This Op-Ed originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post of June 30, 1997
When news broke of the recent meeting between Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Deputy Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), many political commentators assumed that Sharon's self-declared pragmatism would translate into support for whatever concessions are required to reach an agreement.
A month ago, Meretz MK Yossi Sarid told a conference of the Center for Policy Research at the College of Judea and Samaria that he would welcome Sharon's active participation in the negotiations. "Arik will tear down every settlement in the territories just as he razed the Jewish settlements in Sinai," Sarid predicted.
But pragmatism doesn't mean capitulation or shortsighted diplomacy. It means picking the important fights. Take, for example, Israel's water dispute with Jordan. Israel's peace treaty with Jordan doesn't require the Jewish state to provide the Hashemite kingdom with an additional 50 million cubic meters of drinkable water a year, only to "cooperate in finding sources."
But with Amman under strict water rationing, the question isn't if the treaty requires Israeli action, but rather if it serves Israel's interests to provide the water, thus encouraging support for peaceful relations.
When Sharon met with King Hussein, he realized that Israeli generosity in the water dispute was not a question of national security, but a matter of dollars and cents. With desalinated water costing less than $1 a cubic meter, the ultimate cost to Israel of the concession, even under the most pessimistic circumstances, comes to less than $50m. a year. That kind of reasoning is pragmatism.
There is no doubt that some issues between Israel and the Palestinians are amenable to pragmatic solutions. One example is current security inspections of commercial shipments crossing between Israel and the autonomy. While considerably more efficient than in the past, there are costly delays. The daily capacity of the inspection stations could be increased to whatever is necessary without compromising the thoroughness of the inspections. It's simply a question of allocating the necessary funds for staffing and facilities.
A pragmatist also need to be practical about the consequences of agreements. Internal Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani thinks it's pragmatic for Israel to lease the Golan from Syria. Former minister Shimon Shetreet termed a 50-year lease a "creative solution." The return of Hong Kong to China today after 156 years is a sobering reminder that such arrangements mean mortgaging the security of future generations. Will the Golan be less important to Israel's security in 50 or even 100 years than it is today? There is no reason to believe it will.
Pragmatism also means not overrating the ability of military technology to compensate for territorial concessions and growing Arab armies. As a pragmatist, Sharon will no doubt be taking a hard look at the General Accounting Office report detailed in the June 30 edition of Defense Week, which says that the Pentagon and weapons manufacturers overstated the effectiveness of high-technology aircraft, bombers and other systems during the Gulf War.
Pragmatism means recognizing that the purpose of the "peace process" is not the "process" itself, but the peace it is supposed to yield. It also means heavily discounting the value of Arafat's word. And with every passing day, our experience with Arafat raises that discount factor. Sharon brings to the negotiating table the kind of nuts-and-bolts familiarity with the situation on the ground that is required to safeguard Israel's interests even in the worse-case situation.
Some in the national camp fear that an aging Sharon might be tempted to take dangerous short cuts in a desperate shot to make his mark on history and eliminate the stigma so many have attached to his name. I'm not suggesting that Sharon be given carte blanche. But he deserves to be taken seriously.
Yes. Sharon did raze Yamit. But, unlike most politicians, he had the integrity to make a public apology for what he himself termed a "shameful" act (Ha'aretz July 24, 1995). One can surely expect him to have learned from it.
Dr. Aaron Lerner is the Director of IMRA (Independent Media Review & Analysis)