, there are many tests and challenges ahead and it is best not to obsess over a bit of positive news and ignore the rest, nor conclude that all is lost when there is backsliding. There have been some positive signs from Abbas and even from Egypt in recent weeks.  Abbas did move some of his men into northern Gaza, and did reduce the mortar attacks on Israeli towns outside Gaza. Some PA forces are now being sent to watch over the Egyptian border with Gaza, which has been for many years a sieve for arms smugglers using tunnels dug deep under the border.

Egypt seems to be applying a bit more pressure to smugglers, jihadists, and Bedouin sympathizers of the terrorists in Sinai (the hotel attacks were very costly to Egypt's tourist business in Sinai) and seems more willing to take an active role in policing the Gaza border.  Surely, the Egyptians are not unaware of the unhappiness in Congress with their frosty peace with Israel, the rank anti—Semitism in their media, and their failure to lift a finger to stop the smuggling into Gaza. On some days, the level of hate propaganda on Palestinian media is lower than in the past (on some days, not all).  Since his election victory, Abbas's tone has been more moderate than it was during his campaign.

The Foreign Affairs Magazine crowd (a.k.a., the foreign policy intelligentsia) love to talk about taking advantage of moments of opportunity. Such moments have been particularly dangerous for Israel and devoid of real opportunity for peace, especially when there was a clock ticking down on realizing the opportunity. Such was certainly the case at Camp David, and then Taba, in the waning months of the Clinton Presidency, and also during Ehud Barak's period as Prime Minister in 2000—2001. Longtime negotiator Dennis Ross has written and spoken of Arafat's strategy of always delaying, and refusing to give an answer in negotiations, which tended to lead to the offer he was considering getting better and better.  President Bush has four more years to work on trying to resolve the conflict without undue pressure and haste. While encouraging the efforts to begin the negotiating process, he has not provided any false comfort to anybody that a deal must be struck by a given date as there are milestones that must be achieved along a route to agreement and peace.

The Palestinians say they now really want to create the state they have so many times before rejected.  They will need to explain why Jews cannot live within such a state. Why can they not assure the safety of a small minority within their borders? Over a million Arabs live within Israel, and do not fear for their lives. They work, they travel, they go to their mosques and churches. If a new state will not accept any Jews in their midst, or accepts them, but cannot assure their safety, then it is reasonable to ask what kind of state is being created. If terror groups are co—opted for a time, but retain their weapons and poisonous ideology, then Israel has not bought itself any permanent peace with the Palestinians .

If the Palestinian school books continue to refuse to recognize that Israel exists, and the dominant and suffocating culture within Palestinian lands remains enmity towards Israel, then we will always have more claims, and more war.  The Palestinian narrative of how they have reached their current state has not changed in almost 60 years. The blame is all on outsiders — the imperialist West (mainly the US), and the Zionists. The Palestinian history that is taught in the territories is one of noble resistance to overcome the suffering from occupation and dispersal. The real history is, of course, a lot more complicated than that. Much of the Palestinian misery has been self—inflicted, or the result of manipulation by their Arab neighbors.  Societies that succeed for their people look forward, not back, and are not built on grievance. 

Some of the opponents of Prime Minister Sharon's plan for Gaza, do not have any real alternative to offer to his plan.  That of course, does not mean that Sharon's plan must be a good idea. Charles Krauthammer has written that for Israel, sometimes doing nothing beats the alternative. Clearly, the plan for withdrawal from Gaza has been related to insuring a long term Jewish majority in Israel. The political rights of Arabs in the territories are clearly different than within Israel itself. The argument that is made is that Israel must annex the territories, and provide full citizenship to their residents to remain a democracy or give up the land to a new state. Israel has not annexed the territories, and so the Arab population there has remained in limbo.

The annexation argument, and the new clamor by Arabs and the political left for a one state solution has been in some ways a dare to Israel, because of the fear of the soon—to—be Arab majority within the greater land area of Israel and the territories. Even with the new much lower population estimates for the Palestinian areas, the fact remains that Arab birth rates are substantially higher than Jewish birth rates, and that Jewish immigration to Israel has dropped sharply. As my son once said, you cannot have 70,000 Jews leaving Russia for Israel every year, and still always have 2 million Jews left in Russia.

But the new demographic data does remove the pressure to do something quickly. My primary concern in Gaza is security after a withdrawal. It is harder for Israel to move back in after it has left. What if the mortar attacks on Sderot continue and the terrorists' rocket capability stretches in short order to Ashkelon? Israel has over 5 million Jews and over a million Arabs and others that it needs to protect within Israel. The cost of protecting the 8,000 Israelis in Gaza may be too high. It may dilute how well Israel can protect its 6 million other citizens. That might be one argument for relocation. Some academics have devised much broader land swaps that would move Arabs within Israel to a new Palestinian state, so that Israel can absorb more of the West Bank. All of these kinds of trades which some have envisioned, even including Jordan and Egypt, are way down the road. We are not anywhere near the moment for a big bang final solution to this conflict.

Which in the end brings me back to Sharon and Bush. Both men are neither rushing to do something, nor nae about the risks. If the new talks with the Palestinians soon assume the character of Oslo (Israeli offers, but no end to the violence or incitement), then it will not take very long to know that a real moment of opportunity has not arrived.  Ariel Sharon is not going to appear in the Kevin Bacon role in the remake of Animal House. Nor will the President.