The suicide bombing last Friday night that killed 20 young Israelis outside a beach-front disco in Tel Aviv trans-formed Israel's international image from bully boy to victim. The Palestinians reverted overnight to their old role as the bad guys.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer heard the explosion from his room 200 yards away in the Dan hotel. The first thing that went through his mind, he said later, was his own children, aged 17 and 22, just the kind of young people who go out dancing on a Friday night. He was so appalled by the carnage that he not only joined the mourners but went to Ramallah the next day and insisted that Yasser Arafat rein in the gunmen and the bombers.
Mere condemnation, he berated the Palestinian leader, was no longer enough. To make sure there was no ambiguity, Fischer worked with Arafat on the text of his cease-fire call. It was delivered by Arafat, on camera, in Arabic at the end of their talks. When his translator rendered it as "immediate cease-fire," Arafat corrected him: "immediate and unconditional cease-fire."
Two weeks before the disco bombing, Ariel Sharon's national unity government reacted to a suicide attack that killed five in Netanya by sending F-16 warplanes and helicopter gunships to bomb the West Bank and Gaza. This time, although the provocation was even more horrendous, ministers responded with calculated restraint. "It is hard to remember an occasion in recent Israeli history," marveled the nation's top political columnist, Yoel Marcus, "when the government has made such a surprising, correct and wise decision."
Sharon had no illusions. For him, Arafat remains an unreconstructed terrorist. Israelis are not investing too many hopes in the cease-fire. "I wish I were wrong," confided Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, "but in my opinion Arafat's steps are tactical, not strategic. We will judge him by results, but at the same time we are preparing for any eventuality."
Nevertheless, Shimon Peres, the 77-year-old foreign minister who never gives up, seized the opening to woo Sharon away from knee-jerk retaliation and grant diplomacy one more chance. The sympathy bonus was not to be squandered this time.
The world community responded. Fischer extended his stay and shuttled between Jerusalem and Ramallah. The Russians, the Palestinians' historic patrons, sent a special envoy, Andrei Vdovin. George Bush's new Middle East troubleshooter, William Burns, was expected to follow.
"What was achieved over the last few days," Peres rejoiced, "is a demonstration of what a political act, supported by the international community, can do in the most effective manner -- without shooting, without pain, without accusations. It was a show of strength for diplomacy."
Peres was speaking on Tuesday after a first session with the Russian envoy. Post-Communist Russia is no longer the Middle East spoiler. Vdovin repeatedly stressed its standing as a co-sponsor of the half-forgotten Madrid peace conference a decade ago. Russia was working not against but in concert with Uncle Sam, the Europeans and the United Nations, not to mention the Egyptians and the Jordanians.
To the astonishment of those who portrayed Ariel Sharon as a reckless warmonger in the Israeli election campaign at the beginning of this year, the Likud leader is not just giving Peres his head but shielding him from the wrath of the right.
Sharon may be 73, set in his perceptions, but having attained the premiership against all odds, he is learning new lessons. "It is true that when I was in opposition I attacked," he conceded to a Likud critic. "That's your role in opposition. But the person in charge has to take all the issues into consideration, including the criticism. The overall responsibility is on my shoulders."
In the same way, a few days earlier, Sharon resisted the demands of bereaved West Bank settlers for instant revenge. He enjoys being "the person in charge," and he's not going to let the settlers and their friends dictate how or where he should lead the nation. Above all, he sweated blood to get the Bush administration on his side, and he's determined not to lose it now.
The danger, as the waspish commentator Nahum Barnea predicted in Yediot Aharonot, is that he is falling into a honey trap. Where does he go from here? If Arafat reneges on his cease-fire, Sharon can say: "I tried. Now you know who is the real enemy of peace. Don't accuse us of disproportionate use of force."
But what if Peres's perennial optimism proves right and the diplomatic momentum gathers speed? All of the international players agree that the only available road map is the Mitchell Committee's report, delivered last month by ex-Senator George Mitchell and his team of fact-finders. The report calls for an immediate cease-fire, followed by a freeze on all settlement building.
Peres and Ben-Eliezer, Labor ministers both, are happy with that. But would Sharon, the "father of the settlements," be equally willing? If and when the cease-fire jells, he will not be able to evade the choice. Neither the Palestinians nor the Americans will buy the cop-out of "building for natural growth," first, because it was used in the past as a cover for rapid expansion of the Jewish West Bank communities, and secondly because there are thousands of apartments now standing empty there.
As a minister in Menachem Begin's first Likud government in the late '70s, Sharon paved the way for and presided over the evacuation of settlements from Sinai under the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. But the attachment to Judea and Samaria, the heart of the ancient Jewish homeland, raises a massive ideological and emotional hurdle. A total freeze will require exceptional political courage. Sharon is no coward, but that would test even his heroic reputation.